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Book Excerpt: Chapter 2, Bill Engeman - from Four Years at Four, by John Escher:
December 1, 2021
John Escher and Philip Makanna

Bill had started out along with Tony Johnson in the seventh boat at Washington-Lee High School of Arlington, Virginia, a traditional powerhouse coached by Charlie Butt, father of Charley Butt, the current head coach of Harvard University.

Both men, Johnson and Engeman, were destined to become prominent in the tight world of rowing where everybody knows everyone.

I need to account for one other person here, Dick "Mouse" MacKenzie, former captain of the Andover cross-country team.

Dick "Mouse" MacKenzie

Why he wanted to become a coxswain and how he ended up in the first of our three boats on our very first day I don't know. I could ask him, but that would be a violation of the rule for writing this book-- no journalistic questions, just recollection so the whole thing can be seen through one window.

So Mouse and Bill and Pete and Bruce brought the first frosh boat rudder-first out of the NBC and all sixty-five feet shot into space. By that I mean that the tide was so low and the ramp so steep that there was no way to tilt the shell without breaking off its bow against the boathouse ceiling.

All the experienced fellows could do from their positioning partway down the ramp was gaze up at the upside-down shell, a rather nice, expensive and delicate one called the Stein, and too high to reach much less support.

Bill Engeman
Bill Engeman

Bill Engeman, more used to the well-appointed Potomac Boat Club out of which the Charlie Butt crews rowed, let out a stream of oaths and imprecations that must have been a record for him. In the next four years I can't remember him swearing again.

But, the nine guys somehow put The Stein-- the varsity boat-- into the water without destroying or damaging it, fetched their oars, got in, and let others push them off.

Mouse started by having them row two at a time, Bill and Peter first showing everybody - even those still on the dock - how to do it. Then Mouse graduated them to rowing stern four and then bow four. The five who didn't know how to row could imitate the three who did.

In the meantime the dock had come alive and started to float on the surface of the tidal river. The ramp now was not so steep. The rest of us put two more shells on the water where we splashed a lot.

Did we run not walk back to campus? I think so.

It was perhaps that night or maybe a year later that two heavyweight oarsmen with pre-Brown rowing experience who had decided to quit competing approached Bill Engeman and told him a sad story.

The varsity coach, they said, was not right for the job. Of course given the club budget and what one had to work with nobody would be right, but all that could change. It didn't help that after a few drinks Coach Bobbo showed up for practice one day and was lurching around the motorboat when he bobbled his electric megaphone, his scepter you might say, and it sank to the bottom of the Seekonk without a trace.

"Would you like to coach us?" Lew Covert and Phil Cushing asked.

"No thanks," Bill said. "I'm just going to keep my single in the NBC and row it every day."

That single was a Swiss Staempfli imported by Bill's parents, the founders of The Northern Virginia Free News. His extremely tall father George had rowed in a Navy varsity eight, his mother Ida Sledger Engeman was the leader of the Wellesley first boat before women's crew took off in the United States, his brother Tommy rowed for Charlie Butt and next was a member of the undefeated Cornell varsity lightweights. Bill's two sons Michael and Charlie also rowed together on the national lightweight eight, but that is another story.

Charlie Butt often used to say that of all those who came through his high school program Bill Engeman was the only kid he ever underestimated.

The reason, I conjecture, was that Bill's slightly curved back looks weaker than it is; or maybe he was young and didn't fill out yet.

And so, the two amigos Tony and Bill starting in the Washington-Lee seventh boat were destined to follow separate upward paths: Tony would captain the W-L varsity then row 7 at Syracuse then win gold in the Worlds and silver in the Olympics with his pairs' partner Larry Hough, after which he would become one of the three winningest crew coaches in Yale history.

Bill meanwhile, relegated to lead sculler in the W-L quad (four youths with two oars apiece), made the most of the experience. As he became stronger and smoother the quad grew faster too each day.

A good quad is almost as fast as an eight but more maneuverable. Bill, rowing in the bow, operated a rudder with foot pedals. By pulling the rudder over and having all four row harder on one side, Bill's quad had a signature move in which it would do a tight U-turn out on the Potomac and come up next to Charlie's first two eights as they still were awkwardly backing and filling to turn their long lengths around.

By the time Charlie reconsidered putting Bill back in one of his national schoolboy champion eights, he also wondered how Bill would do in a single, the most grueling competition of all.

Bill had success. Well, naturally.

So Harry Parker, the top sculler in the country at that time, was scheduled to race in Detroit. So Bill and Charlie drove from DC to the Detroit Boat Club.

Harry and Bill in separate heats would need to qualify to face one another. But a strong wind was blowing against the Great Lakes water pouring down the Detroit River that day.

Neither Harry nor Bill sank but another single in Bill's heat did. Bill was just doing his rough water thing staying long and low and waiting for his move. But he couldn' t get by.

"Tough luck Bill," Charlie said.

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