In an age of the second rate, the low rent and the umimpressive; of pornography, video games, text messaging and other irrelevancies of the human spirit, comes a beautiful, graceless book, Men of Kent by Rick Rinehart.
It is on the face of it the story of a great private school rowing squad that once won the most prestigious championship outside of the Olympics, This is a mere façade, for it is in fact a gauzy, melancholy story of how in life sometimes we are privileged to be part of something astounding. The beauty of the story, really, is that it is not something wholly unusual. Every year various teams win championships, and Rinehart’s team was not really any more unusual than any number of these champions. The beauty is that in being a story that could be repeated in a thousand places, it speaks to the universal human spirit. One need not be a rower, attend a New England private school, or done much of anything particularly resembling what Rinehart did, in order to relate to it. Personally it brought back vivid, haunting memories of my own membership on the best high school baseball team in America in 1977. We were a public school, our story embued by a sunny California disposition a world removed from East Coast eltism, but that did not matter. My teammates, our camaraderie, our demanding coach, and the thrill of victory; that was the same.
Rinehart was a member of the 1972 Kent School rowers who first won the American national championship, then the fabled Henley Royal Regatta in England. While rowing and football are two very different sports, the best way to describe this accomplishment would be to imagine, for instance, De La Salle High School of Concord, California, the best prep grid program in the nation over the past two decades, winning the Rose Bowl. Maybe winning the Rose Bowl in a world in which there is no NFL, but the would-be pros also compete on club teams in a play-off format against De La Salle. Thus does the book’s title resonate, for they were indeed men, not boys. The tale, however, decribes boys as they became men, and ultimately gentlemen.
Rinehart infuses us with history and back story. He does an excellent job of telling us the history of rowing, its equipment and accoutrement, without making it read like an encyclopedia. He tells us of Father Frederick Herbert Sill, the founder and soul of Kent School. Of such men are countries made great. Sill, a man of Christian faith, may well be regarded as a saint. His story has been told before; the beloved school master, the patriarch who presides over decades of graduating classes at a charming private school. The fact that there are many Father Sills who have influenced the lives of countless young people does not reduce Sills, or any other Father Silles of this world, one iota. These are unsung heroes. These are men of temperance and character, the sort of indiviuduals who an atheist meets and, if he is honest with himself, leads one to God. Certainly he is the sort of man who seemingly (with the exception of sports coaches) have this type of effect only at private schools. Perhaps this is unfair to hard-working public school teachers, but few Father Sillses are found in those bureaucracies.
Sills built one of the great prep schools of New England, but in his image. The standards were rigorous, the admittance difficult, but it was an egalitarian system in which each child’s parents consulted with the school, arriving at a tuition they could afford. Not welfare or affirmative action, but rather a relative payment schedule leaving each family with a sense of ownership. Kent modernized. It was ahead of the curve when it came to opportunities for minorities and eventually became coed, although strict about it.
Perhaps it is just Rinehart’s lyrical style, but reading his descriptions of Kent, its adjacent Connecticut surroundings, and their tony competition (Phillips Exeter, Andover), one is struck by a sense of jealousy. Again, the public school comparison or, more accurately, the fact there is none. The world Rinehart lived in was an extraordinary, gentleman’s environment of tradition and excellence, leaving the imptression that such quality is exclusive only to such bastions of . . . exclusivity.
But this is not a stuffy account of snot-nosed rich kids, which has frankly become a tired Hollywood stereotype often meant to deliver the myth that wealth, excellence and tradition are merely unearned privileges of a class of white males responsible for the rape and plunder of the dispossessed through time immemorial. No, not so at a school built by Father Sill, and most definitely not by young fellows under the tutelage of a tough, legendary coach named Hart Perry. The experience they had as teammates and competitors was no different than an extraordinary basketball team at a gritty inner city high school.
Rinehart’s back story begins with his family, an old publishing clan. Indeed, he was “chosen” to write this story, the suggstion made shortly after “that championship season,” because he was their “poet,” a teenage Shakespeare not above using the Bard to try and impress girls into “wasting their time with me.” The fact he was their most literate was not an accident, considering his pedigree, but even in this he throws a few twists and turns our way.
Rinehart was not super rich. His family indeed had founded Holt, Rinehart, but his own father was eccentric, a raconteur, hail-fellow-well-met type with a drinking problem. His parents specialized in throwing wild shindigs, which young Rinehart ruefully observed, manuvering his way around the revelers at a young age. Alas, his father, a talented writer, was not published and could be consiederd a failure of sorts, at least up until the time he sent Rick to Kent.
His parent tried to negotiate how much they would pay in tuition as did many of the middle class Kent parents, but were told this sprt of dispensation was not made for their kind. The Kent administration assumed they were publishing scions of wealth and privilege, saddling Mr. Rinehart with paying the “full boat.” Mr. Rinehart did not try to argue that, well, yes, the family had some imprimatur, but he was a drinking man who was not published. He just smiled, swallowed hard, and wrote the check like the gentleman he saw himself as.
