RIP Louis Petrin

Louis Petrin was a passionate volunteer and was named the Rowing NSW 2020 Volunteer of the Year. Photo: Drummoyne RC’s website.

13 April 2021

HTBS is in mourning. It is with great sorrow we announce the passing of our friend, rowing historian, rowing advocate and HTBS contributor Louis Petrin, who unexpectedly died on 8 April. He was 63 years old.

It was after Louis Petrin’s daughter Nicole began rowing that he joined Drummoyne Rowing Club, New South Wales. He was an active member of the club and rowed in fours and eights at Masters regattas. Louis was a passionate member of the club and was part of a crew that was affectionately known as ‘Grumpy Oar Men’ – a group of fathers who raised funds for their daughters’ school rowing programme. Nicole went on to row for Sydney University.

Grumpy Oar Men, 2010. Louis Petrin fourth man from the left.

Being a long-term member of Drummoyne RC committee, Louis held the position of Treasurer for many years.

Last year, Louis was named the Rowing NSW 2020 Volunteer of the Year for his long service to the rowing community as an NSW Boat Racing Official. In a social media message, Rowing Australia paid tribute to him: ‘Louis was the most wonderful volunteer to our sport and worked tirelessly at numerous National Championships in the presentation area. He will be sorely missed by all.’

In a statement, Drummoyne RC wrote: ‘Through his association with rowing, Louis became a highly recognised Rowing Historian and amassed an extensive collection of memorabilia. It was a true passion of Louis’. [His] contribution to rowing and Drummoyne Rowing Club will be greatly missed.’

Along with some other local rowers, Louis, who had a library degree and collected rowing books, was helping Australian rowing clubs and enthusiasts to document and preserve historical documents and items. He spent time on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website to edit OCR text of digitised newspaper articles on rowing.

Louis was first a loyal reader of HTBS, and since September 2012, a contributor to the website. His special interests were professional scullers, and Louis loved trophies, cups and medals. Through the years, his collection of rowing memorabilia came to grow extensively. At an early stage of collecting, Louis had the plans to develop a museum to celebrate the sport of rowing in Australia.

Louis will be deeply missed by us HTBS writers and contributors and his many rowing friends in Australia.

Rest in Peace, dear Louis.

Following are some remembrances of Louis from some of his HTBS friends:

Göran Buckhorn, HTBS editor:
It was a nice and sunny summer day in 2012. I was sitting in my office at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, editing some articles for the museum’s magazine. The phone rang and when I answered it was a woman from the museum’s research library, located in the museum’s Collection and Research Center. She said that she had had a phone call earlier in the day from a man who was interested in the museum’s collection of rowing. She hoped that I could help her by showing the man around?

As the editor of the museum’s magazine, I had no official title as the museum’s ‘rowing expert’, but my name was known at the institution as someone who had an interest in rowing, so I was sometimes called in to help answer rowing questions or guide visitors around in the rowing exhibition, which was housed at the National Rowing Foundation’s Rowing Hall of Fame, which had opened in March 2008. The exhibit and Hall of Fame had been created by NRF Executive Director Hart Perry and rowing historian Bill Miller and Tom Weil.

The woman calling from the library said that the man came from Australia and was on a business trip with a colleague and they had arrived in Connecticut only to visit the museum to see the rowing stuff. She had informed him that she was going to try to get hold of someone who could help him. She mentioned my name to the man, who suddenly became quiet. He asked her to repeat my name. She did. (I could hear how she started to laugh at the other end of the phone.) The man went quiet again. Then he said: ‘Do you mean THE Göran Buckhorn?’

In 2012, HTBS had only been up and running for three years, and I seldom met any of the readers of the website, but I was now, in the summer of 2012, going to meet a dedicated HTBS reader from Down Under.

Louis Petrin and I spent some pleasant hours at the museum where I showed him the NRF’s rowing exhibit, the Hall of Fame and the museum’s Watercraft Hall where the NRF stored its boat collection together with boats belonging to the museum. Wherever Louis and I went, he was bubbling with questions. He was so enthusiastic and seemed so sincerely interested in everything he saw.

Although I had never meet Louis before, our conversation on rowing – and we managed to squeeze in quite a lot about the sport in those few hours he spent at the museum – went fluidly and we chatted like we were old friends. He was a warm person and had such a pleasant demeanor – it was not possible to not like him. Louis was really a genuine fellow, and we had, as they say in Australia, a ripper day!

HTBS editor Göran Buckhorn (left) and Louis Petrin at Mystic Seaport Museum in 2012.

One thing that he brought up was his dream to build a home for Australian rowing history, like the River and Rowing Museum in Henley and the NRF’s rowing exhibit and Hall of Fame at Mystic Seaport Museum. (Sadly, the museum in Mystic later lost interest in ‘rowing’, and the exhibit and the Rowing Hall of Fame closed on 1 September 2014.)

Louis and I kept in contact via e-mail. In September, a couple of months after we had met, he wrote me an e-mail that said: ‘You need some Aussie stuff [on HTBS] to give a global view of rowing, which I am happy to gather for you.” And he was right, that was what HTBS needed. For HTBS, Louis wrote articles on the Boat Race between Melbourne and Sydney universities, ANZAC Day (rowers serving in Australia’s armed forces), Australian professional scullers, Australian rowing and regattas, Australian PMs who had rowed, Sydney’s Santa Row, Olympic memorabilia and more. He also left comments for articles and sent e-mails about articles being published on HTBS – nothing seemed too strange to Louis to write about.

