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Without lifting a single oar, John Hartigan brought championship medals — and gut-busting laughs — to Philly rowing crews

The legendary coxswain is being honored this weekend at the Head of the Schuylkill, one of the country’s largest regattas, for his decades of world-class rowing.

Beloved Philadelphia coxwain and gold medalist John Hartigan, 79, at home in  Blue Bell.
Beloved Philadelphia coxwain and gold medalist John Hartigan, 79, at home in Blue Bell.Read moreDotty Brown

John Hartigan was born with the competitive spirit of an athlete. No matter that he grew to be only 5-foot-1 and 115 pounds – the result of spina bifida, a failure of the spine to properly develop. And no matter that one leg was shorter than the other, which required Hartigan to wear orthopedic shoes to offset a significant limp.

His determination to engage in sport – along with his resonating voice, sidesplitting jokes, and uncanny ability to inspire peak performance – catapulted him into decades of world-class rowing.

“While I was born with a physical situation, I had the drive in me to be a great athlete,” said Hartigan, 79, in a recent interview at his retirement community in Blue Bell.

This weekend, as 9,000 people race at the Head of the Schuylkill, one of the country’s largest regattas, Hartigan will be honored with a trophy in his name: The bas-relief bronze, by Philadelphia sculptor Christopher Ward, shows Hartigan’s face in profile – a coxswain holding a megaphone, exhorting his crew onward. Each year, the best junior-varsity high-school rowing crews will have their names inscribed on it.

A coxswain is essentially a coach in the boat, noting the problems, setting the pace, and motivating rowers to push to the point of muscle-screaming pain.

“What I came to realize was that once they get the timing down, the real secret of moving a boat was the legs,” said Hartigan of his early years on the river. “The legs are the strongest part in your body … if they drive with the legs, the boat can rise up out of the water.”

So he would shout commands like, “Come on, you [expletive]! … Get the legs down! … Give me 10 on the legs! … Good! … Better! … We’re moving!’”

“I found that with my voice, it would inspire them,” Hartigan said.

And those he inspired are legion.

“There are so many people in rowing we respect, and then there are people that we love,” said Alan Robinson, an environmental consultant who came up with the trophy idea after Hartigan fell seriously ill last winter and friends feared he wouldn’t make it.

With Hartigan, rowing was suddenly fun, said Robinson, who rowed with him as a University of Pennsylvania sophomore in 1970. “My only concern was would I be able to row full power while laughing so hard. But in truth, John made us row faster.”

“John never has a harsh word for anyone, except when he is cursing them out, insulting their mothers, and generally dismissing all of us as unworthy sods. All in jest, with marvelous wit, clever and original vulgarity, booming in his delivery and Shakespearean with his words, and never to be taken seriously by any of us,” said Chestnut Hill architect Gardner Cadwalader, who finished fifth in a four-oared boat with Hartigan at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Hartigan’s exquisite sense of humor was on full display at a party on Boathouse Row before the 1976 Olympics, where he was to cox a four-oared crew. Recalls Robinson, Hartigan “comes out in a military uniform with medals, and he gives the [George] Patton speech from the movie, where Patton is lecturing the real soldiers.”

Hartigan said he first tried the Patton act at a sales meeting for Smith, Kline & French, where he worked in marketing. “I wore medals, a helmet, sunglasses,” he said. "I looked good!”​

Hartigan’s own medals include a gold at the 1974 World Championships, and bronze and gold medals at the 1979 and 1983 Pan American Games. He didn’t stop with world competition. Until four years ago, Hartigan was a fixture on Boathouse Row, coxing masters boats.

But lots of rowers hailing from Boathouse Row have credentials like these. That’s not why Hartigan’s admirers easily raised the funds to underwrite the Hartigan trophy. Besides his sense of humor, “he’s a skilled steersman,” said Mike Cipollone, a Havertown businessman, coxswain, and coach. “He understands how the boat moves, can see what’s wrong, and knows what he can do to correct it. And anyone who rows with John knows he expects them to do their best.”

Hartigan’s career unfolded unexpectedly. At his Midwest high school, failing as a baseball pitcher, he instead managed the football team. But craving participation, in 1959 the Penn freshman went out for crew – as a coxswain. Coach Joe Burk, America’s greatest sculler of the late 1930s, finally let Hartigan compete against another school his junior year.

It almost proved disastrous. The “refrigerator story,” his friends call it.

In a practice on the Harlem River, a refrigerator bobbing just below the surface tore a hole in the bow. “All the oarsmen said, ‘OK, you hit it, you go tell the coach,’” Hartigan recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God, my very first race and I screwed it up.’”

When he told Burk that he hit something, the coach responded, “Oh, you nicked the boat.”

“I said, ‘Coach, there isn’t enough tape in the world to fix this nick,’” recalled Hartigan.

Burk, a World War II hero who had seen bigger problems, told him not to worry about it and to use the JV boat.

“So, lo and behold, we got out in that boat, and I got really motivated, and we just blew Columbia and Princeton away,” said Hartigan. “I couldn’t believe it. To go from the deepest, darkest place to one lit with victory. It was really a big surprise and I was so fortunate.”

He soon became known for his wisecracks.

“It occurred to me that I could be funny. It’s almost like having a radio show in an eight,” said Hartigan, who had a radio show at Penn. “To get the most efficient stroke, you have to get people to relax. I realized humor was a great relaxer.”

That technique worked for Cipollone, who remembers Hartigan calling him unsavory things at the starting line. “I couldn’t respond, I’m laughing so hard. You relax, your crew relaxes.”

So large is Hartigan’s persona that Cipollone and others say they don’t see his disability. “For everybody who rows with him, it’s not apparent.”

Sometimes, though, Hartigan makes a crack about himself. In one story, Hartigan is out on a raging Schuylkill. “The river is high, mud is swirling,” Robinson recounted, “and Hartigan yells, ‘If we go over and you see these black shoes sticking out of the water, grab them, it’s me.’”

For Gardner Cadwalader, an indelible memory is the American competitors marching in the opening ceremony of the 1968 Olympics, entering by height.

“John was in the first row, loping along with his elevated boot, leading all the talented USA Olympians into the stadium. That was a great inspiration for our boat.”

Dotty Brown is a former Inquirer writer and the author of “Boathouse Row, Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing.” Contact her at