< Back

Remembering a Regatta Friend, The Soul of Northeastern Rowing: Jack Grinold 1935-2017

By Bailey Knecht
Posted on October 20, 2017
Remembering a Regatta Friend, The Soul of Northeastern Rowing: Jack Grinold 1935-2017

As I stepped into Jack Grinold’s office in Matthews Arena one March day in 2015, Jack chirped, “I have a task for you, Bails.” I smiled as he used his favorite nickname for me, but I knew with that one sentence that I was in for a day of work. As the Northeastern athletic communications co-op, one of my responsibilities was to serve as a sort of assistant to Jack, helping out when needed (often with various technological duties, as Jack was more comfortable with an old-fashioned approach to things). He handed me a heavy stack of lined papers covered front-to-back in his trademark scrawl. As I flipped through the pages, I saw that he had meticulously chronicled the entire history of Northeastern men’s rowing in his own words, from his own memory. The pages were to be typed up as a script for an upcoming video celebrating the program’s 50-year anniversary at Northeastern.

I began typing, and as I made my way through the crinkled pages, I was transported through decades of Northeastern rowing history, not a single detail omitted. Fifty-four pages later, I had completed the transcript, having acquired a whole arsenal of rowing facts and anecdotes in the process. In that moment, I realized there was no better storyteller than Jack, and thus no one better to serve as the press steward of Northeastern Athletics for more than a half-century.

I share this story because in the brief time I knew Jack, no instance more accurately proved his knowledge and love for Northeastern rowing. Though illness may have affected his mobility, his mind was as sharp as ever until the very end, and it was evident on those pages.

My interactions with Jack were like that of his interactions with so many others — warm, engaging and illuminating. I never left Jack’s presence without feeling uplifted and enlightened, and I feel confident that all those who knew him would say the same. Jack may have left his mark on Northeastern rowing, but no imprint was greater than the one he left on the people who knew him.

The Early Days

Jack Grinold, who died last spring at the age of 81, had been a part of the Head of the

Charles since its inception in 1965.  He had arrived at Northeastern as the sports information director in 1962 after serving as a Merchant Marine. Northeastern didn’t have a rowing program at the time, but after Northeastern student Harry Paulsen brought forth a petition calling for a crew team, Jack, along with athletic director Herb Gallagher, president Asa Knowles and board member Chandler Hovey, worked tirelessly to implement the new varsity sport. The men’s program and its first head coach, Ernie Arlett, were announced on May 23, 1964.

“Jack was instrumental in the setup of the program,” said Bill Miller, who rowed from 1966 to 1969. “He was there when they researched about organizing, funding and finding a coach. He did a lot of the leg work — it was kind of his baby, a brand new sport that he had a hand in birthing. I think that being on the ground level in organizing the existence of Northeastern crew was dear to him, with his part in making it happen.”

The birth of the program had an immediate and significant effect on the university as a whole. In a way, rowing is associated with respect and prominence, and its implementation helped elevate Northeastern to the status of its more established crosstown rivals.

“When they put rowing in, it gave Northeastern a chance to get on par with Harvard and Boston University,” said Roger Borggaard, who rowed from 1965 to 1967.

Comprised of novice oarsmen, the 1965 crew shocked the nation by conquering 33 of 34 crews, winning the Dad Vail Regatta and earning an invitation to the Henley Royal Regatta in England. Northeastern rowing had cemented itself as a powerhouse, not only in New England, but in the country. Five months after their Dad Vail triumph, the Huskies finished second to Potomac in the first Head of the Charles.

Continued Success

It turned out that the magical early years weren’t beginner’s luck, but a sign of everlasting success in the decades to come. Northeastern rowing would earn 32 Eastern Sprints medals, 28 IRA medals and six more trips to Henley in the 50 years following its inception. The program would see the building of the Henderson Boathouse, as well as a coaching transition from Arlett to Walter “Buzz” Congram in 1978, then to John Pojednic at the turn of the century. Jack was there through it all, offering his undying support.

Much of the program’s continued success stemmed from significant financial contributions from Jack and his wife, Cathy. In 2008, the Grinolds established a $1.25 million endowment for men’s rowing. In appreciation of the contributions, Northeastern’s new rowing training facility was dedicated to the Grinolds in 2013.

“I think one of the biggest things that has reshaped the landscape of the program is the ability to recruit at a higher level than we have in the past,” said Justin Jones, who rowed from 2010 to 2014, and now serves on the men’s rowing staff as an assistant coach. “A lot of that comes from the support that Jack provided. Renovating the boathouse wouldn’t have been possible without Jack. The training facility helps us really recruit up there with the top teams.”

“In truth, without Jack and the work that he did, the Henderson Boathouse, the permanent home of Northeastern crew, would not be where it is today,” Congram said at a celebration of Jack’s life in September.

The Grinolds’ financial influence has endured, as supporters recently donated more than $350,000 for the Grinold Family Scholarship for student-athletes at Northeastern.

“Jack ultimately helped to insure a sense of permanence and financial stability for the program, something that is absolutely essential for long-term success,” Pojednic said. “No one did more to cultivate the growth of rowing at Northeastern over time than Jack.”

Rowings Biggest Fan

Evidenced by his altruism, and all of his contributions to rowing in general, it was clear that Jack had a special affinity for the sport.\

“It’s the ultimate team sport,” Miller said. “If there’s somebody who stands out, then something’s wrong in a nine-man crew. It’s got to blend as one unit, and Jack had an element of admiration for that — everybody is working toward one goal.”

Dave Lister, a member of the crew from 1965 to 1968, added that rowing carries a certain sense of tradition and esteem that Jack appreciated.

“I think that because he went to [Browne & Nichols] prep school and he went to Bowdoin, it was a little of that preppy atmosphere he grew up with,” Lister said. “So, Jack comes to Northeastern as the sports information director — and this was still a blue-collar commuter school at the time — but now with rowing, all the sudden we were in a sport that’s directly connected to the Ivy League. All of that added to his love of the sport, and throughout the years it was all solidified.”

Perfect Man for the Job

Not only was Jack passionate about the sport of rowing itself, but he was dedicated to his craft as a sports information director. One of his most considerable duties each year was to introduce inductees at the Northeastern Varsity Club Hall of Fame ceremony. (He, himself, was inducted in 1985.)

“Every year at the Hall of Fame ceremony, for years and years, he would speak at these events,” Lister said. “He just had a certain style of the way he introduced each athlete, with a story about them relating to their accomplishments. It was mesmerizing.”

That storytelling ability, paired with his famed memory, allowed Jack to spread the word about Northeastern rowing in the most captivating way.

“He was tremendous with words, and he could write tremendous stories,” Lister said. “And he didn’t just go back to his record books. His head was like an encyclopedia of athletes and statistics and performances.”

Jack’s pure time commitment to the rowing program should also be noted — he rarely missed a home race during his tenure at Northeastern.

“That just shows his dedication and love for the sport,” Miller said. “He was always there, always supportive. You could always count on him.”

He also spent copious amounts of time generating publicity for the program, utilizing his connections in the media for press coverage.

“Jack brought integrity to the way the sport was covered and promoted,” Pojednic said. “He brought the sports reporters to races on the Charles and to the Eastern Sprints and IRA. He introduced younger generations of media and sports information professionals to rowing and helped them to see what a great sport it is. He made sure that as sports information evolved, rowing was a part of that evolution.”

The best sports information directors have compassion for the athletes they work with, and Jack had that and more. Brian O’Connor, who rowed from 1971 to 1974, told a story of a memorable instance of Jack’s thoughtfulness at Henley one year.

“They decided the food they were serving us in the hotel wasn’t good, so they got steaks shipped over from Oklahoma,” he said. “These things would happen, and later you’d find out that Jack was the guy behind it, taking care of it all.”

O’Connor added that Jack went above and beyond to mentor the athletes and guide them as best he could.

“I think, partly because he and Cathy had no children, he really became a father figure for a lot of us,” he said. “We were all at an influential age, impressionable. Jack played that pivotal role of a father figure, really.”

In addition to mentoring athletes, Jack supported Pojednic as he transitioned into the lead role in 2000 as a young coach.

“[He] gave me the shot of a lifetime at age 24,” said Pojednic. “Jack was tough, direct and very supportive…Honestly, my first impression of him was that he was a tough-love, no-nonsense boss who expected me to do a really good job, and I appreciate that as much as anything.”

Jacks Great Gift

Anyone asked about Jack’s personality will likely mention his charisma and charm.

“He truly was a celebrity,” said John Maslowski, who was part of the famed 1972 and 1973 crews known for their impressive performances in England. “He was like the mayor of Henley.”

It wasn’t just in the boathouse where Jack built and maintained relationships — he was a master at staying in touch. Without fail, Jack would reach out to the people he became close with over the years to say “hello”, and each winter, he and Cathy would send out Christmas cards to their many friends. Recently, Jack became part of a sort of dinner club with about 15 of Northeastern’s first rowers who gather a few times a year to catch up.

“We started inviting Jack, and you could tell he was just in his glory,” Lister said. “He just loved being here. He would sit at the head of the table and tell stories. You could tell he was enjoying it.”

That magnetism and ability to relate to others is what made him so unforgettable, according to those who knew him.

“I think that for everybody who met him — he just had that connection, that personal interest,” Miller said. “He connected with everybody. It was his empathy and the interest. That was his great gift.”

Rowing the “Jack”

Grinold in the 1970s, christening the first of many shells that would be named in his honor. Northeastern men’s coach John Pojednic says the program will always have a shell named after Grinold.

After decades as a staple at the Head of the Charles, Jack’s memory will be at the forefront of this year’s regatta.

“It is going to be strange not seeing him there for the first time in about 50 years,” Maslowski said. “We spread his ashes in the Charles, though, so I feel like he’s there. His presence will be felt.”

A number of Northeastern rowers will be paying homage to Jack in the best way they know how.

“This upcoming Head of the Charles is going to be special,” O’Connor said. “We’ll be rowing in the Senior Master Eights in the ‘Jack’ and we are dedicating this row to him.”

Surely, there is no place Jack would rather have his legacy honored than on the Charles River. And though he will be missed, his influence will live on for decades to come, at Northeastern and beyond.

Jones summed it up simply: “He was our biggest supporter and fan. We owe the guy everything.”

By Bailey Knecht
Posted on October 20, 2017