row2k Features
In Memoriam
Jim Hanley
July 9, 2015
John Tracey

I don't understand life and death, except that they are facts. We live and we die. That's about all I understand. I don't know why some people live to 105 and some die much younger. I don't know why bad things happen to good people. I don't know how bad people manage to "get away with it" – except that I believe, deep down, that they don't. I AM a big believer in karma, the lay definition of which is "what goes around comes around." But the best definition I've ever seen was from a book on Buddhism, which stated that karma was essentially this: everything you do is a cause, and everything that happens to you is an effect. Pretty scary stuff. That I understand. And believe.

My brother was a good guy. He worked hard, he had good values, he was highly intelligent and philosophical, he was funny, and above all, he was a really nice and decent person. He died instantly at age 53 from an aortic aneurism – no warning whatsoever. It was a huge shock, which is why I don't understand why people die when they do. I just accept death as a fact.

My dad died at age 82 after a very painful 20-year battle with emphysema. It was like being suffocated to death for 20 years. He was 18 when he was drafted into the army in World War II, and they were handing out cigarettes. He smoked two packs a day for 42 years and was told that half of his lungs were essentially gone – useless. He was always philosophical and had a sense of humor about death. When he had prostate cancer in his late 60s, he had the choice of going to either Boston or Albuquerque for the "best" care. Albuquerque was a lot closer, but he refused to go there. When I asked him why, he said, "Because I don't want my gravestone to read, 'Died in Albuquerque.'" One time he came to our house for a holiday. He had recently turned 80 and had been on non-stop oxygen for a few years. I greeted him and said, "Dad, you look great!" He said, "Son, there are three stages of life. Youth, middle age, and 'You Look Great!'" Dad was funny.

All of the above is a long introduction – postponing the inevitable (another Dad expression) – for something I've wanted to write about all week and have avoided. My friend Jim Hanley died last weekend after a battle with cancer. I lost a friend and fellow oarsman, and Riverside Boat Club lost an icon. Jim was our longest-serving member and one of the club's greatest contributors. He joined Riverside in the early 1970s, was president and everything else possible, and he stayed active until recent months, when his cancer finally brought him down. But he was more than just an active member. In my mind, Jim was the heart and soul of Riverside. He embodied our club with every fiber of his being. His was the friendly hand that reached out to every new member, and his enthusiasm for rowing – in a sport where people are obsessively enthusiastic, or they don't do it at all – was something you could feel just by being around him. His Irish lineage was appropriate, as the club was founded by workers of the Riverside Press in 19th century Cambridge, many of whom were of Irish descent. The company was founded by Henry Houghton (later of Houghton Mifflin) in 1852, and the printing facility was located on the banks of the Charles, so Houghton named the facility "Riverside."

Riverside Boat Club's history is fascinating, and in writing it, Dick Garver chronicles the history of Rowing in America and, especially, in Boston (see But by the 1970s, when Jim joined, the club was on life support, being kept alive by Northeastern University, which leased the boathouse for its rowers. There weren't many members back then and if not for active rowers like Jim, the club may have perished. One of Jim's singular achievements as president in the late 1970s and early 1980s was advocating for women to be admitted as members. It was a different time, and there was significant opposition. As Dick writes, "Under the leadership of President Jim Hanley and Captain Will Melcher, in 1981 the club's management was upgraded. The constitution was revised to replace its town meeting form of decision-making with a Board of Directors and monthly – now quarterly – voting by senior members. Program committees were established, enabling the club to address more challenging matters than had been possible in the past." This is the Riverside of today – a well-governed, committee-system club run entirely by volunteers – and Jim's leadership 35 years ago made it possible.

I joined in 1989, after four years of learn-to-row sweeps at Community Rowing. I came to Riverside with my close friend Jon Skillman and a few others from CRI, intent on taking our rowing to a higher level. But our rowing wasn't quite up to Riverside's high standards, and after watching us row, coach Steve Sawyer pretty much said, "Yeah…no…I don't think so."

Jon came upon the brilliant idea of teaching himself how to scull, and I followed suit. We joined the sculling group, which was then coached by 1984 Olympic gold medalist Jeanne Flanagan. The group was a tight-knit bunch and I remember them well (hoping 25 years of aging won't leave anyone out): Will Melcher (who often rowed a double with Jim), President Jim Tapscott, Captain Jim Ames, Assistant Captain Lisa Kunze, Patricia Belden, Lynn & Charlie Osborn, who were married and rowed a double, Mary Ann Ganzer, Ann Mayer, Jon Skillman, Cindy Ryder and Chip Mathes, who met in the sculling group and got married, and Bee Baker, who I met in the sculling group and married. They were all welcoming, but Jim's smile and encouragement stood out. Being a nervous novice, in petrified awe of this group of all-knowing veterans, his kind words meant the world to me. And his sense of humor. Jim always had a smile and a twinkle in his eye. The eternal debate about cheating the ratings during pieces raged on back then, just like it does now, and Jim was known for breaking the ice by yelling the old chestnut, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying!!" As a newbie to sculling and Riverside, one of the great thrills was that of rowing up to this group of scullers, waiting across from the B.U. boathouse at 5:30 on a summer morning for the day's coached pieces. Jim and Will were often in the double, and at that time they were THE masters double to beat at Riverside. When I arrived, Jim would throw out a teasing jab at me, which always made me relax and feel better. I was among friends. This entire experience provided me with a rare combination of feelings – "There's no place like home" and "There is nowhere I would rather be, and nothing I would rather be doing, than being right here, right now, doing this." You don't get that feeling very often in life, and I got it every time I showed up for the coached pieces during those first few years. Jim's warmth and welcoming manner was a huge part of it. As I slowly began to improve, Jim would notice and say something nice after practice. It meant the world to me. That was just the kind of guy he was.

Jim retained this friendly, infectious enthusiasm for Riverside and rowing until the day he died. He was an excellent oarsman, and yet you'd never know it by talking to him. He was always easy going and modest, keeping everything in perspective. The only time I ever saw him get upset was if he saw unfairness happening to someone else. He had strong values and cared deeply. As Igor Belakovskiy said to me, "Jim took rowing and Riverside seriously. He took his work seriously. But he never took himself seriously."

The world of masters rowing lost an amazing person when Jim passed away. It's a void at Riverside and in the greater rowing community. The rowing world is full of icons, which is a wonderful thing. They leave us with wisdom, humor and a sense of how to carry on, bringing the awesomeness of this sport to future generations. In a touching letter to the club, Jim Ames, one of Jim's close friends and another Riverside icon, wrote:

Dr. Hanley was an extraordinary person, and we and our small corner of the planet are better for having had him with us. He never complained even though cancer was too quickly destroying his body. Two weeks ago as we sat together, Jim was still quick to smile and laugh. Jim was buried Thursday with his threadbare Riverside jersey and his fourth place Head of the Charles medal. Riverside Boat Club was his love and his passion.

Rest in peace, Jim. I will always feel you smiling down on me as I launch off of Riverside's docks.

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