Harvard Without Harry

Charley Butt is the new man behind the Harvard megaphone

Crimson Ready Themselves for First Race Without
Legendary Coach

By Zachary T. Sampson | Published: October 15, 2013


The Harvard rowers step from the cool October dawn into an upstairs room filled with warm wood and the smell of stale sweat.

They stretch and warm up on rowing machines while their coach bounces around the boathouse, checking shells and greeting his team.

It is, in most ways, the start of a typical practice, same as always. But this is the first year Harvard is preparing for the celebrated Head of the Charles Regatta without Harry Parker.

An iconic figure at Harvard, and in world rowing, Parker coached the Crimson heavyweight men’s crew team for 51 years before his death in June. There has, in fact, never been a Head of the Charles without Parker. His successor, Charley Butt, served under Parker for nearly three decades. He knows his role well.

“The job for someone like me is to identify the sources of his success and to maintain them to the extent that someone who’s not Harry can do that,” Butt said. “And that is tremendous athletes rowing for you, a spirit of fun, and hard work.”

Rowing courses through Charley Butt. It has since he was just a boy living along the Potomac River. Butt’s father learned to scull at M.I.T. in the 1930s and later became a high school coach.

When Butt was learning the sport from his father, Harry Parker was still in the relative infancy of his career. Though far from anonymous—he came to Harvard as the Olympic sculler from the 1960 Rome Games—he was just beginning to build his bouquet of national titles and undefeated seasons. But the boy who would ultimately succeed him knew who he was.

“I was aware of Harry Parker by the time I was about six years old,” Butt said.

He said Parker’s brilliance stemmed simply from understanding how a boat moves. Butt has applied many of Parker’s techniques, which remain pillars of the Harvard team’s practice today. They often use small boats to isolate rowers and emphasize a flexible schedule that accommodates rigorous academic workloads.

Ask any athlete for their goal, and they’ll say it is to win. Yet Butt has a less competitive personal benchmark in that he would like each of his rowers to improve – in rowing ability, strength, or conditioning – each month of the season. He focuses on practice and growth, not Parker’s legacy.

“I took a lot of lessons from him, but I know not to be that man because I have my own approach,” Butt said.

The new Harvard coach was a scholarship rower at Rutgers University in the early eighties. He’s worked with Olympic teams and was the Harvard lightweight men’s crew coach for 28 years. During that time, nine of his teams won national championships. Rowers on the heavyweight squad said they already have noticed differences in Butt’s approach, even just five weeks into the season.

Heading downstream on a brisk October morning

“Charley’s quite the opposite of Harry, he talks a lot,” said senior Andy Holmes.

“Everybody said Harry was a man of few words,” said senior coxswain William Hakim. “Charley’s a man of many words.”

That is immediately evident when the Harvard men begin to streak down the Charles at the start of practice, the pale sun still low over the trees.

Butt steers a fiberglass skiff behind them, calling out advice through a megaphone. He wears a heavy brown work jacket and rubber-coated gloves to fight off the morning chill. He’s kind and encouraging, but his voice travels as a throaty growl.

“It’s gotta be all hips, Jay,” Butt calls.

“That’s it Hack, get ‘em to make plays, get ‘em to make the boat faster,” he howls at the coxswain.

Butt is forward-thinking, open to new ideas and techniques, his rowers said.

“He’s a lot more approachable,” said junior Charles Risbey.

Already, the upperclassmen said, a number of rowers are improving. They are looking forward to the Head Of The Charles.

Veteran members of the team attended the services that followed Parker’s death. They have grieved, and now they are ready to win.

“I think we are really trying to throw down the best piece we can,” said junior Max Meyer-Bosse.

Last year was about Harry Parker, Holmes said, “this year’s just all about Charley.”

Though they think about their former coach from time to time, Parker’s presence hovers above the rowers as a spirit more than a shadow.

“At any time we can call on his memory for strength and inspiration,” Hakim said.

There is a dogma to Harvard rowing established through decades of tradition. Like several old-world religions, the team turns to a river for its holy water.

The Charles is the rowers’ Ganges; it is their River Jordan. This year’s regatta will represent a rechristening for the Crimson, the beginning of a new era at the site where a late rowing legend’s principles forever remain between two muddy banks.

Editor’s Note: This year’s official Head Of The Charles program features a remembrance of Harry Parker and his 51 years as Harvard’s heavyweight crew coach.

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