Mystic Seaport Museum received a substantial collection of rowing artifacts from Thomas Eliot Weil, who lives in Woodbridge, Conn., but has a long and storied career both on and off the water.
Weil was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1948. He was educated at Andover and Yale, where he was on the lightweight crew and raced at Henley in 1970. He also has a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. He served in the Navy and served as energy-group counsel and partner at the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, D.C., and Houston.
We asked Weil to tell us about his involvement in rowing and how the rowing collection came together. Part of the collection is at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.
row2k.com: How did you get involved in rowing?
My first memory of the sport was attending Henley Royal Regatta in 1963, while my parents were stationed in London. I then started rowing at Andover, but was never big enough to get to the varsity over the next three years. At the 1964 HRR, it was a great privilege and memory for me to see the Harvard 1914 Grand Challenge Cup crew, back 50 years later to the man (one of the spares had died, but the other spare was still the spare), row down the course in front of the Queen Mother. I hope to be in Henley in 2014 to celebrate the centenary of that victory.
After graduating from Andover in 1966, I joined the lightweight crew under coach Jim Joy at Yale, and, as the heavyweight program began to slip in league stature, enjoyed being part of a squad that was on the rise. During the 1970 season, my senior year, our varsity, which included junior Dave Vogel, and our jv were undefeated until the Goldthwait. The weekend of the Goldthwait in New Haven was the weekend that the Black Panthers and their sympathizers had descended on the city to protest the Bobby Seale trial, where they faced off against a phalanx of National Guardsmen on the Green. Coach Joy moved us to a motel out of town Friday night, but it probably didn?t make much difference. Both undefeated Yale 150 lb. crews were beaten by the undefeated Steve Gladstone coached Harvard crews, one of which, with one or two future Olympians aboard, was anointed the "Superboat" the following year.
Seeded no. 2 at the Sprints, we won our morning heat, and finished second to Harvard in the afternoon. Because Harvard had gone to Henley the year before, and was a lock to go the next year, they passed on the Regatta in 1970, leaving us room to go for the Thames Cup. We trained with the heavies at Gale's Ferry for two weeks, then flew to Henley. We defeated Liverpool Victoria and Garda Siochana (the defending Irish heavyweight champions!), and lost in the semi-finals to the Leander second boat, who won the Cup. The Garda invited those of us who did not have further travel plans to race in the Irish nationals on Lake Blessington a week later, and five of us went over to compete in the championship four (the "Blue Riband") and singles races. We didn't collect any silver, but had a great time.
One of my teammates, Jon van Amringe, who would later coach lightweights at Navy, and I were NROTC. The trip to Henley interfered with our normal active duty schedule, so the Navy let us spend the summer in New Haven. Tony Johnson was starting up the New Haven Boat Club then, and we were among its first members. We started training in a double, raced at the Canadian Henley, won the New Englands, and then, at the 1970 national championships in August, took second to Duling and Belden in the elite lightweight doubles on a washed out course at Camden when Klecatsky and his partner ran into a drainage pipe. That was my last competitive row.
row2k.com: How did you start the collection?
I have always been a collector, and loved art, reading and history. In the couple of days after Henley and before we flew to Ireland, Dave Vogel and I went around to old bookstores and print shops in London, and bought up every rowing book and print we could find, and that was when my collecting of rowing art, literature and memorabilia really took off. I served on a destroyer escort out of Pearl Harbor from 1970 to 1972, with a Vietnam deployment, and while others spent their combat pay on the latest Japanese electronic marvel (which was then reel-to-reel), I spent mine on prints and books offered by dealers in London and Boston. The incoming letters would be flown out to us and dropped with buoys, or held until we hit the next port or a supply vessel, and outgoing could go to a supply vessel or wait until the next port call, so the elapsed time sometimes cost me a purchase opportunity, but the print market in the 1970's wasn't much focused on old rowing scenes, so I was able to build a pretty good collection relatively early in the game.
My next tour was at the Defense Language School in Monterey, California, where I spent eight months learning Turkish and brushing up on my French and German, and kept on acquiring vintage rowing items with the benefit of pretty dependable mail service. My final Navy post was at the Joint United States Military Mission for Aid to Turkey, in Ankara, from 1973-1975, where I got to experience the Turkish movement into Cyprus, and kept on adding (primarily prints and books) to my collection.
After resigning my commission in 1975, I started law school in Charlottesville, and traded the inconvenience of overseas billets and benefit of income for the convenience of being closer to the sources, but without any money. Nevertheless, I was able to keep acquiring in a modest way, especially when summer clerkship paychecks kicked in, and could now go to Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston and meet the print and book dealers from whom I had been buying for years. I practiced corporate and energy law in Washington and Houston from 1978 to 2005, and that provided the wherewithal for the bulk of my collecting.
row2k.com: What made you want to share the collection?
From the beginning of my interest in collecting, I was troubled by the relative lack of rowing histories, the extent of ignorance among rowers and non-rowers alike about rowing?s past, the absence of scholarship on rowing artifacts, the lack of any infrastructure or network for rowing history and memorabilia scholars, collectors and dealers, and the dearth of any major public rowing collections. I wanted to make a difference in these areas by putting together a collection that could begin to tell the story, joining in efforts to create a rowing museum and identifying others who might share the same interests.
row2k.com: How large is the collection?
My collection is now somewhere between 5,000-10,000 items, which may or may not include a substantial donation of rowing artifacts to the British American Arts Association, which is now in the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, and a smaller gift of rowing artifacts to Mystic Seaport. The book collection is tracked in a 463 page bibliography. The artifacts and archives collection catalogues total 788 pages.
row2k: Why not just keep the collection to yourself?
I'm sometimes asked "How can you bear to give these items away?" or "Aren't you afraid that an object that you send out on loan may get damaged or lost?" The answer to the first question is that I never collected for myself - I've always hoped that an opportunity would arise for items from my collection to find a permanent home in a museum that was committed to honoring rowing history. I have been fortunate enough to find one such home in the Mecca of rowing at Henley, and I hope that Mystic may be that place in the U.S. As to the possibility of damage, you can't be a prisoner of fear - I lend so that people can see. My basement, where most of my collection is kept, flooded last night. Some very nice pieces were damaged. It comes with the territory. Much worse things can happen.
row2k: What are your favorite items from the Mystic collection?
-An 1825 engraving celebrating the victory of the Whitehall boat "American Star" over a British naval cutter.
-An 1837 coin silver presentation pitcher awarded to the Erie Boat Club, victors in a 5-mile race, the earliest American team trophy award of which I am aware.
-The iconic 1960's rowing print "Late Fall Practice" by Jim Anderegg.
The Mystic Seaport Museum is located in Mystic, Conn. For more information, see www.mysticseaport.org.
View the entire Mystic Seaport Museum gallery here
A full list of the Tom Weil Collection can be viewed here