Duvall Hecht: Olympic Oarsman, Pilot, Coach, Entrepreneur, Truck Driver Dies

Olympic gold medallist Duvall Hecht died on 10 February. Image from UCIrvine Rowing website.

21 February 2022

By Göran R Buckhorn

American multi-talented Olympic champion Duvall Hecht, passed away on 10 February at age 91.

Duvall Hecht was born in Los Angeles on 23 April 1930. Duvall attended Beverly Hills High School, then Menlo College, and then Stanford University, where he started to row after his football coach told him he was too light for football and suggested he try out rowing instead. At Stanford, he took a master’s degree in Journalism and went on to teach English at Menlo College in California. While there, Hecht founded the college’s first rowing club and became its head coach.

At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Duvall Hecht, Jimmy Fifer and cox James Beggs rowed in the coxed pair. It didn’t go well. They ended up dead last in the semi-final, came in second in the repechage and did not advance to the final. “A great relief,” Hecht told David Owen, who interviewed him for the Inside The Games website in July 2020. Hecht continued: “We had rowed our best race in the American Championships [which they won], and we – at least I – didn’t have another one left in me.”

For the next Olympic Games in Melbourne, with rowing on Lake Wendouree at Ballarat, Hecht and Fifer rowed in the coxless pairs. Hecht told Owen:

“Having lost in 1952, we were focused only on one thing: winning that gold medal. We knew there wasn’t going to be a third chance.”

And they did win the gold medal.

Hecht in Owen’s article:

“Rowing back to the boathouse I said to him [Fifer], ‘What will we ever do that compares to this?’

“Answer: Nothing.

“Jimmy died aged 56 [in 1986] after a three-year battle with intestinal cancer.

“Of course, I was with him.

“Best friend I ever had.

“Wept like a baby.”

Before the Olympic rowing in Ballarat, Hecht was engaged as a Marine pilot at Cherry Point, North Carolina. After Ballarat, he became a fighter pilot, and, after being discharged, a Pan Am pilot. He found it a little better than driving a bus, his wife Ann Marie Rousseau told the obituary editor for the Los Angeles Times on 18 February.

Hecht and Ms. Rousseau had known each other since 1991 via Books on Tape but met first in April 1992 when Hecht invited Ms. Rousseau for dinner. “… [T]hey discovered that they had almost nothing in common. ‘He was an Orange County Republican, a twice-divorced father of three adult children, a card-carrying member of the N.R.A.,’” Ms. Rousseau told The New York Times in a wedding article published in June 2002. She went on: “’I was never married, a feminist, an artist.’” Nevertheless, they loved to converse, though they seldom could agree on anything, and they were inseparable ever since that spring in 1992.

1952 Olympic U.S. coxed pair – James Beggs, Duvall Hecht and Jimmy Fifer. Photo: Wikipedia.

After quitting as a pilot, Hecht started working for a bank. It was during a drive from work – a one- to two-hour-long commute from Los Angeles to his home in Newport Beach – getting bored at the music on the radio, Hecht came up with the idea that he should record book readings on tape. He hired some actors, arranged copyright deals with publishers and started Books on Tape. In 2001, he sold his company to Random House for approximately $20 million.

After having sold Books on Tape, being in his 70s and now having enough money to comfortably retire, Hecht decided to pursue a dream he had had since he was 16. He started a new career as a long-haul truck driver, his wife told the Los Angeles Times. She sometimes came along on his cross-country trips and marveled at how much he enjoyed the open road, the paper wrote.

“And on those trips, of course, we would listen to Books on Tape,” said Ms. Rousseau.

Duvall Hecht Photo: ©UC Irvine Rowing

Duvall Hecht was involved in rowing his whole life. Not only did he started the rowing club at Menlo College, but he also established rowing crews at University of California, Irvine, in the mid-1960s. He went on to coach at University of California, Los Angeles, before going back to Irvine in the 1990s. He became the head coach of the men’s varsity rowing there in 2008.

As a rowing coach, Duvall Hecht became a mentor to many rowers throughout his long life. He was always ready to give some inspirational words from his own mentors or boat builder George Pocock or Winston Churchill, UCIrvine Rowing writes on their website. The website continues:

Duvall pulled the rowing program into existence back in 1965 and then kept it moving year after year after year with the same dedication and vigor that he demanded of his rowers — stroke after stroke after stroke. Though he had removed himself from regular involvement in the program a few years ago, his absence is felt like a chasm. Indeed, it now takes a board of dedicated alumni in full swing to keep the program going, something Duvall seemed able to do almost single-handedly over the years.

Read rowing historian Peter Mallory’s entertaining tribute to Duvall Hecht on row2k, which is an excerpt from his book An Out-Of-Boat Experience …or God is a Rower, and He Rows Like Me! (2nd ed., 2002).

Duvall Young Hecht, born 23 April 1930, died 10 February 2022. He is survived by his wife Ann Marie Rousseau, four children and three grandchildren.

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