The Men of Kent: Ten boys, a fast boat, and a coach who made them champions, by Rick Rinehart, depicts the history of Kent School from it’s founding in 1906 through it’s championship run in 1972 with the Kent School Boat Club (KSBC) crew. Despite a slow start that includes an explanation of the purpose of the manuscript in the introduction, Rinehart wrote the book out of service to his alma mater, to give back to the school and boathouse that had shaped his youth. In this, I believe the author was successful.
Kent School was founded in 1906 by Father Frederick Herbert Sill as a school for boys, dedicated to turning them into Christian, educated men. Father Sill converted a dilapidated barn he rented for $300 in Kent, Connecticut, into the school’s first building, housing the inaugural class of 20 students and three professors (Masters). Father Sill served as the school’s first Head Master.
Kent is a unique school in that one of it’s core tenets is the students take care of all the custodial, cooking, and serving responsibilities. This practice has been replicated in several other private schools founded by Kent School alumni and former Masters around the world. The school is also unique in that service is a core belief and practice, such as sponsoring students from around the globe to have access to quality education. Kent operates on a sliding scale for tuition to ensure deserving students of lesser means have access to an elite school.
It wasn’t until 1922 that Father Sill founded the KSBC, seeing the potential on the Housatonic River as a practice space for his young athletes. Serving also as the first crew head coach (he had been the coxswain of the Columbia crew which won the first ever Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1895), Sill vowed that within ten years the KSCB would compete at Henley Royal Regatta. Every crew member who competed on the Thames River received a jacket to commemorate their experience. This jacket is highly coveted and young men at Kent vied for the opportunity to compete at Henley to represent their school and country.
KSBC’s first opportunity to compete at Henley for the Thames Challenge Cup occurred in 1927 thanks to a generous donor. Kent was the first American school to compete on the Thames. Though they didn’t win their heat, they put up a good fight on the water, making it the most competitive race of the day. Six years later, in 1933, the school returned to win the regatta and take home the coveted trophy.
Thanks to Father Sill’s dedication and service to Kent School, in 1972, the KSBC named it’s new, wooden shell the Father Frederick Herbert Sill. Coach Hart Perry (1961-1995) led these nine young men – including author Rinehart at bow seat – raced the Sill as KSBC’s number one boat across the East coast and the Mid Atlantic region. On the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Kent broke the record on the 1-mile course, winning the race in 4:35.4. Boasting an undefeated season, they earned a spot to return to Henley.
That year, after graduation for many of the rowers, the crew, coach, and one spare, traveled to Henley to compete and win the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup – a race for 1st school boats – on the Thames River. There too, the crew broke the course record, rowing their final heat against Brentwood College School, a distance of 1 mile and 555 yards, in 7:02. Roger Bannister, the English runner who broke the 4-minute mile, hung the medals around their necks.
Rinehart uses journal entries to bring the reader into each race, into the mindset of different oarsmen, and to relive the intensity felt on the water. He also cites various authors to depict the sport of rowing for the reader, including David Halberstam’s (The Amateurs) philosophy that “rowing is merely an exercise in pain.”
Kent School, coed as of 1960, has gone through several Head Masters and KSBC coaches; but one of the things that remains is the school’s winning tradition on the water. Men of Kent is not just a story about these nine athletes and their coach, but about a school steeped in a tradition of service, honor, and faith. Though Rinehart has a tendency to be overly wordy and allow himself to get distracted from the overall theme of the book, he successfully brings to life the story of the 1972 KSBC boat – the Sill – its nine athletes, and the coach who propelled them to win.
This is the fourth in a series of book reviews by Kate Craig – a writer, editor, and photographer who coxes for DC Strokes Rowing Club. She enjoys being active and finding ways to make a difference.