Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tom Thomas: You Can Row Home Again

Tom Thomas: Coaching city kids is his passion
Rowing. That’s what William C. "Tom" Thomas Jr. really loved -- even as he married, raised a couple kids, worked in college administration and as a lawyer for 27 years.
That and coaching young people.
So Tom was in his element on the Schuylkill River as I watched him coach city youths a few weeks ago in a non-profit program called Philadelphia City Rowing.
You can find him working by the river almost every afternoon. He makes sure the boats, housed in a narrow shed at the end of clubby Boathouse Row, are shipshape. He encourages the teens to erg on rowing machines, do push ups and jump on and off a balance beam to strengthen all the muscles in their bodies --virtually every one of them is used in the strenuous sport of rowing.

Philadelphia City Rowing: sweating and erging

And, you’ll see him out in the coach boat with his megaphone, urging his charges to swing their bodies in rhythm with the pull of their oars in the exquisite choreography of sculling.
As I tried to hear him over the buzz of the outboard motor on the coach boat, Tom told me how he had come to help city kids get onto the river and learn a sport for which they would otherwise have little access.
Throughout the history of Boathouse Row, the high schools that have dominated rowing were the prep schools and the Catholics -- and more recently suburban public high schools. With only a few exceptions, the city’s public school kids haven’t had a crack at this sport, which involves costly boats and boathouses, unaffordable in a city that barely supports music or libraries.
Philadelphia City Rowing, funded by foundations, private donors, and a handful of dedicated staff and volunteers, is finally making it happen. Besides the rowing, the students are expected to keep up their grades, so PCR coaches them academically, as well, and gives them college counseling. So far, every kid who stuck with rowing through his or her senior year has made it to college.
Every muscle gets used
Tom said that as a student at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Va., he had the luck to row for legendary coach Charlie Butt. He also spent summers as a lifeguard at the Jersey shore in Ventnor “under the watchful guidance of Stan Bergman,” who coached at Holy Spirit High School and was later head coach at the University of Pennsylvania. Tom later rowed four years at Rutgers. Still, he knew he would never be the athlete his father was. “My dad was extremely competitive, a national caliber runner, all-state football in high school.  Very accomplished.”
With his son rowing, his dad, too, became excited about the sport and bought a double scull after retiring from a 30-year career as an Air Force pilot. Father and son competed together in the Head of the Charles in Boston in the 1980s. “In his 60s, when I’m rowing with him, I’m trying to keep up with him and I’m in my 30s! My dad inspired me. Though I had his shadow to kind of walk in,  I always felt it was an encouragement, not an ‘I can’t measure up.’  I didn’t worry about it. I just did the best I could.”
Time passed. Suddenly Tom was in his late 50s. With his kids grown and a law career that left him unsatisfied and wanting more, he circled back to his first love.
“I’m here all day, every day. It has to be done,” explains Tom, who works as director of PCR’s rowing program.
Tom: working to create opportunity
This fall about 80 city high school kids from very diverse backgrounds came out, a record for the five-year-old program, though the number is likely to settle somewhere in the 60s.
How does he feel about his post-vocation avocation?
“In almost any non-profit you don’t get what you’re worth. By the same token it’s a matter of trying to make this program do something and you can’t do it with 20 or 30 hours a week. You’ve got to put more in.”
Before the kids arrive from school,  Tom's out in the sliver of land PCR has wrested from Boathouse Row, fixing boats, getting practice plans together, watching coaching videos and keeping abreast of the sport. “I can’t sit on my laurels,” he says.

His reward? ‘Just watching these kids work harder and grow into rowing.”

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