Campus & Community

Coach for the ages

7 min read

Harry Parker, who has died at 77, oversaw Harvard men’s heavyweight crew for decades

Legendary crew coach Harry Parker, who joined Harvard in 1960 and helmed the Crimson’s heavyweight program starting 50 years ago, died Tuesday. He was 77 and had mentored generations of Harvard rowers and U.S. Olympians.

“Generations of Harvard students will forever remember his formative influence,” said Harvard President Drew Faust of Parker. “He was a living legend at Harvard and in the world of rowing, and his legend will long endure.”

In the decades he coached, Parker’s crews powered their way to 22 undefeated regular seasons, 16 national championships (official and unofficial), and a 44-7 record over Yale in the traditional Harvard-Yale Regatta. It was in June of 1963 when the 27-year-old Parker — the freshman coach who became interim varsity coach that January — coached an underdog heavyweight squad to an unlikely eight-boat-length victory over Yale. It opened a winning streak against Yale that went unbroken until 1981. He closed out his career at Harvard with six consecutive victories in the same annual contest.

Parker, a man of few words but of telling words, observed simply, “I vastly prefer winning to losing.”

He had fallen in love with rowing as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he combined his water discipline with philosophy studies. In 1959, Parker won the single scull competition — one person, two oars — at the Pan American Games. In 1960, he competed at the Summer Olympics in Rome, finishing fifth.

From 1964 to 1984 — from Tokyo to Los Angeles — Parker coached U.S. Olympic crew teams, both men and women. In 1975, he coached the first U.S. women’s national team to compete in the world championships. A year later, his U.S. women’s eight won the bronze medal in the Montreal Olympic games.

Over the years, the rugged Parker — a lifetime athlete who was a muscular 6-footer in his prime — became the dean of all Harvard athletic coaches and, some say, the most successful college rowing coach of the last half of the 20th century.

The cause of death was myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder diagnosed in 2011 that was once called “preleukemia.” A memorial service will be held later this summer.

The news of Parker’s demise shook Harvard to the core. “His legacy and impact on our program over the last five decades will remain,” said Nichols Family Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise. “We will miss him as a coach, role model, leader, and a friend.”

“Harry was one of Harvard’s most illustrious coaches and he may have been the greatest college crew coach of all time,” said Jack Reardon ’60, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association, who was Harvard University athletic director from 1977 to 1990. “In any chosen profession, there are people who are very good and there are people who are the best. Harry Parker was the best. Harry’s rowers revered him. He was a man of few words but those words counted, and he inspired his athletes to do better than they thought possible. There will never be another Harry Parker. I will miss him and Harvard will miss him.”

Parker was the Thomas Bolles Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Heavyweight Crew, but he could easily have been called Professor Parker. He taught not only stroke rate and blade coverage, but considered rowing as a preparation for the discipline and commitment that leading a good life requires. “I think of myself as a teacher,” he said last fall. “What I do is nurture traits that are already there within the rowers. … I create an environment that fosters those traits.”

Parker averred then that competitive rowers had to be hard-working, persevering, patient, disciplined, and resilient in moments of frustration. “It’s not — quote — ‘fun’ the way other sports are,” he said. “Basically, it’s hard work.”

Faust was drawn to the coach’s own conception of himself. “Harry Parker epitomized the coach as teacher,” she said. “He saw each of his rowers not just as an athlete but as a whole person, a person learning not just how to excel at a sport but how to live a life.”

Harry Lambert Parker was born in Fitchburg, Mass., in 1935, the son of Ruth Parker and Lambert Achilles Parker, a builder and contractor. He went to high school in East Hartford, Conn., where he played baseball and basketball (and became the “lowest-scoring center in the school’s history,” he once said). From the beginning, though, Parker was an aggressive and competitive athlete — traits he carried far into adulthood, when he continued to row, run the Harvard Stadium steps with his crews, play pick-up soccer, hike, cross-country ski, windsurf, and golf. Parker’s athletic mindset was so intense and competitive that he once claimed that he didn’t take up ice hockey because he would be too dangerous wielding a stick.

Finishing high school, he won an NROTC scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he took up rowing to satisfy a physical education requirement. He was immediately hooked. “I had the feeling that this is wonderful, a great sense of power,” he remembered last year of his first moments gliding over water in a sleek boat. “You can harness the strength in your body, and you can make the boat move.”

Those who saw Parker at Harvard’s Newell Boathouse on the Charles remember his regular rowing workouts and his easeful walk along the dock to the river, clad like a modern Neptune in a wetsuit. He had a powerful athlete’s body well into his 70s, a grip like bolt cutters, and the tanned face of a lifelong sailor. Parker also sported a close-cropped beard that followed the outline of his jaw. (One of his heavyweight crew veterans once asked Parker what he would be if he could choose among all the figures in history. The skipper of a pirate ship, the coach answered with a smile.)

Parker was quiet, but on the river he had “the voice,” coaching his rowers with a God-like rumble through the cardboard megaphone he favored.

“God” was, in fact — behind his back — one of Parker’s nicknames, along with “The Weird One” for his idiosyncratic coaching style and his penchant for going his own way. He was also called “King of the Crews,” and was once dubbed the “River Warrior” by Harvard Magazine.

When he arrived at Harvard in 1960, Parker coached the freshmen crews. At the time, the Charles River smelled, a heavy rain left it jammed with debris, and swimming was unwise. Simply falling into the water required a tetanus shot. “The river was foul,” he said in 2010. “Now, it’s wonderful.”

Parker spent six days a week on the open Charles for more than a half century.

Harvard’s most famous coach is survived by his wife, former competitive rower and Olympic gold medalist Kathryn Elliott “Kathy” Keeler; two sons, George ’83 and David ’85; a daughter, Abigail, ’17; and five grandchildren. He is also survived by generations of students inspired by the Zen and quiet zest of his riverine discipline.

Many of the tributes coming his way will sound like that of coxswain Paul Hoffman ’68, who was part of the Harvard eight that made it to the Olympics in Mexico City. In a Harvard Magazine profile of Parker, Hoffman called him “the single best teacher I had at Harvard College or Harvard Law School. I personally still approach all major challenges using the metaphor of rowing.”

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