In Memoriam: Bill Cummings

For 29 Years the Man at the HOCR Scales

By Calli Remillard – Posted on October 20, 2018

It was thirty-odd years ago. Bill Cummings and Alan Day were neighbors, their children were friends, Day was a Head of the Charles volunteer. He persuaded his neighbor to join him, and thus began a three-decade marriage between Bill Cummings and the Head of the Charles, a relationship that grew into a family tradition now in its second generation.

Cummings passed away on October 2, at 71, just weeks away from what would’ve been his 30th year on the Regatta’s race operations committee. He was chair of the Weigh-In Committee for 29 years and in 2013 won the Attager Award, presented to a volunteer each year for their outstanding contribution to the Regatta.

Cummings never rowed in the Head of the Charles, but was drawn to the Regatta and appreciated what the event brought to the Boston riverbanks.

“Back in the day, the Head of the Charles was like a frat party along the Charles River,” Cummings’ daughter Elizabeth Bryson said. “It was just a really fun fall weekend, so he and my mom would just go and walk along the Charles and partake in the party scene and have a really fun day. It was an event that he always just really enjoyed.”

The Regatta soon became an event for the entire Cummings family. Bryson, her younger brother and other kids of members of the Cambridge Boat Club would soak in the excitement of the Regatta, often scoring themselves free swag and snacks, while their parents volunteered and worked the event. At the Regatta rowers usually weigh in the day before their race, meaning that most of the weigh-ins take place on Saturday, leaving Sunday of the event pretty open for weigh-in volunteers.

“As a family, on Sunday we would all go watch the races at the Cambridge Boat Club,” Bryson said. “My mom would pack a picnic and we would just spend Sunday watching the races and enjoying the event.”

After college, Bryson started volunteering alongside her father at the weigh-in tent, where she was able to see and appreciate his passion for the event first-hand.

“There are coaches now who show up, and they’ll remember my dad from when they were collegiate rowers,” she said. “My dad has a pretty unique face, he had big eyebrows and a big mustache for a long time. He’s sort of been the face of the weigh-in for so long, so people are always saying ‘Oh, I remember your dad weighing me in when I was a collegiate,’ which is always funny to hear.”

The sense of community at the Regatta was something that was important to Cummings. Working at weigh-in for so long, he worked alongside many other volunteers and met countless rowers, coaches and other members of the Regatta community over the years.

“What Bill did over all those years is make it a family affair,” Day said. “He got to know people who would come every year and welcome them. Everybody got to know each other– the participants, the racers, the volunteers– and it was like a big family gathering every year.”

Cummings had a natural calming aura about him, something that came in handy when it came to athletes that weighed in a few ounces over or had pre-race jitters.

“One of the ways the weigh-in tent was unique is that it attracted and was suitable for volunteers with no idea about rowing or even what the regatta was really about,” said Alison Thornton, Cummings’s long-time co-chair on the weigh-in commitee. “As Bill often pointed out, we were also the place where volunteers go to meet the competitors face to face. They were not racing under a bridge across the water, but face to face with the athletes, learning about where they were from, how long they had rowed, and often, how many more ounces they needed to lose to qualify for racing the next day. Bill loved the fact that he could meet the athletes, he knew who would be the first to arrive and who would be last– usually a well-dressed Ivy Leaguer arriving by bus after a morning exam.”

As years passed, Cummings changed the energy within the weigh-in tent– feelings of anxiety and stress prior to the competitive, high stakes weekend were substituted with eagerness for the Regatta to begin and the excitement of both returning and new athletes.

“I think Bill and the weigh-in is an example of how you treat racers and how you build a volunteer team,” Day said. “People would look forward to coming, because they’d get to see Bill and the kids as they grew up and were always welcomed there. He was always helpful and supportive because people are anxious when they come into the Weigh-In. They’re nervous about the race or, a lot of times, people have never been there before, and it’s kind of be overwhelming. He created this welcoming, warm, calm, fun part of the event for participants. And that’s why volunteers kept coming back to that tent, because he made it really special… I don’t know anyone who did it quite as well, or really even close.”

Former race director Bob Mannino met Cummings in 2007, Mannino’s first year as co-chair of the committee that oversaw registration.

“He was a really good mentor, I think, as a fellow race-operations [chair],” Mannino said. “He showed me the ropes when I was in registration– we shared a tent, weigh-in and registration. One thing I can say about Bill is that he sort of exemplified the volunteer spirit of the Head of the Charles. As a former race director of Head of the Charles, I like to stress that it’s really our amazing, dedicated volunteers that make the Regatta the special event that it is.”

Cummings’ unparalleled kindness and sense of familiarity with the competitors is something that Mannino experienced firsthand.

“Bill really cared for the competitors and sought to put them at ease,” Mannino said. “In fact, he weighed me in one year when I did the Lightweight Champ Double about five years ago. He was how he was with all the other [rowers]. He joked around with us, made us feel comfortable. He made the experience very easy.”

Mannino held multiple positions working at the Regatta, including co-chair of weigh-in with Cummings. He said that over the years there were plenty of memorable moments with Cummings, but his willingness to go out of his way to accommodate the racers was what always stuck out the most.

Bill Cummings dancing at his daughter’s wedding in 2016. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Bryson)

A few years ago, a lightweight crew from Yale was running late in their commute to the Regatta and were potentially going to miss their weigh-in time, which was the day before their race on Sunday. They contacted the committee, asking if they would be allowed to weigh-in on race day, something that is unusual.

“Bill brought it to us and I left it up to them. I told him, ‘You’re the one that’s going to have to come down and re-open.’ And he said ‘Well I really want to do this for them, I want them to have a good experience.’ And that was sort of the person he was. That’s what we really strive for in the Regatta: to make the competitors have a really good experience.”

After 29 years of volunteer work at the Regatta, Cummings leaves behind a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten by the Head of the Charles community and its competitors.

“I will miss him a lot, I would see him every year in the tent and it’s going to be strange not seeing him there,” said Mannino. “It’s nice that we have his daughter, Elizabeth, now working in weigh-in, so that spirit will live on in her… I think it’s really the intangible personality and that real spirit of dedication regarding caring for the competitors that will be his lasting impact.”

A few years ago, Elizabeth Cummings Bryson got married at the Cambridge Boat Club, the same place where she had spent so many fall Sundays watching the Regatta with her family, something that her father relished.

“I think he just loved that it was this really New England fall weekend,” Bryson said. “The weather is usually really nice, the leaves are changing, all of that. I think he loved watching the Champion Eights, just watching eight people in unison. I think he always thought [it] was really a beautiful expression of athleticism. And I think he liked the whole community of it, too.”

The final committee meeting of the season was held the Tuesday before Regatta weekend. Traditionally, the committee recognizes volunteers with milestone anniversaries. Since this year would’ve marked her father’s third decade on the Race Committee, Race Director Nick Lloyd presented Bryson with a commemorative pin to a standing ovation from the small sea of people in the room.

“I think my dad was just always quietly contributing,” Bryson said. “He never really wanted to be in the spotlight, and I think with everything that’s happened, so many people from the Regatta and from the Boat Club have reached out. I almost didn’t know how visible he was and how much his contribution was appreciated. I wish he could see that. I think the community meant a lot to him.”