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Author fulfills Olympic rower's deathbed wish with 'The Boys in the Boat'

| Friday, March 11, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures
Author Daniel James Brown
'The Boys in the Boat' by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown knew he had a compelling story the first time he talked to Joe Rantz, a rower on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. But he did not think “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” (Penguin) would become a tearjerker.

“I had no idea that would happen,” says Brown, who will appear March 14 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Literary Evenings. “I hear from a lot of readers who say they had tears in their eyes when they finished. What's interesting about it is I hear it more from guys than women.”

In retrospect, the emotional power of “The Boys in the Boat” is obvious. Rantz — whom Brown met when the older man was near death — had to overcome obstacles of an Odyssean level to become an Olympic athlete. Born in 1914, his mother died at when he was 4. When his father remarried, Rantz's stepmother kept him at arm's length. Three times during his childhood — the first when he was 15 — Rantz was abandoned by his family and left to fend for himself.

“Even 75 years after, you can't believe the number of tears Joe shed,” Brown says. “That's a wound that was still and is still alive in that family. It's just extraordinary to think that his stepmother could treat him the way she did. And even worse to think his father would stand by and let it happen. That's really the heart of the story in many ways.”

Rantz persevered and eventually enrolled at the University of Washington, where he tried out for the rowing team. Now ignored by the general public save in Olympic years, rowing through the 1940s could draw as many as 100,000 fans to the biggest regattas, many of which were featured on national radio broadcasts. Sportswriters such as the legendary Royal Brougham of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer covered the races, strategy and lineup changes the way baseball and football are dissected today.

“In Seattle in 1935, on a nice sunny Saturday afternoon — if you're lucky enough to get one of those in Seattle — going out and sitting on a dock or a boat or the grassy shores of Lake Washington and watching the boat races was an attractive alternative,” Brown says. “There weren't 40 channels of cable sports available to you. It's hard today for rowing to compete with all the money and glitz that go with collegiate and professional sports and the way they're packaged and promoted. I think the rise of television and sophisticated sports programs has pushed (rowing) way to the back.”

For Rantz and his peers, rowing was more than just a sport. They were from families of “rough and tumble” lumberjacks, farmers and construction workers, in contrast to the privileged athletes that composed so many of the elite teams from the East.

After Washington's crew won the gold medal in Berlin in 1936 while Adolf Hitler and his minions watched, they returned home to be feted with parades and honors. The “boys in the boat” became CEOs, business owners and engineers, the discipline required to be a world-class rower standing them well in their careers. But for Rantz — who married his childhood sweetheart shortly after returning to Seattle — the gold medal meant everything. After his incredibly difficult childhood, he'd finally justified his place in the world.

Rantz was in the last weeks of his life when Brown interviewed him for “The Boys in the Boat.” As he lay dying, he had one request of his interviewer.

“He wanted the story to be told,” Brown says, “but only if the book wasn't just about him. I promised him I would do that as much as I could. It was his spirit I tried to get across in the book.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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