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Fighting spirit is alive

Harvard’s Parker on job despite cancer diagnosis

By John Powers
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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Harry Parker was around and about Newell Boathouse yesterday morning, checking in at his upstairs office, walking past the boat racks, watching his wife, Kathy, and a friend sculling on the Charles. Nothing unusual there. Harvard’s heavyweight crew coach has had the run of the oversized Victorian sweatbox for nearly half a century. What was unusual was the timing of his presence.

“Normally, he’s gone to New Hampshire for the summer and you never see him,’’ says associate head coach Bill Manning. This summer, unfortunately, is most unusual. Parker’s oarsmen, their season done, have stashed their crimson Henley blazers and scattered. But Parker is staying around to undergo treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

America’s most fabled rowing coach has been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of blood cancer that often leads to leukemia. But he’s still planning to be on the water when training resumes in September.

“Why not?’’ says the 75-year-old Parker, who will have been at the helm for 50 seasons next spring and has no plans to retire. “It never occurred to me, quite frankly. The question was, and still is, will I be strong enough and fit enough to carry the full load?’’

After he sat with athletic director Bob Scalise, the decision was made to ease the burden, promoting Manning, the longtime freshman coach, and increasing his duties, which would have happened before long in any case. “I’m not going to be here forever, with or without this disease,’’ says Parker, who began chemotherapy last week. “Bill will basically be running the program and I will be advising him and we’ll consult on everything. And I will coach as much as I can.’’

Since predecessor Harvey Love died three months before the 1963 season and Parker moved up from the freshman job, nobody else has been at the helm and nobody in the country has had more success - 16 official and unofficial national championships, nearly two dozen Eastern Sprint titles, a dozen Henley trophies, and 21 unbeaten dual-race seasons.

This year Harvard’s varsity, junior varsity, and freshman boats swept every regular-season race, including the 4-miler with Yale, and all of them won the Sprints. The varsity and freshmen both reached the Henley semifinals and the JV four of Peter Scholle, Justin Mundt, Benjamin French, and JP Hogan claimed the Prince Albert Challenge Cup.

“What is a normal year for Harvard crew would be a Hall of Fame year for most other institutions,’’ observes Steve Brooks, who stroked the Crimson varsity in the 1968 Olympic final and chairs the Friends of Harvard & Radcliffe Rowing. “Harry keeps doing it year after year after year.’’

No Harvard coach in any sport can match Parker’s tenure. Jack Barnaby, the head squash and tennis mentor for three dozen years, was known as Barnabus Rex in homage to his benevolent dynasty. Parker still is simply Harry. No last name necessary. “He’s not a cult of personality coach,’’ says Manning, a Holy Cross graduate who has worked with Parker for 13 years. “He does not foster a culture where it’s about him. It’s about them.’’

First indications So when Parker first began feeling ill after the Sprints in mid-May, he understated it as he does most things. “Harry’s way is to downplay things when they concern himself,’’ says Matt Edstein, one of his varsity oarsmen. “He sounded upbeat and optimistic.’’

At first, Parker thought he might have caught a cold after his victory dunking in Lake Quinsigamond. Then one of his rowers noticed a slight puffiness around the coach’s left eye. It was the beginning of a rapid and massive fluid buildup that signaled a nasty kidney infection. By the time the crew settled into their Red Top training headquarters for the Yale race a fortnight later, he knew that something was badly amiss.

“By the end I could barely walk,’’ said Parker, whose taut frame had ballooned by 40 pounds. “Literally, I was shuffling.’’ It was more than a kidney infection, a New London, Conn., doctor told him. It was something much more serious. But Parker didn’t let on. “He was the same old guy,’’ says Brooks, who was on the regatta committee. “I had no inkling. None whatsoever.’’

When the oarsmen went to New Jersey a few days later for the national championships, Parker was back in Boston being checked out. He made it down for the title race, where his varsity had its best finish (second to Washington) in four years. But when the crews went to Henley, Parker stayed home and Manning took charge of the heavyweight flotilla.

