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Friends stream to aid of Boathouse Row mentor and stalwart

Fred Duling celebrated his 60th birthday by rowing 60 miles on the Christina River, in Delaware, a trek that started at dawn and concluded at dusk.

Fred Duling with daughter Sara at a father-daughter race. Duling has been a member of Malta Boat Club for 50 years.
Fred Duling with daughter Sara at a father-daughter race. Duling has been a member of Malta Boat Club for 50 years.Read moreFamily photograph

Fred Duling celebrated his 60th birthday by rowing 60 miles on the Christina River, in Delaware, a trek that started at dawn and concluded at dusk.

This year, at age 66, he ran in the six-mile Schuylkill Navy Run on Thanksgiving - for the 51st consecutive year.

Now, Duling has been forced to take on the toughest challenge of his life - recovering from serious spinal injuries suffered in a Dec. 6 fall at his beloved Malta Boat Club on Boathouse Row.

No one is sure what exactly occurred, since Duling was working alone in the club, as he often does. It appears he might have been hanging Christmas decorations when he fell over the stairway banister, landing hard on his head and breaking four vertebrae in his neck and back.

At the moment, his daughter said, Duling has limited sensation in his legs and can spend only a few hours a day off the respirator that helps him breathe. He also suffered a broken nose, cheek, and jaw, and deep cuts and bruises.

He has undergone three surgeries at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he remains in intensive care.

Stunned friends - whose ranks seem to include practically everyone on Boathouse Row - are storming heaven with prayers and mounting a stream of visitors to the hospital. So many people turned out in Duling's honor for the annual Schuylkill Navy holiday blood drive that the Red Cross had to turn away potential donors.

"People are devastated," said Rick Stehlik, who has been Duling's double-scull partner for 35 years. "He's touched so many individuals on Boathouse Row and rowing in general. He's always there - and always there to help."

Stehlik estimates he and Duling have rowed 60,000 miles together, competing in nearly every imaginable race and regatta.

Philadelphia has a rich rowing history - and Duling helped advance it. As a younger man, he was a top rower, three times representing the U.S. national team. As a coach and mentor, he led rowers to national championships. He competed all around the world, including races in Moscow and Copenhagen.

Duling, lean and fit, is a garrulous presence on Boathouse Row, often handling weigh-ins at regattas, always more concerned with completing the job than getting the credit.

He's the father of three, grandfather of two, and husband seemingly forever to his wife, Edith, with whom he resides in the city's Fairmount section.

The family has gotten support not just from across the region, but from around the world, said Amy Duling, the eldest of the Duling children.

Because of the breathing tube, and because his jaw has been wired shut, her father is unable to speak. As she has read him get-well cards and told him who phoned, "he's just taken his hand and tapped on his heart."

"He's always been the guy who did things for you," she said. "The way that comes back in a time like this has been tremendous."

Her father has good function in his hands and arms, but cannot move his legs, she said. It's unknown how much mobility he might ultimately regain. He has been fitted with a medical "halo," a rod-and-ring brace that's attached to the skull to immobilize the neck and assist healing.

Duling has been communicating with family and friends through expressions, hand signals, and notes typed on an Apple iPad, and it appears his personality and intellect are intact, Amy Duling said.

"He's struggling with the mental aspect, of the despair of being in the state he's in," she said. "But he's still cracking smiles, and he's still himself."

Some suggested that Duling's accident must have ruined Christmas - but Amy Duling says no. To the contrary, she said, his family is grateful that he's alive and getting better, and confident that, whatever physical limitations persist, Duling will continue to mentor young people to achieve lofty goals.

Duling has been a member of Malta for 50 years, during which he served in nearly every capacity, as club captain, coach, and committee member, and currently as vice president and board member. He recently was presented with the club Illman Award, given to the person who does the most behind the scenes to promote rowing.

He's so well known and liked that on the occasion of his 50th consecutive Schuylkill Navy run, people wore T-shirts emblazoned I ran with Fred.

"He's just a sweetheart of a guy. And tough as nails," said close friend Clete Graham, a past commodore of the Schuylkill Navy. "An incredible athlete."

Duling worked almost all his life as a glazer, honing a devotion to craft that he applies on Boathouse Row. It's Duling who lovingly maintains his club's old wooden lockers and repairs its tin ceilings.

The Malta Boat Club, with a blue Maltese Cross as its emblem, was founded in 1860, three months after Lincoln was elected president. Last year, in anticipation of the club's 150th anniversary, Malta leaders asked if anyone might row 150 miles to mark the occasion.

Duling rowed it. In winter.

Malta president Mike Brown said Duling has an ability to ignore the pain that slows or stops his competitors. That trait will help him now, Brown said.

"If anybody has the will to persevere and pull through this, it's him," Brown said. "Death knocks on his door, he says, 'C'mon in, but you got to take it from me.' It's not just in rowing, it's his life. He's old school. He's a hard -."

So many people inquired about his health and recovery that the family set up a "Coach Fred" page on Facebook. More than 300 signed up to offer encouragement.

Typical was a note posted by friend David Kurland:

"Hang tough, coach, and keep fighting for every inch. This is just the longest, most challenging head race of your life."