row2k Features
A Timeless Inspiration: Norman T. Graf, 1925 - 2018
September 26, 2018
Ed Moran,

Graf with coxswain Rosemary Ostfeld after she coxed in the boat race

Curtis Jordan remembers standing on the shore at the Craftsbury Sculling Center in Vermont nine years ago watching as Norm Graf waded into the water to make a point to a student about proper sculling technique.

"He was standing in knee deep water, really animated, and making all these contortions to get his point across," Jordan said.

Jordan recalled that he and a group of coaches who had all rowed for Graf when Graf was the head men's coach at Trinity College had come up to Craftsbury to help run a summer coaching session with their former coach and mentor, and in retelling the story of that day, Jordan was struck by the level of Graf's life-long passion for coaching and teaching - but also because of his age.

"I remember watching and thinking - he's 83-years-old. He's out there excited and in waist deep water, and he was 83-years-old. But that is just the way he was, the way he always was."

What was also striking to Jordan - more than the fact that Graf, even at 83 was still that passionate - was the memory of what Graf's passion meant to Jordan when he was a young athlete rowing for Graf at Trinity College, and the fact that it had shaped his life and professional direction.

"I remembered that it was that passion that made me want to be like him," said Jordan who had gone on to a long and successful international and collegiate coaching career. "Just being around him back then made me want to wake up every day and have the same kind of passion and energy for what I did. He shaped my passion for rowing and my desire to be a rowing coach." Graf passed away two nights ago after a short period of poor health that began after he fell and suffered a broken hip over a month ago. He was 92.

Still, as recently as last spring, Graf was still sharing his passion for rowing, still finding time to help another rowing coach who had worked with him his entire career, from when he was an athlete.

That coach, Wesleyan men's head coach, Phil Carney, was just a 17-year-old high school student from Shrewsbury MA when he first met Graf, who was then the head coach at Trinity College.

"He recruited me out of high school, St. John's in Shrewsbury, and he retired right after my freshman year."

But in that short period of rowing at Trinity when Graf was head coach, the passion Jordan talked about was equally instilled in Carney, who like a long list of others, followed Graf into coaching. The list of men and women who were inspired to coach by Graf is said to number 48.

Many of those coached with Graf during periods of their careers, but none longer than Carney who was two years into his career and coaching the freshman men at Trinity when Graf returned to coach the women's program.

Graf became Carney's coaching mentor and after Carney became the men's head coach at Wesleyan University, and Graf was retired from his second stint at Trinity, he convinced Graf to come to Wesleyan as an associate coach.

They have coached together since, and shared a 38-year experience as coaching colleagues and friends who continued right up until last spring with Graf coming to Florida to assist at spring training.

Carney was by Graf's bedside when he passed away Sunday night.

"He was smart, he was an incredible coach, and he was a very giving person," Carney said. "He was just a lot of fun to be around. He had a lot of really good perspectives on the role of rowing, and the role of a coach and the impact on people's lives and what he could teach them."

Norm Graf in a more recent photo

Born Norman T. Graf in Pennsylvania in 1925, Graf attended Culver Military Academy where he was a member of the undefeated crew of 1943. Following his graduation from Culver, Graf served in the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II and assisted in multiple troop transports to and from Europe.

Following the war, he attended, rowed, and graduated from Rutgers University. He began coaching at Yale University in the late 1950s and in 1967 he was named the Head Rowing Coach and Intramural Athletic Director at Trinity College in Connecticut. He retired from the position in 1982, but returned to Trinity and served as the head women's coach from 1988 to 1992.

During his tenure as the men's coach at Trinity, Graf entered seven crews in the Henley Royal Regatta and in 1976 his crew set the course record and won the Ladies' Plate Challenge.

1976 Trinity eight that won the Ladies Challenge Plate

Graf retired from Trinity a second time in 1992, and began coaching privately.

In the fall of 1995, Carney ran into Graf at the Head of the Connecticut Regatta, and convinced Graf to sign on as his part-time assistant at Wesleyan.

Graf also coached at the Craftsbury Sculling Center for 20 years, where he was the Director of the Sculling Program for 11 of those years, beginning in 2003.