Rick Rinehart arrived at Kent School in 1968. Located in once-rural Connecticut (he decribes it today as a “bedroom community” of New York City), Kent was the leading rowing tradition among American prep schools, a vision of Father Sills come to fruition. They were described as the “Notre Dame of American rowing,” engendering letters from the likes of President Franklin Roosevelt congragulating them on the glory they brought their school and America via their accomplishments.
But Rinehart had little idea about any of this. He was not from a rowing family. He fell in love with Kent, wanted to go there, and endeaviored to do so, but not to row. His single-minded focus on getting into Kent, however, led him to rowing with profound consequences. In order to make the grade for Kent, he had to repeat the eighth grade. With improved grades he was admitted. This made him a year older. In his last year (1972) the extra time gave him physical and mental maturity he needed to make the squad and compete. It also played some role in dealing with the military draft. He ultimately was not drafted as his number was 110, he entered college and the war ended, but Vietnam and the times play a back-drop to the story.
These were prep school boys of the 1930s. They were of the times, not naïve to the ways of the world. The year Rinehart enterted Kent, the North Vietnamese engaged in the Tet Offensive, President Lyndon Johnson declared he would not try for re-election, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was the age of Riuchard Nixon, of campus protest, of hippies, draft dodgers, angst and rebellion. By 1972, America was a fractured country, having turned to the right as a reaction to left-wing elements, but deeply scarred. That year was monumental in scope: Vietnam finally nearing its end, China opened up, Israeli athletes murdered in Munich, and in the samne month of their greatest competition, the Watergate break-in
A telling statement by the author comes when he decribes how today he cannot hear The Doors without being taken back to those days of yore. He fell not for the flashy, big-music sound of the English giants of the day (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin), but for an Irish-American poet, Jim Morrison, misunderstood then but with the exception of Pete Townshend, holding up today as well as any rock musician of the era.
Upon arrival at Kent, the author’s mother was struck by the symmetry of the rowers, and without knowing the skill or sacrifice involved, as if suggesting he take up bowling or checkers, more or less told him he would row. At first Rinehart tried other sports, all without success, until an event occurred that shaped his rowing future and life.
On a trip to Colorado, he engaged in a “hike” more reminiscent of Hannibal’s crossing the Alps. He was not quite on the verge of death, but the combination of physical exertion and deprivation from creature comforts over some 50 miles of Rocky Mountain terrain left him spiritually enlightened. It also told him he had the gift for endurance, a major pre-requisite for rowing. He entered the Kent rowing program. Rinehart is rather modest about his ascendance, but considering Kent’s repuation for the sport, and the fact the 1972 team was probably the best they ever had, his making the squad might be compared with a walk-on starting and blocking for Johnny Lujack of the 1947 Notre Dame Fighting Irish!
Rinehart’s experience in Colorado, his love of rowing, and his descriptions of the solitude of the water, help to explain his own life lessons. He apparently came from what might be described as “Manhattan dilettantes,” café society which, at the time, was embodied by New York Times film critic Pauline Kael, who said of Richard Nixon’s 49-state trouncing of Democrat George McGovern, “I don’t know how he won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him.”
The Rineharts were like so many fashionsible Manhattanites a John Kennedy family, but the survival in the Rockys, the competition of rowing, and his communion with nature, affected Rinehart’s work ethic-based political views and, more important, his lifelong love affair with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally, in the spring of his last year at Kent School, the time had come for the author and his teammates, who watched while skilled older rowers lived up to the tradition of Kent, setting the bar high for them. Under Coach Perry, they entered the rowing season believing they could be special. Competition after competition only convinced them they might be a team of destiny, and it is important to note that they did not merely row against local high school squads. They competed against Ivy League schools and programs from other states, like two public schools in Virginia considered among the nation’s best. In many cases they were, of course, high school age kids beating college boys, again drawing the comparison of De La Salle knocking off Ohio State, or Maryland De Matha beating the University of Maryland in hoops.
They won and won and won, eventually capturing the national title, earning them a trip to England to compete for the Princess Elizabeth Cup in the fabled Henley Royal Regatta, scene of two Summer Olympics (London, 1908 and 1948), quite simply the Mecca of rowing, to its sport what Wimbledon is to tennis, Augusta to golf . . . all by high school boys competing in large measure against grown men, many in their 20s!
Think of the “miracle on ice,” Chariots of Fire and Hoosiers rolled into one. They were a team, of destiny, capturing the cup in a series of astonishing victories. Rinehart tells us several of his teammates went on to success in college, but none rowed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. They were talents, but what apparently propelled this particular team to heights not accomplished by groups of comparable ability was a magic quality of coordination and team chemistry, of which greatness is born. So it was as they won the 1972 Princess Elizabeth Cup in a competition televized nationally in Great Britain, announced by Grave Kelly’s father, Kelly Kelly (one of the great rowers in history), earning for them a letter from President Nixon.
Like the aforementioned films, Men of Kent would make a beautiful movie. It is a coming of age, patriotic, spiritual story of innocence and joy, of boys who became not just men, but gentle men, and I loved it.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism