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‘The Boys in the Boat:’ Whatcom Reads! hosts author Daniel James Brown

What if people in a town or region read the same book at the same time, fostering discussion on a common theme?

Such was the inspiration behind Whatcom Reads!, a program modeled after the successful “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.”

Since 2008, public and academic libraries in Whatcom County, along with community sponsors, have hosted discussion groups and events based on a book written by a Pacific Northwest author, culminating with the authors coming to Whatcom County to talk about their books, their writing and their lives.

This year’s author is Seattle’s Daniel James Brown, who wrote the award-winning “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”

Although the book centers on the surprising win of the University of Washington rowing crew, more important is the significance of what the UW crew did, despite all odds, was to “discover themselves,” to learn humility, to learn to trust each other — particularly Joe Rantz who, because of his difficult childhood and youth, had trouble trusting himself, let alone others.

Brown says that it’s important to keep in mind something that Bob Ernst, director of rowing at the UW told him.

Ernst said that even if he could he would never clone the strongest man or woman in a boat and have eight identical rowers: Crews are more complex than that.

They are deliberate mixtures of physical and psychological types, says Brown.

So in the case of the 1936 crew, he says, “it took someone like coxswain Bobby Moch to make quick and gutsy decisions out on the water; someone like the quick-tempered No. 2 oar Chuck Day to act as an emotional spark plug; someone quieter and more contemplative like No. 3 oar Gordy Adam to calm everyone down.”

Coach Al Ulbrickon’s genius was in finding the right mix of types, says Brown.

“Ulbrickson was very good at the alchemy of putting a winning crew together. But he was a hard, often harsh, taskmaster.”

“Rowing consultant George Pocock, who designed the winning Husky Clipper shell, had a gentler approach, encouraging and developing a particular boy’s hidden strengths, and calming his fears.

So in many ways, says Brown, “the two of them were a ‘good cop, bad cop’ team as far as the boys were concerned, and it all worked out in the end.”

Unlike the athletes of today, the winning oarsmen did not receive millions of dollars, media and corporate endorsements, or even a ticker-tape parade.

But, says Brown, on one level it might have seemed to casual observers as if it didn’t transform them.

“They came back to Seattle, put their gold medals in sock drawers, and went about the business of finding jobs and getting through school. Many of them hardly mentioned their Olympic accomplishment to co-workers and others they came in contact with. That was part of the humility that characterized all of them.”

But Brown knows from talking to each of the families for research for the book that in fact what happened to each of them in Berlin that summer did indeed have profound and lasting effects.

“Mostly, I think, it manifested itself in the way they treated one another and they way that they approached others in their lives. In later years, they remained closely bonded together. They were constantly arranging get-togethers and reunion rows and family gatherings. Even when they were very old they stayed closely in touch.

“I think the point is that they knew they shared something that nobody else could quite understand, something that transcended every day life and was almost beyond words. For the most part, this was a very positive, life-affirming thing for them.”

For Bob Moch though, says Brown, there was a tinge of sadness to it as well.

“His daughter told me that in many ways he spent the rest of his life trying to find something as intense and meaningful as what had happened to him in Berlin in August of 1936.

“He never quite found its equal.”

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