Bob Cummins left a vast and immeasurable mark on the rowing scene in Snohomish County and beyond.
He was an ultimate ambassador for the sport — a strong advocate who used his deep passion, tireless dedication and steady leadership to teach rowing to individuals of all ages.
And he did it all with a calm demeanor and inclusive personality that allowed him to impact and inspire countless lives.
As those who knew him described, the 6-foot-5 Cummins was a “gentle giant” in the rowing community.
Cummins died July 24 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 72.
“He just had a way of reaching people,” said Gary Artim, who is now president of the Lake Stevens Rowing Club that Cummins helped found 25 years ago. “So everybody looked at him as more of a father figure to everybody in the club, regardless of what your age was.”
Artim was among the many people Cummins impacted.
Four years ago, just one month after Artim retired, his wife died. Artim said he was “one of those lost souls” at the time, unsure of what to do next. He was introduced to rowing and spent his first day on the water with Cummins, who helped spark a passion for the sport.
“He’s one of those kinds of people that reaches out and saves people,” Artim said. “He gives you a purpose.
“But it wasn’t just me,” he added. “He did that with everybody he touched.”
Cummins was born in Everett and played baseball, basketball and football at Everett High School, where he graduated in 1967.
But when he was a high school senior, his father died. That “kind of turned his world upside down,” said Cummins’ wife, Barb.
During that challenging part of his life, rowing helped Cummins stay on track.
When Cummins was a freshman at the University of Washington, legendary Huskies rowing coach Dick Erickson approached him and asked what he was doing for physical education class.
“He told him he’d give him an automatic ‘A’ if he’d come to row for him,” Barb said. “And so that’s how he got started.”
Cummins only rowed at UW for his freshman year, because he needed to work a job instead. But the experience had a lasting effect.
“It made a tremendous impact on his life — particularly with that coach, because it offered him stability and habits,” Barb said. “It just offered him the things that he needed in his life to be settled.”
Cummins spent the next two decades away from rowing, but got back into the sport after two of his children joined the Everett Rowing Association. Cummins became heavily involved with the organization in a variety of ways, including serving as the club’s president.
“Once the kids got started with rowing, that just started a snowball,” Barb said. “You always want your kids’ experience to be good, and so you make the experience good for (everyone) around.”
In 1995, Cummins and Barb were among a small group of people who left Everett Rowing to form Lake Stevens Rowing Club, with the goal of developing rowing on the eastern side of the Snohomish River Valley.
Cummins, the club’s founding president, used his creativity and leadership to get the organization up and running. For the first couple of years, Barb said, the club rowed off a shell trailer that Cummins built from scratch. Eventually, they built their own boathouse.
“He’s always been a big-picture, visionary type person,” Barb said. “He was very innovative. He could find ways to make things happen.”
As Barb described, Cummins helped foster a family atmopshere in Lake Stevens Rowing Club. She described it as more of a “friendly community club” than a “high-competition club.”
“It’s not a place where you just come in and row and leave,” she said. “There are a lot of people that will hang around (afterward). They might go across the street and have a beer. It’s become a family for a lot of people. And people who are going through changes in their life that need support find it (here).
“It’s first a rowing club. But second, it’s a small family. That’s primarily because of Bob’s doing.”
Cummins spent roughly two decades working as a chiropractor. Then after retiring from his practice in 1995, he began his second career as a master boat builder for Pocock Racing Shells in Everett. He worked there all the way up to last year.
One of that job’s many benefits, Barb said, was the flexibility it gave him to spend more time watching his children’s athletic pursuits. His oldest daughter, Angie, and son, Bob Jr., each won a gold medal at the World Rowing Championships. And his youngest daughter, Jo, played select soccer.
In fact, Cummins helped build the boat that Angie raced to a world championship.
“He wrote a message on the deck and then they glued it in place, and so they carried a good luck message there,” Barb said. “It was pretty cool.”
Cummins served on USRowing’s board of directors and was a founding member of the Northwest Rowing Council. He also became a longtime USRowing referee and was honored with the organization’s 2004 Julian Wolf Award, given annually to the rowing official who “stood apart in making contributions to the sport.”
“He mentored a lot of people in the Northwest, particularly in Snohomish County, that became referees (and) added to the sport,” Barb said.
Through his experiences as a referee, Cummins learned what worked well at other regattas and applied those lessons to events that Lake Stevens Rowing Club hosted. Among the highlights was USRowing’s Northwest Regional Masters Championship in 2010, as well as a number of Northwest Collegiate Rowing Championships.
“Bob’s involvement with rowing goes beyond the borders of Snohomish County,” said Tammy Dunn, the executive director of the Snohomish County Sports Commission. “He impacted the Pacific Northwest region, and even beyond that.”
Likely his most significant impact, though, was with Lake Stevens Rowing Club. His contributions there ranged far and wide — teaching and coaching, mentoring new coaches, securing equipment, building and repairing equipment, handling finances and more.
“The guy was just always there for us,” Artim said. “He was always there to coach six days a week, or haul the trailer, or do the repairs, or build stuff. I mean, he was just 100 percent into the sport. … There’s no way I’d be able to fill a fraction of what that guy did.”
Reshal Ploeger, whose son rowed for Lake Stevens Rowing Club, echoed those sentiments. “He was a truly generous person who gave an amazing amount of his personal time, skills and heart to the kids in our community,” she said.
Cummins had a particular knack for teaching and coaching the sport, Artim said, which was especially important for a club that primarily consists of first-time rowers.
“The guy was legendary,” Artim said. “He’d be able to watch you row for 60 seconds and be able to point out every little thing you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. … Bob had a way of simplifying it and (making it) very inclusive. There wasn’t a person he met he couldn’t teach how to row.”
One of Cummins’ greatest traits, several people said, was his ability to make everyone feel welcome and included.
“He was very welcoming to everyone, of all abilities,” Ploeger said. “… He didn’t play favorites. They were all equal on the lake in Bob’s eyes, and he gave everyone the same chance and encouragement.”
“He was just so accepting of every soul that walked through the (boathouse) door,” Artim added.
Barb said there were multiple instances — at Everett Rowing and at Lake Stevens Rowing Club — when the impact of an inclusive environment was really driven home for Cummins.
“A couple of people at different times came up to him afterward and said that they had been suicidal when they came to rowing, and that the inclusion that was shown made such a difference in their lives,” Barb said.
“And that kind of hits you. It hits you between the eyes and it hits you in your heart how important your interaction with folks is.
“You just realize how important being inclusive really is,” she added. “(And) Bob’s demeanor was one of inclusion.”
Cummins is survived by Barb, their three children and their 12 grandchildren.
“Bob was a humble man,” Dunn said. “He loved his community, he loved rowing, and he loved his family.”
“He was an amazing guy,” Artim added. “… We hope we can keep his dream alive here and continue to build the club.”