Old Habits Hard to Break

Retired Board Chairman Always Looking to Improve Regatta

By Maxim Tamarov – Posted on October 23, 2016

For the first time in more than 40 years, Ed Smith is just another spectator in a crowd of about 200,000 people at the Head of the Charles Regatta—sort of.

Smith first volunteered for the Regatta after joining the Cambridge Boat Ed SmithClub in 1973, when it was mostly the boat club members running and volunteering for the race. An accountant and lawyer, he found himself drawn into the financial end of things, first in sales, then as Regatta treasurer. Soon he joined the race committee, chaired the race committee, and became one of the first non-founder members of the board of directors, eventually serving 18 years as chairman of the board, before his retirement last January.

As he reflects upon his years as one of the shapers of the modern Head of the Charles, he keeps coming back to the people of the Head of the Charles.

“The success of the Regatta has always been that the Regatta attracts extremely capable people,” Smith said. “[People] who are passionate about the regatta, [people] who are committed to make the regatta the best regatta in the world.”

For Smith, that commitment has sometimes taken on unexpected form “There was one year — I think I was race director that year — we had a rubbish truck pull up here,” Smith said. “But the crew never showed up.”

So Smith and some other race committee members “put some lousy clothes on,” rolled up their sleeves and picked up rubbish until midnight. The thinking that he had to delegate the job because he chaired a committee never occurred to Smith.

“People put their personal agendas and their egos aside when they’re involved in the regatta.”

In the 43 years since he experienced the Head of the Charles, he has seen the Regatta grow from a one-day event with 300 rowers and 40 volunteers to today’s Regatta of more than 10,000 rowers, served by a year-round professional staff of five, and by more than 1400 race-weekend volunteers.

A Holy Cross and Suffolk Law School graduate, Smith was instrumental in hiring Regatta’s first full-time employee, bringing Fred Schoch in as executive director in 1991. The race had outgrown its capacity to be fueled solely by volunteers, he said; it could no longer be funded via entrance fees and the sales of posters, programs and t-shirts. The board decided it had to bring on professional staff and professional sponsorship to fund the growth.

“That was probably the most pivotal decision,” Smith said of the decision to hire Schoch. “Everything else starts to build from there.”

Smith has also rowed in the race for most of the last 43 years; in recent times he was a staple of the senior masters doubles event with long-time partner Steve Carr, also a long-time board member and Regatta volunteer. Rowing in the race was about more than the competition, Smith said. it was for quality control.

“We always thought it’s important that directors and the co-chairs in the race committee actually row the regatta,” Smith said. “We need to experience as competitors what all of our competitors experience.”

The same philosophy also had him walking the Regatta sites for years, looking at what was going well and what wasn’t.

“It’s very hard to make decisions in a vacuum for what should be improved on or changed for next year,” Smith said, “if we didn’t actually walk around and see it ourselves.”

He’s finding them habits that are hard to break. He’s out of the competition this year because of a bad knee, but he is still walking the riverbanks, looking at how things are working.

“All my friends are here. What am I going to do? If someone says, ‘Listen, stay the hell out of this area,’ sure, I’ll stay the hell out of that area.”

But he doesn’t know of any people who might say that.


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