About the rowing shell hanging on the wall in the SSS basement

Touring St. Stephens School at last week's alumni reunion (I am class of 1972), I saw attached to a basement wall, split in two (because it's too long to fit at full length) a marvelous relic, our beautiful rowing shell (boat). Am I the only one who remembers its episode in School history? I had a very personal relationship with it.

One of the School's most generous donors was a man named Halsted P. Van der Poel. I never met him -- indeed, know little of him, except that he was a friend of the School's first headmaster Father John O. Patterson ("JOP") and a great enthusiast for the sport of competitive rowing. Thus, SSS had this expensive and beautiful rowing shell, a "four". The School fronted a team, four rowers plus coxswain. The coach was our philosophy teacher Steven Schneebaum. He was an excellent philosophy teacher, inspiring us with the works of Kant and Nietzsche. When it came to rowing, however, through no fault of his own, the outcome was perhaps less satisfactory.

We practiced on the Lago Albano, a spectacular mountain lake outside Rome where the Pope has his summer palace. I was the cox. My job was to steer the boat and to shout, "Stroke, stroke!" Four gangly boys were the oarsmen. We were less interested in being athletes than in things we could smoke. We were in no way prepared for serious competition though we did have a beautiful boat.

In 1972, the School entered us into an international competition -- a dozen or so countries participating -- conducted on the waterways of Sabaudia, an hour or two south of Rome. The evening before, Mr. Schneebaum dined with the head of the Federazione Italiana Canottaggio and his assistant who impressed upon him the gravity of this event. A large bus was chartered for us, of sufficient length to carry our boat on its roof. We were put up in a hotel, where at dawn to our bleary dismay we were awoken by the "Hup, hup, hup" of the German military team in uniform running in formation past our hotel window.

The time of the competition arrived. Crowds lined the shore and a bridge that arched over the kilometer-long track. Unlike our disciplined competitors, we barely got our boat in place in time for the starting gun.

Within moments, our steering cable snapped and I could no longer control the rudder. So, in addition to being slower than the other teams, we couldn't even hold a straight course. Eventually, we limped across the finish line, a distant last. The crowd actually booed.

Even so, it was an experience I will always cherish -- did I mention that our boat was beautiful? -- and I hope Mr. Van der Poel wasn't deterred by our ignominy.

-- Dan Keller, Rome, June 2023

Updated Friday, 16-Jun-2023 07:52:55 MDT