Not only will I miss Louis’s articles and e-mails, but I will also sorely miss the man, my friend Louis. I hope that someone Down Under will continue to work on Louis’s dream to build a rowing museum. It would be an appropriate way to memorialize him and celebrate everything he did for rowing.

Tom Weil:
I only met Louis Petrin once, in 2019, when he came to Connecticut to look at my collection in my home, but we corresponded at some length over rowing history and items that came up at auction, and how the sport of rowing might be remembered and celebrated.

One could find much to admire in Louis. While he could be guarded in what he chose to reveal, he seemed to be a pretty straight speaker when he spoke. He had obviously found sufficient success in business to be able to retire at a relatively early age with the means to do what he wished.

And, although he had not himself rowed extensively as a young man, or experienced any of the heights of competition, he had come to love the sport enough to dedicate time, effort and money to assembling a significant collection of rowing memorabilia and to establishing a national rowing museum in Australia. That was enough to endear him to me; it was frosting on the cake to hear him chat enthusiastically about his daughter’s engagement with rowing.

The second volume of Andrew Guerin’s marvelous history of Australian rowing is already in the mail, and it will give me great but poignant joy to look at the subscriber’s page and find myself in Louis’ company forever.

The loss of any friend is difficult, but the loss of one of those rare folk who would have made a difference in this little world of rowing history mania is particularly sad.

RIP, Louis. You, and what you had dedicated yourself to doing, will be sorely missed.  

Bill Miller:
In 2019, I had a meeting with Louis just after Tom Weil, when Louis visited New England and Duxbury, Mass. He was gracious and very excited about rowing history. He’ll be sorely missed.

When Louis had received his HTBS tie in 2012, he sent this photograph, holding a copy of Geoffrey Page’s Hear the Boat Sing.

Bill Lanouette:
I saw Louis only once, during a zoom conference in 2020, and at once heard in his voice a delight with our cause – to keep rowing’s history alive.

Louis wrote an enthusiastic review of my new book, The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age, calling it “authoritative and compelling” and highlighting my many endnotes. “I am very interested in the Notes … as there are many references I have not seen before,” he wrote me in an e-mail. He vowed to track down titles in my bibliography that he didn’t own – all to fill out the library and museum he envisioned.

Louis also said he had been researching the road-scullers that I described, adding – like a kid in a candy store – “I would love to buy one if you know of one for sale, or even the posters or programs.” And, ever a generous soul, Louis wrote that “I look forward to Xmas time when I can buy copies to give some friends a good read.”

Louis was looking forward to founding a Museum of Water, but also – with, I’m sure, a twinkle in his eye – looking back to the bad old days: “If only we could have kept the fouling and antics of the old rowers… would make for some entertainment for the fans. It would be good to see some ‘professional’ rowing nowadays – if Federer can earn over $100M and win two Olympic medals, surely rowers like Mahé Drysdale, Richard Schmidt or Paul O’Donovan can also race for more than a pot. These days there are swimming and track events that are televised and are exciting to watch and surely if rowing was made more visible then the sport may grow even more.”

What a fun vision of our sport! I miss his pluck and mourn his passing.

Louis Petrin is here seen holding the most prestigious rowing trophy in Australia, the King’s Cup, 2013.

William O’Chee:
Louis Petrin came to rowing late in life. His daughter had commenced rowing at Presbyterian Ladies College in Sydney, and Louis, like many rowing parents, was faced with the task of how to make good use of the early morning starts as he ferried her to the school rowing shed. Louis chose to begin volunteering his time, and he also got his own taste of the sport through a fundraising “corporate rowing programme.”

Presbyterian Ladies College rows out of the premises of the Drummoyne Rowing Club on Iron Cove, one of the inner bays of Sydney Harbour. So it was that Louis became part of the wider rowing community through Drummoyne Rowing Club.

Like many of those who become converts to a cause in the years beyond their youth, Louis also became a zealot. His zealotry, however, was matched by a precise and scientific mind. This was no surprise, as Louis had founded a successful scientific instruments company. To the resultant mix was added Louis’s generosity of spirit and time. He became a dedicated volunteer to the sport.

However, Louis was not the sort of person who could be truly satisfied merely by donating his time. He needed an intellectual outlet for his passion, and so his enquiring mind led him to fall in love with rowing history.

As citizens of a country of recent creation, many Australians look upon history as the folly of older nations. However, rowing in Australia has as distinguished a history as any country outside the United Kingdom, although it is poorly known, and even more poorly attested. Louis hoped to change that through the creation of his collection.

After selling his company, some years ago, Louis had the resources to support the accumulation of a collection of rowing artefacts, art and memorabilia. His intention was to eventually create a collection in Australia akin to Henley’s Rowing and River Museum. 

As a collector, Louis was passionate, and would frequently regale his friends with news of his latest acquisition with a beguiling wonder. His collection was truly eclectic. He had even managed to acquire one of Sydney Cotton’s original rowing ergometers, as well as an early Repco air braked ergometer, both essential to the development of the machines we use today. Of course, these were but two items in his extensive collection.

No collection is ever complete, and no collector is ever satisfied. However, Louis was sufficiently advanced to have commenced discussions with one of the local councils in the Sydney area about perhaps finding a home for his collection in some abandoned buildings on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour, not far from his beloved Drummoyne Rowing Club.

The final element of Louis’s personality was his willingness to share. He and I had differing interests in rowing history, but he was always willing to share any find that he felt might progress my research. Many others can tell a similar tale of their friendship with him.

Hopefully Louis’s dream of a rowing museum in Australia can be brought to fruition, and generations to come can enjoy the treasures of his collection when they are eventually put on public display.

We send our sincere condolences to Louis’s wife Lorraine, his family and friends.

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