As a coach, Graf had several different sides to his personality. He was gruff, and quirky, and to the point.

"He knew where he wanted to go, and he was going to get there any way he could," recalled Burt Apfelbaum, who rowed at Trinity and then coached there for 10 seasons. Apfelbaum said that as a coach, Graf set an example of how to run a successful, small college, rowing program.

"He established the example of how to run a program," Apfelbaum said. "He set up the program and set high expectations. We did a fair amount of work in the fall, and a lot in the wintertime, and he built up a plan that sort of set the blueprint for many other people to follow on how to run a program.

"It was based on hard work and attendance, and maybe his personality. He was going to get it done anyway he possibly could, and I think that sort of helped produce the number of coaches that he did, whether it was myself or Curtis or Gary Caldwell or whoever, those folks went to different programs and basically used Norm's model to run a program."

And it was the same model for men as it was for women.

Graf launching a crew

Heather Smith, who began rowing at Trinity as a novice when Graf came back to the school to run the women's program, and then rowed for Graf her next three years, remembers that Graf set a standard of excellence and hard work for every athlete.

He was demanding but at the same time nurturing, and his athletes wanted to live up to his standards.

"I rowed for Norm as a sophomore, junior and senior and at the time he seemed timeless and old simultaneously," Smith said. "He had this real dedication to his athletes, and his faith that we would perform was really evident. I don't know that we were necessarily great athletes, but I feel as though we became a really good team because of that faith.

"Some of his ideas seemed kind of cockamamie, and yet we really kind of bought into this ethic of just working harder and having faith that things would come out the way they should. I have exchanged emails with teammates the last few days and one teammate wrote to me that she looks back fondly on that faith Norm had in us."

Smith recalled that while Graf pushed the women and was demanding, he had a way doing so that made his gruffness work. She recalls a busted erg test that went wrong not because she tried too hard, but because she didn't try hard enough. And the failure was made worse for her because she felt she had failed to live up to Graf's standard.

"He didn't pummel me over that," Smith recalled. "He was not a punishing person, but I certainly remembered that and have never wanted to repeat it. There was really something about Norm's intense love of sports and his own vigorous training that encouraged those of us on his team to strive for more," she said.

"Had he only been a sort of hard ass, I don't think the effect would have been the same."

Graf, she said, set the example and then lived it. "It showed on certain days, like when the women's team was, for point of pride, going to do a 'skin to the wind' training day when the weather was brutal and the workout was terrible, and we were just trying to prove something to ourselves."

Smith said the team would go out in just racing unis and then, "We would see him pull his coaching launch alongside us, and he had stripped down to his exposed chest on that very chilly day.

"There was great humor in that and I think if he had only been rigid, then there wouldn't have been the same sense of devotion to him or the sport."

Like the athletes that came before and after her, Smith strove to be a rowing coach. She worked as a graduate assistant and then at different schools on year-long stints, until an unpaid year under Jordan at Princeton led to a full-time job as the lightweight women's coach between 1997 and 2004.

Smith is a fourth-grade teacher these days, but she still strives to achieve on a personal and professional level with the timeless passion that Graf instilled in her.

"His obvious love of the sport and care for those he coached has stuck with me, and I think I have always felt driven to perform to a level that would satisfy him, even all these years later. And, of course, he was quite a character who could find humor in surprising and timely places," she said.

Graf with Wesleyan

Of all the men and women, Graf coached, he stayed the closest to Carney.

"He was an inspiration to so many," Carney said. "The most remarkable thing about his coaching, the thing I've been talking to people about recently, is he coached literally thousands of people, and of those thousands of people, the number of people he had individual relationships with is incredible.

"It wasn't like he just coached this one group at Trinity or Wesleyan, he coached each individual guy up there, and so many people that I have spoken with just in the last day, and so many people I have met in my time who were affiliated with Norm just have this incredible personal relationship with him. It's remarkable."

Graf is preceded in death by his late wife, Gloria. He is survived by three children; Mark, Tom, and Kate.

A service is being planned for mid-November at the Trinity College Chapel. Details will follow when available.

Graf was so admired by the crews he coached at Trinity, they produced a tribute video to his career as an 80th birthday honor. Click here to see the video.


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