Driving Seattle’s Ship Canal Bridge the other day, I looked off to my right and saw them. Rowers in two eight-person shells were cutting across Lake Union, leaving diagonal wakes in calm, gray water.
I couldn’t tell if the rowing team was from the University of Washington or some other school or club. I have never tried the sport of crew. Yet it occurred to me then that I know quite a bit about it — the rigors of practice, the physical pain during races when a coxswain shouts orders to raise the stroke rate, and the camaraderie so crucial in a boat.
I know because I read “The Boys in the Boat.” Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction best-seller tells the story of the University of Washington’s eight-oared crew team that in 1936 won Olympic gold in Germany. In front of a crowd that included Adolf Hitler, their “Husky Clipper” moved up from last place — in the lane most exposed to bad weather — to best the German, Italian, Swiss, British and other boats in a race that became legend in the history of the sport.
If you haven’t read it, start now. The Everett Public Library selected “The Boys in the Boat” for this year’s Everett Reads! program. For its showcase event related to the book, the library is presenting a free talk by the author at 7 p.m. Friday at the Everett Performing Arts Center. Brown lives in the Redmond area.
Before the author comes to town, the public is welcome at a free talk at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at Everett Community College by a woman whose father was one of the winning UW rowers in 1936. Judy Rantz Willman, 71, is the daughter of the late Joe Rantz. His life, not only as a rower but as a child of the Great Depression, is central to “The Boys in the Boat.”
It is mostly the story of Joe, and how hard times shaped him, his family, and the world around him. As a boy, with a stepmother who had other children, he was sent to live with others. Later, he had to fend for himself. At the UW, he worked as a janitor and lived at the YMCA. To earn college money, he labored in the summer on the Grand Coulee Dam project.
Willman is touched by the hardships she knows her dad endured. “It just made stronger people out of them. They were a stronger generation,” she said Wednesday from her Redmond home.
Willman is the mother of Mill Creek’s Jen Huffman, who rows at Lake Stevens with the North Cascades Crew, and the grandmother of Dana Huffman, a rower and Glacier Peak High School student. They were featured in a 2013 Herald sports story by Rich Myhre related to “The Boys in the Boat.”
The author is Willman’s neighbor. Brown met Joe Rantz while Willman was caring for her ailing father in her home. Joe Rantz died in 2007 at age 93. She had been reading to her father another book by Brown when the author came to visit. That was in 2006. The book was published in 2013.
“From the very first day I met Joe Rantz and decided to write ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ I knew the story was really about much more than rowing and the Olympics,” Brown said Friday. “Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to have to be about the human heart.”
He expected rowers to be his book’s first readers, but hoped it would reach a wide audience. That hope has come true in a big way. The New York Times’ most recent nonfiction best-seller list showed “The Boys in the Boat” in the No. 4 spot. It’s been on the list for 37 weeks.
Brown said the 1936 triumph by the UW rowers was overshadowed by Jesse Owens. In Berlin, the African-American track star won four gold medals, a definitive answer to the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority.
“That story absolutely dominated the headlines coming out of Berlin in 1936,” Brown said. “Also, there was a newswriters’ strike going on in Seattle that week, so Royal Brougham’s marvelous coverage of the gold medal race never made it into print in the Post-Intelligencer.”
Brown said the “boys” in his book “came home, put their gold medals in sock drawers, and went out looking for a job to get them through another year of school.”
Rantz became a chemical engineer and spent his career working for Boeing. He married his high school sweetheart, Joyce, and raised his family. After a childhood that took him from tough times in Spokane, Sequim, and a remote mining camp, he spent much of his life in Lake Forest Park.
The book also features boat maker George Yeoman Pocock, whose legacy lives on in the Pocock Racing Shells business now based in Everett.
Brown said he knew “next to nothing” about rowing when he started working on his book. “Fortunately, I got a lot of help from a lot of very good rowers,” he said.
Willman said the book brings her father’s sport into focus. “And it’s a story that touches on what it is that makes us human,” she said.
The author is humbled by the response to his book.
“I’m not one of the boys who pulled off this extraordinary accomplishment,” Brown said. “The story is their story.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Boys in the Boat,” the story of University of Washington rowers who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, is the Everett Public Library’s 2015 Everett Reads! book. Several events are planned:
Judy Rantz Willman, daughter of the late Joe Rantz who was part of the 1936 winning UW crew, will give a free talk and visual presentation 12:30-1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Jackson Conference Center Wilderness Room at Everett Community College, 2000 Tower St. Event presented by Possession Sound Writers and sponsored by the Everett Community College Foundation.
Daniel James Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat,” will give a free talk sponsored by the library at 7 p.m. Friday in the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett. Books will be on sale.
The Everett Rowing Association will present Al Erickson in a free talk at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 in the Everett Public Library Auditorium, 2702 Hoyt Ave. Erickson headed the UW rowing program for 20 years and is the son of Dick Erickson, who rowed with the legendary 1958 UW crew. He will talk about rowing technique and equipment, and the sport’s history in Washington.
The North Cascades Crew will host a fund-raiser, “Boys in the Boat: A Look Behind the Scenes,” featuring Brown and Willman, 1-5 p.m. March 8 at in the Snohomish County PUD Auditorium, 2320 California St., Everett. Tickets $50-$125 at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1152618