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Crew community pays its respect, again

The St. Joseph's Prep flag on the pole outside the Robert Gillin Boathouse hung at half-mast on Friday.

The St. Joseph's Prep flag on the pole outside the Robert Gillin Boathouse hung at half-mast on Friday.

It fluttered in the breeze like a red-and-white reminder of life's fragility.

Two days earlier, the Hawks marked another death in another way, as an armada of 11 boats slowly made its way through the water in front of the family of Henry A. Backe, 82, who was buried that afternoon.

"We held our poise," said St. Joseph's Prep senior captain John Gaul, who like his crew classmates served as a pallbearer at Backe's funeral. "That [the row-by] was kind of like our salute."

That scene was both solemn and celebratory, and that's the way things were again on Friday for the start of the 87th annual Stotesbury Cup Regatta.

St. Joseph's Prep coach Jim Glavin said there was a "pall in the air" as word spread of the death in an automobile accident Thursday night of Episcopal Academy junior Paul Pratt, a standout member of the school's varsity four.

But there was light, too: Brilliant sunshine, burgers and chicken on a hundred grills, spirited action on the water, and folks cheering in the grandstand as rowers pulled their boats through time trials and semifinals in hopes of qualifying for Saturday's championship races.

Perhaps more than athletes in any other sport, rowers revel in the camaraderie of their competition, which is why those teenagers on the porch of the St. Joseph's Prep boathouse sensed their connection to both a contemporary such as Pratt and an older man such as Backe.

"It's hard to describe, but it's there," Prep senior captain Brendan Keegans said. "There's a sense of brotherhood. Rowing is the glue that holds it together."

The two deceased could hardly be more dissimilar: One was an 18-year-old brimming with promise and potential; the other, an 82-year-old who could look back on a life of distinguished service and lasting influence.

"He was an extraordinary man, humble and kind," Glavin said of Backe, the driving force in the design, approval, and construction of the boathouse that serves as home for the St. Joseph's Prep and St. Joseph's University crew teams.

Crew was the connection between Pratt and Backe, of course - just as the sport's unique demands and special rewards forever bind those generations of athletes who have been drawn to the water.

"There's a tradition of sportsmanship, and it's the same now as it was in the 1800s," Glavin said.

Backe was a longtime director of the Dad Vail Regatta, and a star rower in his own right at St. Joseph's Prep (Class of 1948) and La Salle College.

Pratt was "the best rower in the city," Glavin said, a budding star who had led Episcopal to victory in the varsity four at the Philadelphia City Championships on this same course on May 5.

Friday, the races went on during the first day of the world's oldest and largest high school regatta.

Rowers in other boats stood in salute as Episcopal's varsity four, with another athlete in Pratt's seat, embarked alone on its time trial.

St. Joseph's Prep rowers wore black ribbons in their boats in tribute to the man who, according to the inscription on the back of their T-shirts, was "Prep Rowing's Greatest Champion."

And that flag halfway up that pole snapped and fell, as hundreds of boats filled with thousands of athletes glided silently past on the dark water.