Here are the highlights of a conversation with Jack Gray, FDR Class of ’58.
It was an entirely different era then. The team received little support from FDR High School. The rowers would have to get to the boathouse on their own, usually piling far too many kids into the car of a senior rower. Since many families only had one car that was usually used by the parent who was working, the boys had to either walk or hitchhike home after practice. The crew tank shirt in the display was the only uniform tank Jack was given to last all his years of rowing. If a rower outgrew his shirt, it was his responsibility to trade with another rower or just wear the small one.
The team only had four men wooden shells with wooden oars which weighed at least three times the weight of shells currently used. Their version of an indoor rowing machine was two 2 x 12 wooden beams with shell seats and oarlocks mounted on them. When they would ‘row’, the machine would actually move across the gym floor.
Jack’s first coach when he was in eighth grade was an FDR art teacher with no experience in coaching or crew. The rowers were placed in boats based on seniority, not skill level. The team was not very successful at that time.
In Jack’s freshman year, FDR hired Coach Decker. He was the varsity stroke at Annapolis and certainly had more knowledge and experience. Now the best rowers rowed in the varsity boat. He switched out rowers often during practices to create the rosters. He would row all three boats against each other on Friday and race the best rowers as varsity at the race on Saturday. Jack rowed bow in the varsity boat in tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade.
The National School Boy Regatta was held in Poughkeepsie when Jack was in eighth grade. Then it was held in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. With Coach Decker as their coach, they placed at each regatta.
During Jack’s time as a member of the crew team, the boathouse burned down and had to be rebuilt. The conditions on the Hudson were less than ideal. When they were rowing, they had to deal with a lot of debris, not just the logs our rowers often see. There was so much debris that it was the job of the freshmen rowers to clean the dock daily before launching. He said there was a dead cow drifting in the river one day.
One of his most memorable races happened in the Spring of ’56. There was an invitational meet in Poughkeepsie with FDR, Poughkeepsie and a private school. The conditions were rough but the race took place. The private school’s boat was closest to shore. Poughkeepsie’s shell was next to them and Jack’s boat was further in river. The private school boat took on water and stopped rowing about half way through the race. Poughkeepsie got to about the 1000 meter point and sank. FDR was also taking on water and were rowing in the toughest lane. They were sinking but were only 50 meters from the finish line. They all agreed that they needed to finish the race. At this point, the bow was lifted a little out of the water and the coxswain was up to his neck in water. The coxswain had created his own headband and megaphone. There was a wave that caught the stroke’s oarlock and pushed the oar into the coxswain’s megaphone and face. He then used the megaphone to bail out the boat. The rowers in seats 1 and 2 actually were able to row and they finished the race while seats 3 and 4 were in water in the boat. At the finish line, they all jumped out of the boat that then had to get towed to shore.
Jack continues to exercise regularly. He accredits his desire to stay fit and exercise to his time on the FDR Crew Team. He is in his seventies and runs distance races regularly.