“I would shoot him an e-mail or text message,’’ Manning says. “There was an appropriate level of discussion. Harry did a good job of leaving us alone, which I am sure was not easy.’’

Parker had been a Henley denizen since his undergraduate days at Penn, where he rowed on the 1955 crew that won the Grand Challenge Cup. His crews have taken home enough silverware to fill the windows at Shreve, Crump & Low. So he didn’t need much detail about the landscape. “I know the scene, so I could picture myself there,’’ he says. “So it was fun.’’

It was most irregular, though, for rowing insiders not to see Parker around the Thames enclosures and it became clear to him that he had to let more people know why. So he sent an e-mail to the Harvard community and his Eastern coaching colleagues, filling them in on the medical particulars in his typical matter-of-fact style. His oarsmen, who have come to accord him near-immortal status, were startled.

“Harry’s one of those figures who’s a little larger than life,’’ says Nick Jordan, one of his varsity veterans. “You don’t think anything can bring him down. You hear the stories from the last 50 years, that he’s a perpetual force at Newell, that he’s never going to leave.’’

Never now appears that it will arrive sooner rather than later, and Parker realizes that. “You don’t outlive it,’’ Parker says, “but that’s where it is.’’

Not about to give up Yet anyone who knows the man is convinced that he’ll fight fiercely. “If anybody has a chance of being able to endure the hardships and discomfort of the process, Harry is the guy,’’ says Yale counterpart Steve Gladstone, who has coached alongside and against Parker for more than four decades. “I don’t know anybody in my coaching memory with the absolute persistence that Harry has.’’

Parker’s resolve to remain at the wheel has impressed his physicians, both of whom are Harvard men. “It’s amazing,’’ says Dr. Richard Stone, director of Dana-Farber’s adult leukemia program. “Not surprising, but amazing.’’

Parker may not be able to outlive the disease, but he’ll do his damnedest to outrow it for as long as he can. “It’s very useful psychologically and it’s not bad physically,’’ says Stone. “He’s a man of great will, obviously.’’

Unfavorable conditions never have daunted him. Parker once skied in a 40-kilometer cross-country race in Vermont in subzero weather, shrugging off frostbite. “Good fun,’’ he declared. “Good day to row,’’ he’ll proclaim as a crosswind blows sleet across a lumpy Charles. And while cancer treatment is a harsh test of stoicism, Parker is delighted with his Dana-Farber team, which includes nephrologist Benjamin Humphreys, a former Crimson lightweight oarsman.

“The treatment I’m getting is fabulous,’’ Parker says. “The doctors are absolutely first-rate. The facilities are really impressive. And the nurses are so caring and cheerful and extremely competent. It’s a great place.’’

Parker is unaccustomed to spending his autumn and spring mornings away from the boathouse but he will do whatever it takes to make sure that he can be there when it matters. Having an associate shoulder most of the weight will help, but the man behind the megaphone won’t change. “It’s very clear that Harry’s in charge,’’ says Manning. “He’s running the show. My expectation is that he’s going to be coaching on the water essentially every day.’’

Old Man River, as Parker has been called with both admiration and affection, has been chuffing along it in his launch for so long now that he has become as much a part of the city as the Swan Boats. “He can tell you about races from his first year,’’ marvels Jordan. “He can literally walk you down the course. He’s still enthusiastic about a race that was decades ago.’’

But Parker always has been most enthusiastic about the next race and he knows that he’ll feel the familiar butterflies when his 2012 varsity pulls on its jerseys. “You get excited,’’ he said a decade ago. “All the question marks. How good are you going to be? You don’t know until they race.’’

With seven men back from the varsity, six from the JV, and another loaded freshman eight moving up, the guessing is that Harvard is going to be remarkably good again. “Harry hasn’t lost a beat,’’ Gladstone testifies. “His crews row as efficiently today, if not more so, than they did 25 years ago. The record speaks for itself. When he comes back, he’ll be right there.’’

The key word is “when’’, not “if’’. “Harry had me on the phone the other day, working on the race schedule for 2013,’’ reports Manning. “That’s not the sign of a guy walking away.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.