Henry A. Backe, 82, a longtime director of the Dad Vail Regatta, who played a pivotal role in the creation of the boathouse shared by St. Joseph's University and St. Joseph's Prep, died Monday, May 6, at Devon Manor in Devon of complications from cancer.
A moment of silence for Mr. Backe was observed Saturday before the final race of the day at this year's 75th edition of the annual weekend classic.
Despite "an anticipated washout" due to threatening weather, said Mr. Backe's son Kevin, skies stayed clear, as if guided by the spirit of his father.
Mr. Backe, of Gulph Mills, started rowing as a youth with the St. Joe's Prep varsity team and was on a winning team at the Stotesbury Regatta. As a member of the La Salle College team, he won the Varsity 8 Championship at the Dad Vail in 1952.
He was a director of the Dad Vail Regatta for 40 years and spent "thousands of hours" cheering on his children and grandchildren on St. Joe's Prep and La Salle crew teams, said Kevin, one of Mr. Backe's eight children.
His greatest rowing legacy is the Robert Gillin Boathouse, opened on Kelly Drive in 2002, as the home of the St. Joseph's Prep and St. Joseph's University Rowing Centers. He had spent 14 years shepherding the design, approval, and construction of the project through various city agencies.
He also fostered a partnership with Mayor Nutter, then a councilman, who helped the project become the first boathouse to be built on the Schuylkill in 98 years. "Henry Backe is one of the great champions of rowing and sport in Philadelphia," said Nutter, a St. Joe's Prep alum. Nutter said Mr. Backe was the "driving force" behind the boathouse. "But what I really enjoyed about working with him on that project was the passion and commitment that he displayed on behalf of young people and the sport of rowing. He will be sorely missed. He was a good man and a good friend."
Mr. Backe also was the leading organizer of the St. Joe's Prep crew in the 1970s. Jim Glavin, head crew coach at St. Joe's Prep, a Jesuit school, called him "an extraordinary, humble, and kind man, who daily lived the Ignatian spirit." St. Ignatius, known for his perseverance and peacefulness, was a founder of the Jesuit order. After graduating from La Salle with a bachelor's degree in accounting, Mr. Backe became a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he earned the National Defense Service Medal.
In the business world, Mr. Backe was known as the "Grout Man" and a leading expert in the field of structural foundations. He founded several grouting and mud-jacking companies, including Royal Contracting Corp., Cambrian Equipment Co., and Cambrian Foundations Inc. Among his companies' projects were the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes, the Philadelphia and Boston subway systems, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Federal Reserve Bank, and Pennsylvania State Capitol Building.
As a commercial real estate developer, he founded the King of Prussia Business and Industry Center.
Mr. Backe spent summers in Margate, N.J., and was a member of the Ocean City Yacht Club. He loved sailing at the Jersey Shore and on the Chesapeake Bay with his wife of 57 years, Mary Frances, and family members. In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Backe is survived by sons Michael, Henry Jr., Joseph, and Louis; daughters Maureen, Lizanne, and Karen; and 14 grandchildren.
The viewing is Tuesday, May 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the D'Anjolell Memorial Home, 2811 West Chester Pike, Broomall, and then Wednesday, May 15, from 9 to 10:45 a.m. at Our Mother of Divine Providence Church, 333 Allendale Rd., King of Prussia, with a Mass at 11 a.m. Interment is private at Calvary Cemetery in West Conshohocken. Contributions in Mr. Backe's memory can be made to the St. Joseph's Prep Crew Fund c/o Al Zimmerman 1733 Girard Ave., Philadelphia, 19130, and La Salle University Crew, 1900 W. Olney Ave. Philadelphia, 19144.