Together Again After 50 Years

1965 Champions Return for 50th

L-R: Jerry Dudley, Greg Stefan, Marie Jonik, John Campbell and Phil Jonik are racing out of the Fairmount Rowing Association. The men are returning to the Head of the Charles for the second time in fifty years. At the first regatta in 1965, their Penn AC quad upset Harvard to win the Senior Fours.

Maggie Quick Published on October 18, 2014

On Saturday, Oct. 16, 1965, four young friends from Philadelphia’s Penn AC Rowing Association raced in the senior four at the first Head Of The Charles Regatta when their coach could not pull together an eight. None of them knew what to expect in a head race. And when the race was over, none of them thought they had beaten Harvard University, but they had. The Penn AC four won the first HOCR elite four as high school and college students. It was their first time racing as a four.

While there are more than a dozen rowers competing in the 50th Regatta who were also there at the first, but for their coxswain, the Penn A.C. four is the only crew that has returned intact from 1965. And Saturday marked the first time since 1965 that the four men raced together as a four, only the fourth. When they crossed the start line, it marked just the fourth time they’d rowed together in the last 50 year.

“It’s deja vu, as they say,” boat member Phil Jonik, 68, said after practicing on Friday. “It’s pretty exciting to be back here with all the pageantry.”

Jonik came from California; John Campbell, 69,  arrived from Montana instead of hitch-hiking from Syracuse like he did in 1965; and Greg Stefan, 67, and Jerry Dudley, 67, returned from Philadelphia. Jonik’s sister Marie Jonik, 60, a ‘76 Olympian who can be found on banners this year featuring the first HOCR women’s eight champs in 1972, is coxing. The crew is not looking to clock 18:14—their winning time in ’65—again, but simply to finish. They are the second-oldest boat in the race with an average age of 67.

“That was my first one and I thought, ‘I can do this every 50 years. The next one’s gonna be tough,’” Dudley said.

Campbell said a head race was “a novel idea” in 1965. None of the oarsmen knew what to expect, especially because it was their first time rowing on the Charles. They passed boats but did not think of winning—in fact, Campbell was the only one left at the river when the win was announced.

“Rowing’s a funny sport; you can sometimes get into a boat and it will click,” Campbell said. “We’d all rowed together at various times in our lives but we had never raced together as a four. It just kind of clicked that day. It was a magical day.”

“We were dumbfounded, quite frankly,” Dudley said. “It was quite a jubilation, all of us coming from smaller college towns.”

There were plenty of familiar faces on the Charles that day. The Penn AC crew knew the Vesper Boat Club oarsmen because they were the only boat on the Schuylkill River Schuylkill that Vesper could compete with as it trained for the Olympics in 1964.

“Many of those rowers we were against were mentors,” Phil Jonik said. “We had always been a little younger, a little further behind.”

After the race the four kept in touch even though their lives diverged.

“We started young enough that we stuck together,” Stefan said.

The fact that Dudley married one of Stefan’s cousins probably helped. Careers were made in education, finance, cosmetics and memorials. Stefan and Campbell would return to the Head of the Charles, while Phil Jonik had to pause his rowing career when he served two tours with the Navy in Vietnam after graduating from Holy Cross (“I prefer this river to the Mekong Delta”).

The crew grew up as rowing matured. One of the biggest changes they’ve witnessed is the sheer growth in the number of rowers. In 1965, Penn AC raced against five other boats, and its spectators were usually relatives. Then women such as Marie Jonik were welcomed on the water and the rowing population exploded.

Only 11 years old when Phil competed in 1965, Marie Jonik grew up inspired by her oarsmen older brothers. At 17, she began to row with Vesper when Penn AC did not accept women. Along with her twin sister Ann, Marie competed in the world championships in Moscow as an 18-year-old before going to the Olympics the next year. This is her second time coxing a race.

“I can’t believe they asked me [to cox],” Marie said. “I was just going to go up and celebrate the 50th anniversary and then I thought about it and I thought, oh my gosh, there’s no way I’m going to miss this chance. That they won as teenagers at the very first Head Of The Charles and they’re asking me to be coxswain, I am honored.”

Over the past fifty years, head races such as the Charles also heralded the beginning of year-round rowing, ergometers advanced training, and shells went from being wooden to carbon fiber.

“You used to go into a boat house and you could smell the wood, smell the cedar,” Campbell said. “A boat house had an unmistakable smell. It was pleasing.”

Another smell that belongs to that bygone era is pollution. Major bodies of water like the Charles were not treated for pollution fifty years ago.

“Now you have egrets, eagles and a lot of fish when you row,” Dudley said.

But not everything has changed.

“We have the same strategy today as we did then,” Dudley said. “Go out and row hard.”


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