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The Boys in the Boat

New book telling the story of the 1936 University of Washington rowing team launches in Seattle this month; Hollywood movie is in the works

University of Washington varsity crew, gold medal winners at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Team members were Roger Morris, bow; Charles Day, no. 2; Gordon B. Adam, no. 3; John G. White, no. 4; James B. McMillin, no. 5; George E. Hunt, no. 6; Joseph Rantz, no. 7; Don B. Hume, stroke; and Robert G. Moch, coxswain. Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

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“The Boys in the Boat” by Seattle-area author Daniel James Brown details the dramatic and poignant story behind the triumph of the UW rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler’s Olympics. The national book tour launches this month in Seattle

Sometimes a book comes along that is a true gift and The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Seattle-area author Daniel James Brown, is one of those books.

“This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.”

So begins The Boys in the Boat—the irresistible, dramatic, and poignant story behind the triumph of the University of Washington American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler’s Olympics.

Brown was introduced to Joe Rantz and his story on a chance encounter with his neighbor, Joe’s daughter Judy. “One day about six years ago, my neighbor, a lady in her mid-sixties who I knew only as Judy, came up to me after a homeowners’ association meeting. She said her father, who was in the last weeks of his life and under hospice care at her house, was reading one of my earlier books. He was enjoying it and she wondered if I would come by and meet him. Of course I said yes.”

After meeting Joe and listening to his story unfold, the author recalls, “As I talked with Joe, I noted that tears came readily to his eyes at certain junctures. Men of his generation don’t generally cry easily, so I knew immediately that there was something extraordinary going on…I began to see that all the elements of a great tale were there—intense competition between individuals, bitter rivalries between schools, a boy left alone in the world, a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil step-mother. But I think what really clinched it for me was the simple fact that the climax to the story played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—and it played out under the gaze of Hitler himself. Really, what more could a storyteller ask for?”

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Joe Rantz, one of the boys in the boat, is at the emotional heart of the story, photo courtesy Judith Willman

After being mesmerized by Joe’s story and that of the unlikely crew, Brown asked Rantz if he could tell the tale. Rantz agreed, but admonished, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.” By “the boat” he meant the whole crew and the strands of affection that bound them together. Brown shows tremendous respect for the memory of all the individuals, arguably one of the greatest crew teams of all time, and their underlying determination to be a part of the #1 boat.

Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, Don Hume, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, Bob Moch, Roger Morris, Joe Rantz, John White, Jr.—these were the boys in the boat, the University of Washington’s 1936 crew, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans in the depths of the Depression. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic Games in Berlin.

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