At ULI’s 2017 Spring Meeting in Seattle, attendees heard from voices from outside the land use industry, including Daniel James Brown, author of the The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “This is a story that reminds us of who we are at our best,” said Brown.
A “dreadful” homeowners association meeting eight years ago was the genesis for Brown’s narrative. A woman from Brown’s neighborhood in the greater Seattle area introduced herself to Brown, and said she wanted the author to meet her father, Joe Rantz, who was in hospice care and would die within weeks. The next day, Brown visited Rantz and learned his life’s story.
“Joe began to talk about growing up in the Depression,” Brown recalled. “His mother died when Joe was a toddler, and the young boy was shipped east on a train alone to live with an aunt. Later, at the age of 15, his stepmother abandoned him in a half-built house, where he foraged in the woods for food. He felt as if he’d been thrown out.”
But then his life changed. While attending the University of Washington at the height of the Great Depression, Rantz joined the crew team, which would go on to compete—and win a gold medal—at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
“Right there, I asked Joe if I could write a book about his life. He said no—but that I could write about the boat. What he meant by that was that I could write about the boys who rowed with him and this almost perfect living breathing thing that they became.” Soon, Brown began a four-year odyssey of research and writing.
“Many readers have told me that they almost didn’t read my book because they thought it was about rowing, which is boring. But it’s about much more than that. This is a big, epic story about the human heart. It’s about Joe, who learned growing up that he could not trust anyone in the world, but then learned to trust his teammates almost on a mystical level.”
While conducting extensive research, Brown became a fan of rowing, which was enormously popular in the 1930s and 1940s. “This sport presents extraordinary physical challenges and amazing mental toughness,” he said. “It’s like hitting a golf ball precisely over and over and over. Much of this story takes place in the boat, and you experience it firsthand. There’s more drama than you might suspect.”
The eight men who made up the University of Washington crew came from humble backgrounds, unlike the elites who rowed for other universities. They coalesced as a team under the leadership of coach Al Ulbirckson and boatmaker George Pocock. After winning the trials for the 1936 Olympics, the team was told that they would have to pay their own expenses to compete in Berlin, and that the University of Pennsylvania could take their place if they couldn’t come up with the funds.
“By the next morning, a steering committee was formed, and by that afternoon, hundreds of people throughout Seattle were selling badges for 25 cents,” Brown said. “Civic leaders made calls, radio stations publicized the fundraising effort; and within 48 hours, the team had the $5,000 they needed to go to Berlin.”
When it came time for the oars to hit the water, Hitler and his top henchmen watched from the stands, along with some 75,000 other spectators. Germany and Italy were assigned the less windy lanes, while the United States and the United Kingdom were told to row in the lanes with the most wind. Germany was the odds-on favorite. Rowing with incredible precision at the rate of 44 strokes a minute, the scrappy boys from Seattle came out from behind to take the gold.
“This win was a herald of Hitler’s doom,” Brown said. “Hitler did not know that these loyal, committed, perseverant boys would soon return to Germany wearing olive drab and hunting him down.”
Brown went on to summarize the qualities that contributed to the team’s success:
- Perseverance and resilience: The nine team members were selected from hundreds of students who tried out for the team. They rowed every day, even in winter, and even when they didn’t have enough money for meals.
- They developed an unusual level of trust and respect that lasted for the rest of their lives. More than wanting to win a gold medal, they did not want to let their fellow team members down.
- They were extraordinarily focused, even using a mantra: “mind and boat.”
- They were earnest and took pride in how well they rowed, whether during an everyday practice or a race for Olympic gold.
- Most important, they were humble. They knew that there were limits to individual capabilities, and that they could do much better together than they could do apart.
“The story of these men is a perfect metaphor for almost any team effort,” Brown concluded. “It’s also a metaphor for that generation of Americans who learned humility from the Great Depression, learned to pull together, went on to win World War II on two fronts, and then came home to build the most prosperous era in our history.”