Honoring The History Of The Program

By Jim Wrobel
Special to GoHolyCross.com

Fifty years ago in the autumn of 1961, several student-athletes who would be major contributors to their team as seniors entered the campus of Holy Cross as freshmen. Unlike other students who went to the school knowing that they were going to play a sport and be on a team, these athletes, who did not know it at the time, would play a huge role in establishing a sport that is one of the most participated and competitive at a high level at Holy Cross. Four years later, this determined and passionate group of athletes would be the founding seniors of the first ever varsity rowing team at Holy Cross in 1964-1965.

To honor the first ever rowing team, this year's Holy Cross men's and women's rowing teams have brought back the design of the blades of the oars from that team. Because the design has changed over the years, the current coaching staff decided to salute the founders of the program by bringing back the original design. "Bringing back the original blade design honors the important contribution that a dedicated group of guys made almost 50 years ago," said Holy Cross head men's rowing coach Todd Pearson (Class of 1998). "Without them, there would literally be no rowing at Holy Cross. Also, I think it is an opportunity for the current generation of HC rowers to realize they are a part of something bigger than themselves and to connect with our team's rich history."

To bring rowing to Holy Cross, Bill Ahmuty (Class of 1965), who was the first ever captain of the team, and his teammates had to start from scratch. The team, who included many members who had never rowed before, knew they would need help getting boats and oars, and they would soon find out how generous the rowing community was. One of the most generous donations was from legendary Cornell rowing coach R. Harrison "Stork" Sanford who gave the team their first oars, the ones with the design that has been brought back by the Crusaders. Under Sanford, Cornell won six IRA championships, four Eastern Sprints championships and had an undefeated crew that broke a 118-year-old Henley Royal Regatta record in 1957. That is why the first oars used by a Holy Cross team were red and not purple.

To receive this donation from such a legendary coach meant so much to the Crusaders. "Coach Sanford was such a big help in giving us the set of oars," said Ahmuty.

Another big help was Harvard coach Harry Parker, who is currently in his 50th season, as he gave the team their first boat. The Crusaders also received a boat from MIT. "We really appreciate what coach Parker did for us," said Ahmuty. "That is what is so great about the sport, all of these other colleges went out of their way to help us to get our program started."      

But the Crusaders also needed to raise a lot of money to start the program. The team sold flowers at Holy Cross football games and received gifts from all four classes. A 360 dollar donation from the 1843 Club was also received. One of the most unique ways the team was able to raise money was from green stamps which they used to buy oars from Japan. Green stamps were trading stamps that were started in the 1930s. They were like a rewards program. Customers would receive stamps at the checkout counter of places like supermarkets, department stores and gas stations which could be redeemed for products in a catalog. 

The team had the equipment, but it was very important to have a coach. Ahmuty asked John Anscomb, who was an English Professor and had been at the University of Cambridge in England, to coach the team. Anscomb said yes, making him the first ever leader of the team.

(1965 Rowing Seniors: Front, left to right: John Chiota, Ernie Guay. Second row: Bill Ahmuty, Ed Ward, Rick Baum, John Henneberry, Mike Scollins, Charles Curry, John Anscomb (coach). Third row: Mike McDermott, Jack Karpinski, Clem McGhan, Ed O'Brien, Bill Kusmik.)

The Crusaders prepared for the season in the summer of 1964 by practicing at Orchard Beach (N.Y.) at the New York Athletic Club. When school started back up in the fall of 1964, the team started their practices on Lake Quinsigamond, which is about five miles away, to get ready for the spring season. "We were a dedicated group of guys," said Ahmuty. "None of us had cars so we ran to Lake Quinsigamond to get to the lake for 5:30 a.m. practices. We were very motivated to do this because we wanted to show people that having a rowing program was a positive thing for the school."

With all of the behind the scenes work done, it was now time to face competition in the spring of 1965. The program's first ever race was on March 27, 1965 versus St. John's at Orchard Beach where they had practiced during the summer. Both the varsity and JV teams lost their races but were encouraged after their first outing. They were right, as both teams improved during the season. The varsity boat followed with close losses to Clark and Marietta at Lake Quinsigamond. The JV defeated Clark and lost to Marietta. The team then traveled to Washington, D.C. and rowed versus Georgetown and St. Joseph's, getting a lot of experience in the process.

The improvement of the team really showed on May 1. The varsity won a race for schools in their first three years of competition at the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship in New York, winning the Brother O'Hare Cup. The JV won its first race as it defeated the varsity boats from Assumption and WPI, which were also first year programs. The varsity then placed second in a race, finishing in front of the Dartmouth third lights and behind Wesleyan's varsity. The last race of the first ever Holy Cross rowing season was versus Wesleyan, Northeastern and Trinity on the Connecticut River.

Looking back at that season, Ahmuty views what happened at a race versus Marist as a major moment in the program's history. "The turning point in that first season was when we rowed versus Marist," said Ahmuty. "To keep the program going we knew it was important for the seniors to take a step back and let the underclassmen take over because they were the future of the program. So we let the underclassmen row in the main boat which was a big step for the future."

The first season led the way for future Holy Cross rowers including Holy Cross Hall of Famer Tom Sullivan (Class of 1970). "I appreciate so much what the 1964-1965 team did," said Sullivan. "Being a local guy and someone who always followed Crusader athletics, I was so thrilled to be able to row at Holy Cross. The fact that they totally formed the team from scratch and built a framework for future Crusader rowers is such a great accomplishment. It was such a fun time in the early days of the program and whenever I see some of the guys from that team I let them know what type of quality program they helped build."

Sullivan coached the team for over 30 years and is still very involved with the program. Sullivan, who helped propel the program to membership in the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges (EARC), sees bringing back the oar design as a tribute to the 1964-1965 team. "This is a great salute to the first team," said Sullivan. "Everyone chipped in to get the program going. The upperclassmen helped coach the freshmen. Because of these early teams the program has grown and we have very good equipment now. The alumni of this program give us so much support and the current rowers really appreciate it. It is important for the current team to know how the program was started."

Another future Crusader rower whose life was positively impacted by the founding of the team is Holy Cross Director of Rowing and women's head coach Patrick Diggins (Class of 1986). "The founding of the rowing team has probably had greater influence on me than almost anyone, so, I greatly appreciate the efforts of the '64-'65 team who got everything started," said Diggins "I started rowing at St. John's when HC shared a bay at the old Regatta Point boathouse. I didn't even change boathouse bays when I started rowing for Tom Sullivan at HC."

During the fall of his senior year in 1985, Diggins started coaching at Holy Cross for Sullivan, working with both the men's and women's teams for the first few years and then being named the program director and the women's head coach. Diggins has played a monumental role in taking what the 1964-1965 team started and bringing it to the next level. The program not only produces strong rowers but great people. "Tom and I have coached together for more than 25 years and have been business partners for almost 15," said Diggins. "I've coached my two sisters, my wife and now my daughter. I've coached thousands of wonderful people at Holy Cross and stayed in touch with so many over all these years. I've loved the opportunity to watch the people I've coached, grow, marry and have their own families. So many tell me so often how much the Holy Cross rowing team taught them and that it has played a big part in them becoming who they are now. The team has become a huge extended family for our family. My HC rowing experience continues to be one that I would not trade for anything."

Ahmuty loves the fact that both the men's and women's teams are one of the most participated sports on campus and that past and current members of the team have had a positive experience just like he did. "My favorite thing about being on the rowing team was the camaraderie," said Ahmuty. "It was a great group of guys. Most of us had never rowed before but we really wanted to start something at the school so future students would be able to row on a varsity team."

The program started from scratch and is now competing in the EARC, which is considered one of the top conferences in the nation. The Crusaders are now in the same conference as teams that helped them out like Harvard, Cornell and MIT. The connection with these schools run deep as the Associate Head Coach of Heavyweight Crew at Harvard is Bill Manning (Class of 1987), a Holy Cross graduate, who works alongside coach Parker, a great influence in the start of the Holy Cross program.

Ahmuty is very happy to see the program competing at a national level. "It is great to see where the program is now," said Ahmuty. "We just did our best to try and get the program started and then future generations took the program and ran with it, making the excellent program it is today."