Portrait of a Legend

The portrait doesn’t jump out at you, but then, it would be out of character if it did. It’s subtle, a bas relief hewn in bronze, and to really see the face you have to get close. There, in the calm, warrior-eyed profile, the face tilted down as if addressing a crew before a race, a sense of quiet power emerges. Resting on the ground before it is an exact bronze replica of a megaphone.

“Tribute to Joe Burk,” unveiled at the University Barge Club on May 22, was created by Elizabeth Doering, lecturer in sculpture, in honor of the legendary Joe Burk W’34 Hon’88. An outstanding rower and captain of the crew at Penn, Burk was later known as the “world’s greatest oarsman” for his triumphs at the Henley Regatta in England, where he won the Diamond Sculls in 1938 and 1939, and for winning the American and Canadian Henleys. In 1940 he was awarded the James E. Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.

It was after serving as a heavily decorated PT boat commander in World War II, when he came back to Penn in 1950 to coach for two decades, that he would have a profound impact on two generations of Penn rowers. His crews won numerous championships and honors, including all cup races in the U.S. in 1955 (see sidebar) and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship in 1967; in 1968 they came within four one-hundredths [4/100] of a second of beating Harvard in the final Olympic trials. A few years ago a group led by Howard Greenberg ME’67 L’73 began looking for a way to honor the coach who had meant so much to them—and who is still living in Arizona. They formed a selection committee, which chose Doering’s proposal and quickly raised the funds.

“Every single guy that I wrote to was happy to be involved in this project,” says Greenberg. “This was a man who was extremely influential to us. The best professor I had at Penn was Joe Burk, and I had some good professors at Penn—but no one taught me what Joe taught me, and it had nothing to do with rowing.”

“He offered a clean, straight-living guideline for youth, and was almost fearsome in his moral standards, yet was not considered a prude or immobile,” wrote Burk’s successor, Ted Nash, in the December, 1969 Pennsylvania Rowing News. “He maintained total gentlemanliness without being considered soft. His leadership in crew was guided by the concept that he was creating a better group of people as a result of rowing’s demands for success.”

Doering herself rowed as an undergraduate at Amherst, and though she had never met Burk, she was well aware of his legacy, since her father, Albert L. Doering III ME’61 L’65, rowed under Burk and often held him up as an example of quiet, die-hard determination. (Her grandfather, uncle, brother, and sister all rowed for Penn, too.) When she was awarded the commission, she immersed herself in the project.

“I thought about the topic and the place a lot,” she says. “Thought about how the morning is, out on the river, and what a coach is like, and what a boathouse is for. And I thought I’d like to make a simple, clean, portrait—a bas relief. And I also thought that the stories about Joe needed to be recorded.

“The big story from my father about Joe Burk was that he’d break the ice on the Schuylkill so that they could go out and row; that he had rigged some sort of an ice-breaker on the front of his coaching launch,” she recalls. “But I wondered if these stories were true. And one of the amazing things about doing this project is that I am finding out that they were.”

Many stories were gathered into a book she compiled as part of the tribute. One second-hand story came from Dr. Reed Kinderman C’69, and concerned a “very, very cold Philadelphia day” sometime during Burk’s tenure:

“The weather was so frigid that the gathering Penn oarsmen stood around in the second-floor locker room, looking out the windows and complaining that it was too cold out and discussing what they should do about practice. Joe overheard them. As the oarsmen carried on upstairs about the cold, Joe, who had by then slipped into a bathing suit, walked down to the dock and dove in to the river right in front of them. The oarsmen watched in speechless silence. One by one, they left the locker room and went down to get their oars, lift their shells, and get on with practice. Joe changed back into his coaching attire and the practice went off as usual.”

Burk pushed his crews to drive themselves harder than they thought possible, yet always treated them with respect—and led by example.

“Boat speed wins races,” wrote Al Doering, “but for Joe the race was not between boats but between each of us and our respective potentials. Joe never showed much emotion about our race results. If we won, he happily congratulated us, and if we lost, he calmly pointed out our shortcomings.”

Back when Burk was setting records at the Henley Regatta, a British newspaper reporter wrote: “They say he rows by the watch and doesn’t care a cent what the other man’s doing …”

“Joe did not teach us racing tactics,” wrote Al Doering. “For him a race was rowed by pulling as hard as possible from the first stroke onward. We rowed each stroke with the knowledge that well before the finish we would reach a point of distress that in a rational process would cause us to stop, but that we must not stop because seven other rowers confronting their own distress were depending on us to continue. Through many repetitions of this essentially irrational process we learned that the limits of our endurance lay well beyond the onset of distress and we became confident that we could deal with it.”

It wasn’t just his drive and his quiet strength of character that made Burk such an effective coach. He was also an innovator with an empirical, scientific mind.

“Joe is the most innovative, original, and experimental rowing coach who has ever lived!” wrote Gardner Cadwalader C’70 GAr’75. One example of that was Burk’s “one-of-a-kind rowing machine,” which was “several steps above” those used by other coaches of his era. Another was a light system connected to pressure gauges, with four levels of measurement, attached to each oarlock. Each oarsman had a four-light monitor box at his seat, while the coxswain had the master box that measured the performance of each oarsman. “Everyone could see his own performance and the ‘cox’ could see the whole boat’s performance by the number of lights lit and by the duration that those lights stayed lit,” noted Cadwalader.

Finally, there was Burk’s unique method of selecting the best eight men for his varsity, which involved taking a deck of playing cards, writing each rower’s name on a card, shuffling them, and dealing out three random crews at practice. From September to the first race in April, the different crews would race for points.

“One week before the first race of the season in April, the eight fellows with the best points were the first boat,” wrote Cadwalder, who wore his old King of Clubs card as a nametag at an artist’s preview of the sculpture. “That was it. Coach had no authority over the system, even if it looked like an odd assortment of ducks. That odd assortment of ducks would be Penn’s varsity for the week.” The system continued throughout the season.

“Joe approached the challenge of improving the action and efficiency of rowing the way Bill Gates has looked at improving computer capabilities,” Cadwalader added. “Nothing was sacred; anything could be improved; no obstacle could not be overcome. There has been a tenacious and incremental advancement of the sport as a result of everything that Joe thought about and everything that he experimented with. Who else has that legacy?”

“There was no ego in the man,” wrote Tony Palms C’61. “He was simply Joe Burk, and that was more than anyone else could ever say.”—S.H.


©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/05


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