Spring exploded like an atom bomb over Connecticut's Housatonic River last week as the April temperature shot without warning into the 80s. Under the sudden summer sun, white-skinned rowers from Yale and Rutgers looked curiously out of place. But one crew on the Housatonic, a crew whose skin tones ranged from rich café au lait to deepest mahogany, seemed right at home on the sun-drenched river. These were the oarsmen from Washington, D.C.'s Howard University, the first Negro institution to crash the exclusive ranks of college rowing.
In straight racing terms, the Howard crewmen did not do too well on the Housatonic. Their varsity boat finished last in a three-boat race—well behind Yale's third varsity. Nevertheless, Howard managed to give the Rutgers third varsity a real run for second place, and its volunteer coach, 34-year-old George Washington University Law Professor Stuart Law, was far from dismayed. "We're getting better all the time," he beamed, as though his boys had just swept home to a victory at the Henley Regatta.
Law, a white man whose father once captained the Yale 150-pound crew, is no crusader for equality. His only interest in races is how to get his boys to the finish line first. And if the Howard crew ever pickets anybody, it will likely be Coach Law. "One of my faults," he said as he ran his varsity and freshman crews through a practice session last week, "is I tend to overwork the crews before a race. I think it helps calm their prerace nervousness. And it helps calm me, too. Let that boat run out," he suddenly yelled, as his shells sliced downwind, their oars dripping spray. The Howard shells were spoiling for a sprint, the freshmen slightly ahead of the varsity. "O.K., freshmen, go," yelled Law at last. Go they did—enthusiastically if a little raggedly. "O.K., varsity, get 'em," bellowed the coach a second later through an old tin megaphone, and the varsity beat soared as the rowers took off in hot pursuit.
Coach Law himself has rowed much of his life. He manned an oar in the first Yale freshman boat to beat Harvard in 13 winless years. He rowed on Yale's varsity, won a championship in sculling and in 1956 finished fourth in the Olympic trials. But never before has he tackled anything like the job he has now. "When I came to Howard," says Law, "the only Negro crew I had ever seen was on The Late Late Show paddling a canoe down the Congo River." And what was true for him was true for everyone.
One man who decided to change that state of affairs was Howard alumnus Howland Ware, who got the idea as he watched the Eastern Sprints in 1950. "It was so exciting," he says, "I just figured Howard had to have a crew."
In their first years, however, what the Howard oarsmen needed even more than the money Alumnus Ware provided was someone to teach them how to row. Then Professor Law volunteered his services, and ever since the Howard crew has improved steadily. Last year it beat American University, this year it beat Purdue, rowed a dead heat with American University and Drexel and lost to Fordham by only two seconds.
Coach Law's worst problem now is keeping his crew intact. Howard, he says, loses nearly 50% of each freshman class before graduation. Academic standards are high, and competition for the limited enrollment is fierce. As soon as a student shows flunking marks, out he goes. The fact that he might row stroke on the varsity crew makes no difference. Moreover, most of Law's freshman candidates are as unfamiliar with rowing as land crabs. Many of his varsity crewmen, in fact, took up rowing only to keep in shape for football and wrestling. Rudolph Smith, his No. 3, was one of these. "But," said Smith after the race last week, "I soon found out that I liked rowing better. Out there on the water you have to depend on yourself to go all the way. There aren't any substitutes. Rowing isn't a great spectator sport, and you don't get to be a hero. You have to do it just because you like it."
Oarsman Smith obviously likes it—and so do the rest of the Howard rowers. Propelled by Law's urging, the university's official recognition (this year it allocated $9,500 of athletic funds to rowing), and their own enthusiasm, the Howard crewmen may end up at Henley.