1971 PHS crew team reunites on Ohio River

PARKERSBURG – On July 6, members of the 1971 Parkersburg High School varsity heavy weight 8 crew team stepped into a racing shell at the Ohio Valley Rowing Club, 42 years after they finished their last race.

All members were present except for Jeff Pollitt, who passed away 13 years ago. The planning for the reunion started nearly a year ago, and crew members came from as far away as California, Colorado and Georgia.

Attending were John Wiseman of Parkersburg, Les Pritchard of Vienna, Greg Hardman of Roanoke, Va., Kevin Kimble of Denver, Marv Orem of Long Beach, Calif., Bob Walters of Asheville, N.C., Andy Muldoon of Atlanta, Dave Tuel of Martinsburg and Ben Bailey of Charleston.

It was the first time several of the crew members had seen each other in 42 years.

In 1971 they raced in a wooden shell with wooden oars. Last Saturday they rowed a carbon fiber boat using light weight carbon fiber hatchet-style oars.

Orem, the stroke person of the boat and team captain, couldn’t believe how light and responsive the boat felt. Bailey, the crew’s coxswain, remarked how easy the boat was to steer and how straight it tracked.

After rowing up river from the Ohio Valley Rowing Club’s boathouse, near the Memorial Bridge in Parkersburg, to behind Neale Island, the boat started to move and the rowers started to smooth out their strokes, Pritchard said.

After turning the boat behind Buzzie Dils Park in Vienna, the crew headed down river and started to pick up the power and the stroke rate.

As they rowed past the dock, local rowing coach Alfonso “Ponch” Morales remarked to some of the spectators how he couldn’t believe how well they rowed. He told Sarah Bailey, Ben’s wife, that it was evident the team had excellent coaching because they rowed so well together after more than 40 years.

After the row, the team went to the conference room in the boathouse and reviewed the photographs and articles the team members brought to share.

According to an article in the Parkersburg News on May 21, 1971, “Parkersburg’s varsity capped the greatest year in the school’s history by going undefeated in regular competition and setting a course record at their home regatta.”

Several members of the 1971 boat also rowed in the 1970 varsity heavyweight 8 when it lost only one race. Richard Wiblin was the crew team coach.

Pritchard, who rowed in 7 position in the varsity boat and is president of the Ohio Valley Rowing Club, pointed out that several outstanding boats have rowed for Parkersburg High School and Parkersburg South High School, so it would be hard to say which boat was best.

All of the rowers of the 1971 undefeated Big Red team graduated from college and went on to be successful in their fields, which include law, orthopedic surgery, architecture, teaching and business.

Muldoon, one of the three-year oarsmen, rowed four years in college and later coached crew for several years. Muldoon talked about the camaraderie that comes from working together to achieve a common goal.

In rowing, success depends on how well the entire team works together, he said.

“There are no star individuals who can pull the team to success. However, if one individual misses a stroke it can cost the team a victory.”

Muldoon said the camaraderie and team spirit were still there at the rowing team reunion and it seemed like only yesterday when they were together.

Bailey, who was the 1971 PHS Student Body president, said his experience as Student Body president and coxswain of the heavy weight 8 helped him develop the leadership and team building skills that have helped him achieve success as an attorney and in business.

Being the coxswain, Bailey sat in the stern steering the boat and giving the commands that helped make the crew successful, Pritchard said.

Walters, a high school English teacher and successful track coach in North Carolina, said the crew team members made an immediate connection at the reunion and picked up where they left off when they graduated from PHS in 1971.

Walters said he had not rowed in a shell since 1973 and found it fun to be back on the water. He was impressed by the efforts of Pritchard and others to bring first-class rowing facilities to Parkersburg.

In the early1970s, the PHS crew team rowed out of a small building on the Little Kanawha River.

Orem, an attorney in California, said he thoroughly enjoyed the reunion weekend and noted it had been about 35 years since he had rowed in a boat.

Orem said he learned life lessons, including the importance of getting along with others and working hard to achieve a goal, as a member of the PHS crew team.

“Rowing is a great thing for the community and kids,” Orem said. “My experiences were wonderful and meant a lot to me.”

The team members said the reunion experience far exceeded their expectations, Pritchard noted. They encouraged former rowing teams and teams from all sports not to wait 42 years to have a first team reunion.

While many of the crew team members have attended class reunions, everyone agreed the team reunion was special and helped rekindle the bonds that will last a lifetime, Pritchard said.