Dennis Janson: Rowing championship brings an accidental brush with Hollywood and royalty

BATAVIA, Ohio  -- Why the facility fell into disrepair and the event itself into disregard is a matter of speculation. Once they lose the franchise, few if any major events afford organizers a chance to hit the reset button. But the planets have aligned for East Fork State Park to return to its former glory as host of the best in college rowing.  Clermont County’s William H. Harsha Lake has been announced as host for the 2015 U.S. Rowing Club National Championships.

That should provide organizers plenty of time to spruce up the surroundings which were home to rowing’s version of Moist Madness from 1983-1996. That is when the National Collegiate Rowing Championships were contested over one of the few seven lane courses in the country.

In the interim, the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships were contested there from 1995-2010 but deterioration of facilities was cited as among the reasons for its relocation to spots like Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Hopefully the facility will be restored to its former luster, which was never more evident than in 1984 when organizers pulled out all the stops to publicize the gathering of the nation’s best collegiate rowers. It was kicked off at an associate's New Richmond home, which with its expansive view of the Ohio River, seemed a perfect setting for the gala. Partygoers sported straw boaters, crested blazers and even a few spats (not the verbal kind), lending the evening an authentic regatta feel.  

It also provided an interview opportunity with one John B. Kelly, Jr. Jack, as he was known in rowing circles, was the personification of his sport -- as well as his future role as Chairman of the United States Olympic Committee. Tall, broad shouldered and strikingly handsome, he was made available to talk about the upcoming event. And though apparently high born, he was more than affable and quite adept at describing the intricacies of the sport, its lineage and future in terms even a layman could understand.

Perhaps his ability to traverse the terrain between socio-economic worlds was inherited from his father, John Kelly, Sr.

A double gold medal winner at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games, the elder Kelly was nevertheless barred from participating in the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta later that same year. His exclusion was based on, among other criteria, the fact that he’d once worked as a bricklayer. That was in violation of the snooty sanctioning body’s by-laws that barred anyone “who is or ever has been…by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.” Many saw it as an attempt by the Brits to head off an American winning a highly regarded sculls event. 

His son was not one to layer his own resume with the family's accomplishments. He was his own man and quite the man he was. The Junior Kelly went on to become President of the AAU in 1970 and later managed the U.S. Olympic eight-man boat team that won a Gold Medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

But this balmy summer night in 1984, Mr. “Please, call me Jack” Kelly was just an elegant envoy for the sport he so loved. It was one of my most cherished career memories.

Ironically it was while jogging back to the clubhouse after his customary morning row on the Schuylkill River that he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1985. He was 57. His untimely death, painfully reminiscent of another of John Kelly Sr.'s children who sadly left us too soon.

Little did I know at the time that athletic achievement was far from the only claim of the Kelly clan. You see, Jack’s sister was an actress of some notoriety herself.  Known to the world as Princess Grace of Monaco, she was more personally regarded at Kelly family gatherings as Jack’s sister, Grace. Yes, that Grace Kelly.

So indulge me if when the championships set up shop at Harsha Lake, if I don’t regale anyone who cares to listen of my brush not just with rowing, but actual royalty.


Dennis Janson's "My 2 cents" column is published every Monday and Wednesday on His video commentary airs every Friday at 6 p.m. 

Print this article Back to Top


or Subscribe now so you can share your opinion! It’s only a penny for a month trial.