John DeStefani Hartigan, 80, of Blue Bell, an inspiring, wisecracking coxswain who faced down spina bifida to become a world-class athlete, died Monday, June 1, of respiratory failure at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery.

Though only 5-foot-1 and 115 pounds, and born with a spine that didn’t develop properly, Mr. Hartigan had the competitive drive of an athlete. His powerful voice, sidesplitting humor, and uncanny ability to push rowers to peak performance launched him into decades of top competition.

A two-time Olympian in 1968 and 1976, Mr. Hartigan was awarded a gold medal at the 1974 World Rowing Championships. He won a gold medal in 1975, a bronze in 1979, and a gold in 1983, all at the Pan American Games. Until five years ago, he was a familiar figure on Boathouse Row as a coxswain.

“While I was born with a physical situation, I had the drive in me to be a great athlete,” he told The Inquirer last year. He never considered himself disabled, and those around him didn’t, either.

A coxswain is like a coach in the boat, setting the pace, steering, and motivating rowers to push past pain. As he learned the sport, he realized that the key to winning was for rowers to exert their legs, the strongest part of the body.

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

“John made everyone better, whether in the boat or how they felt about themselves,” said Alan Robinson, who rowed with Mr. Hartigan as a student. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Born in Minneapolis, he grew up South Shore Chicago. At age 8, he underwent surgery to address his spina bifida and healed with the aid of a full body cast.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, followed in 1965 by an M.B.A. in marketing from Penn’s Wharton School.

Coxswain John Hartigan while a student at Penn.
Courtesy of Penn Athletics
Coxswain John Hartigan while a student at Penn.

He was an advertising copywriter and promotion manager for what is now GlaxoSmithKline, working to market familiar products. While there, he won two National Wholesale Druggists’ Association Awards for ad campaigns on Contac cold capsules and Maalox.

Later, he was manager of communications and corporate philanthropy for Rhône-Poulenc Rorer and then vice president of creative and editorial services at MEDICI Global Inc. He retired in 2009.

Mr. Hartigan met Donna Duryea at work, and they married in 1969. They settled in Philadelphia to start a family. After the birth of their second child in 1977, they moved to Medford Lakes.

He found his true calling as a coxswain on Boathouse Row with Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association and the Vesper Boat Club, both on the Schuylkill. He coached rowing at Bishop Eustace and Monsignor Bonner High Schools and the University Barge Club.

He was inducted into the University of Pennsylvania Athletic Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. A Vesper Boat Club four with shell was named in his honor last year. And a junior varsity race, the Hartigan Cup, will be held at the annual Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in perpetuity.

“Hartigan,” as he was known, encouraged coxswains and rowers to do the work necessary to grow as athletes. “He garnered love and respect, a rare combination in a competitive sport,” Robinson said.

Apart from rowing, he was a member of the St. Mary of the Lakes Church in Medford and a volunteer lay reader for Sunday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Center City.

In 2015, he and his wife retired and moved to Normandy Farms Estates, a retirement community in Blue Bell, where he took charge of a daily announcements highlighting activities.

“He set the example of what it is to be an inspiration and overcome incredible odds, all while keeping a positive spirit,” his family said. “He had the extraordinary ability to call us to task and win us over, with his sense of humor to keep us laughing all the way.”

Besides his wife of 50 years, he is survived by daughters Jennifer Hartigan Johnson and Kelly Hartigan Goldstein, two grandchildren, and a sister.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, services and burial are private.