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Q&A with Dan Boyne, author of KELLY: A Father, a Son, an American Quest
by Peter Van Allen
posted on May 27, 2008


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Dan Boyne
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Book cover
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Daniel J. Boyne has a new book, "Kelly: A Father, A Son, An American Quest," about Olympic sculling champions John B. Kelly Sr. and Jr., recently published by the Mystic Seaport Press. Boyne, 48, grew up in Connecticut and lives with his wife and daughter in Cambridge, Mass., where he is director of recreational rowing at Harvard University. He is also the author of "Essential Sculling" and "The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning, and the Water."

Boyne will give a talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia on May 17.

On a recent afternoon, Row2k.com sat down with Boyne at Weld Boathouse, on the Charles River, and asked him a few questions about his book.

Read the Preface to KELLY: A Father, a Son, an American Quest here. You can purchase KELLY: A Father, a Son, an American Quest here.

row2k: How did you gain the trust of the Kelly family?
Boyne: The person who helped the most was John B. "JB" Kelly III. He's currently the president of Vesper, and the legacy holder of the rowing side of the family. At first I think he had some of the same reservations and concerns about the project as I did. Over the years, he's been pestered by many writers and reporters and the majority only want to talk about his aunt Grace. He was understandably tired of that. It helped that I work at Harvard, in the rowing program, and he had gone to Harvard and rowed for Harry Parker. His wife Karen also rowed for Carie Graves at Radcliffe, and she knew about The Red Rose Crew. I met both of them, and found them to be wonderful, generous people. I think they came to realize that they could trust me with the story. My book is not about Grace, although there are a few amusing anecdotes about her. It's 70 percent about Jack Sr. and 30 percent about Jack Jr.

row2k: How did Kelly Sr.'s background lead him to rowing?
Boyne: For Kelly, Sr., it started at the upriver clubs which no longer exist. Initially, the Irish had their own social and athletic clubs, and then they started getting more access to Boathouse Row. Philadelphia was a little more egalitarian among the classes when it came to the river. There were Irish and German immigrants rubbing shoulders with English Protestants and Quakers. When you are a good oarsman, of course, class and social status tend to get overlooked. Both Kelly and his cousin, Paul Costello, were both exceptionally athletes and they were highly regarded at both Vesper and Penn AC.

row2k: How did the Kellys help other immigrants?
Boyne: During the Depression, if you rowed at Penn AC for Kelly, Sr., you'd also get a job at the brickworks. In addition, he often laid out food tables at the boathouse.

row2k: How was the early life of the Kellys, Senior and Junior, different?
Boyne: John Kelly Sr. was the son of immigrants, one of nine kids, poor. He eventually became famous, but he wasn't the only one: his younger brother George was a Pulitzer winning playwright and his older brother Walter was an internationally acclaimed vaudevillian. In one way or the other, the Kellys were all interested in drama. Some became actors, others went into construction and politics. Within the family there was also a moral code, dictated by the mother. She was a dictator of sorts, and allowed no moping after a defeat. Failure was not a long-term option. It was from her that Jack learned how to harness negative emotions and turn them into a source of power.

Kelly Jr., went to Penn Charter, a private Quaker school, and he was the only son of the next generation of Kellys. By now they were affluent. They had moved up the hill to the rich neighborhood [of East Falls]. They had servants, a chauffeur, and a summer house in Ocean City, N.J. Grace went to convent school at first, and then got into drama in high school. Kell had a powder-blue Buick convertible when he was a teenager. Guys used to see him driving around and say, "He's got it made." But others knew that Kell's life wasn't all so easy. He was being groomed by the old man to win the Diamond Sculls at Henley, and there was a fair amount of pressure on him to succeed. Physically, Kelly Sr., was taller than Kell, with incredibly long legs and arms. Jr. was stockier, built more like a football player. Mentally, Kell didn't have the survival skills his father had developed, the street smarts.

row2k: What surprises did you come across?
Boyne: Kelly Sr.'s boxing skill, for one. He boxed for money both as a kid and during WW I, for the AEF. He was outstanding, probably on par with the Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, both of whom he knew as friends after the war. I believe this boxing training helped Kelly in rowing, for it leant him a certain toughness and a psychological edge.

row2k: What do you see as the differences between the rowing communities in Philadelphia and Boston, then and now?
Boyne: The closeness of the boathouses on the Schuylkill made it a hotbed of competitive zeal and talent. It is still is this way, to some extent. In addition to the camaraderie, there has always been a sense of competitiveness among the clubs. They're always battling, in one way or another, and that tends to produce good athletes. In Boston, the boat houses are much more spread out. You do have you have strong clubs at Riverside, Union, Cambridge BC, but they aren't organized like the Schuylkill Navy. On the other hand the college rowing scene in Boston is arguably much stronger.

- Peter Van Allen

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See Also

Preface to KELLY: A Father, a Son, an American Quest
(May 27, 2008)

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