The Work of Volunteers (Article originally published Fall 2009)
In 1966 Dr. Willem Van Eck “Vim”, gathered up a group of friends with some interest in the ancient art of rowing and formed the Mountaineer Rowing Club in Morgantown. Amongst then was Rich Little one of the last remaining original members still living in Morgantown. It was not the first time there had been rowing on the Monongahela River. In fact Rowing was one of the very first sports at WVU back in the 1880’s. Back then Rowing was a popular sport anywhere there was a navigable waterway and competitions routinely attracted large crowds of spectators. The first edition of the Monticola, WVU’s Year Book, displays a photograph of both a men’s and a women’s mountaineer crew. Unfortunately by the early 1900 few references can be found to rowing.
In the 1960’s the Monongahela was heavily navigated by barges carrying coal, oil, and a broad range of other industrial products. The water quality was certainly of a different nature than what we have today, you would not want to swim in it. Back then Morgantown did not have a river front park, nor was there a dock dedicated to recreational uses. Those early years were challenging to get rowing going and then Vim went to Africa. The rowing effort fizzled for a time.
In 1975 Dr. Van Eck was back in Morgantown working as Professor of Soil Sciences and WVU Extension Agent. Once again the lure of rowing got Vim gathering friends and giving it another try. Even before the first public meetings announcing the formation of the new Monongahela Rowing Club were announced, efforts had been under way to locate a suitable facility from where to practice the sport.
The owners of General Woodworking were contacted and given their large river frontage were asked if the nascent club could locate on their property. With the acquiescence of Mr. Ralph Thorn to the project, it was then necessary to secure permits for river access from the Corps of Engineers. Getting on the water was not a simple matter of getting river access. It required the drafting of a precise application for a dock and plans submitted to the Corps of Engineers. The process required a public hearing and a general public comment period before a permit could be granted for the location of a dock on the General Woodworking river bank. The river bank required extensive grading and clearing before the dock could be built. By the spring of 1976 the Monongahela Rowing Club was incorporated in WV, by June the Corps of Engineers had issued a permit and a dock was being built in place by volunteers and when fall semester came the first WVU Crew was being organized. That first WVU crew started full fledged practice in the Fall of 1976 under the guidance of Dave Tuel; Eddie Sinkule was the first Men’s Crew Captain and Jane Fries guided the lady Mountaineers. 1977 was a productive first year with the young squad entering various regattas. In 1978 Vim convinced veteran coach J. Clark Wray to come out of retirement to coach the Mountaineer Crew. In the spring of 78 WVU Men’s 8 placed 3rd pin the Governor’s Cup Regatta in Charleston, WV. The first crews of the 70’s went on to great achievements especially when considering the nature of the program; plagued by lack of equipment, a coach just working for room and board, a fire that burned the first boathouse and equipment , whose cause was never determined, and in general lackluster recognition from the University.
The 1980’s saw a growth in the number of students interested in rowing; women in particular flocked to Crew. The coaching situation was always a challenge, the lack of equipment the same, but the program grew. In 1981 the Monongahela Rowing Club officially changed its name to Monongahela Rowing Association; it had by then grown to more than 60 paying members, and the crew counted some 80 participating club members amongst men and women. In 1985 the combined fleet numbered 3 Eights, 3 Fours, 4 Singles and 40 oars.
Vim was happy to see the growing interest in rowing and happy to let others take the limelight at the helm. MRA had various presidents throughout the 1980’s, but behind the scenes, Dr. Van Eck was as busy as ever writing letters and articles seeking support and funding for Crew. Unfortunately for the Morgantown rowing community, for family reasons, Vim moved to Charlotte, NC where he remains to this day. Others were left to continue the work. WVU Crew was being ably coached by Michael Aiton a young Canadian volunteer whom Dr. Eck called one of the University’s unsung heroes.
In 1988 Dr. Kimberly Stearns initiated what became the longest MRA presidency. It lasted until her untimely death from Cancer in early 2006. Everyone was caught by surprise and MRA was left with big shoes to fill. Under Kim’s direction MRA had even if for a short season fulfilled its long time dream of initiating high school rowing in Morgantown, the effort was short lived but worthwhile and we promise that we will get back to it again.
The 1990’s and after.
Under Kim’s leadership in the early 1990’s MRA together with WVU Crew Club also constructed a new Boathouse on the General Woodworking property. The effort required to built that boathouse was enormous it required a great deal of fundraising. Rowing continued but suffered some setbacks. The events of that period rest on the murkiness of history. Few articles or documentation relating the performance of MRA or the crew clubs have reached us. Throughout the 1990’s various efforts where undertaken by the student body leadership at WVU seeking greater support for club sports, more particularly those engaged in regular competition with other Universities. WVU administration showed lackluster interest and the athletic department did not seem inclined to consider crew for inclusion in its sanctioned sports list.
However women’s crew finally garnered sufficient appreciation that in 2000 it became one of the official WVU athletic sports. The downside of this success by the lady Mountaineer Crew was that the Men’s squad ended up in greater difficulty and literally folded. With half of the crew club gone it became harder to find coaching for the men. History had already shown that without a coach it was virtually impossible to maintain the discipline necessary to keep this demanding sport going. The history of MRA and of The WVU Crew has been intertwined since the inception of modern rowing in Morgantown. Greater numbers mean greater mutual support and the opposite is equally true.-
Important also have been some of the events in the local economy. General Woodworking closed its doors during this period and with the sale of the property to an investment group MRA lost all rights to the boathouse built with the support of the crew and the Morgantown community. There are valuable lessons to be extracted from the outcomes of building that boathouse. First, don’t spend the effort building on land that you have no control over. The efforts first undertaken by Dr. Eck towards achieving the dream of a community boathouse were however not in vain. Back in 1977 Vim had written and sent the first letter to Morgantown city Manager and Council raising the goal of a Community Boathouse. The idea gained traction over the years and was notably endorsed by former Council women and Mayor Florence Merrow. When the redevelopment of the Morgantown Warf was put on paper a boathouse figured in the plans. That boathouse first advocated by Vim in 1977 and subsequently pursued by Kim Stearns became a reality 30 years later in 2007. Getting our place in that facility was not automatic though.
In 2006 Jan Kiger took over the presidency of MRA after the passing away of Dr. Kimberly Stearns. Jan guided MRA during this transition period and even thought our membership numbers were near a low point, efforts were expended to search for a coach who could bring back together a Men’s Crew squad. Significant effort was also required for MRA to gain access to the new boathouse. Jan wrote a letter to the powers that be in Morgantown, outlining MRA’s activity in the community for over 30 years and the fact that we were losing access to the Westover facility. After a meeting between MRA Board Members, City Officials, and WVU Athletic Department representatives, MRA had its claim for access to the new boathouse recognized and efforts were under way for space to be made. Melissa Kane a former WVU rower was brought onboard to organize a new Men’s crew and by the Spring of 2008 a new group of Mountaineer rowers was training in Morgantown. In 2008 MRA started moving into its new digs at 40 Donley St. the location of the new boathouse where we share a small area of the facility with the WVU Women’s Crew. In early 2008 Don Dickerson was our interim President and that period marked the start of a new page in the history of MRA.
John M. Duarte, President (2009), The Monongahela Rowing Association
Morgantown, September, 2009