Out here, among the rolling hills of the Palouse, generations of rowers have pulled hard.
They’ve learned life lessons on the Snake River, where conditions can change instantaneously and team work is essential. They’ve forged lifelong friendships. They’ve made memories.
Here, a few former WSU oarsmen share theirs.
The Idea Man
Rich Stager (‘74, Civ. Eng.) started his freshman year at WSU Pullman in fall 1970. His parents had recently moved to Pullman; his father had taken a job as a project manager for the construction of Lower Granite Dam.
“I have no idea why crew came into my mind as something that I wanted to do,” he says. “I had never rowed before. For some reason, I was interested in it, and I decided to find out if anybody else was interested, too. I made up posters and spread them around campus and a bunch of guys showed up and expressed genuine interest.”
In order to set up an official campus club, they needed an advisor. And Ken Abbey, then-assistant vice president of business and finance, “had a lot of connections,” Stager says. “He also told me I was nuts. There are lots of good reasons why you can’t have a crew at WSU, and the main one is it’s in the middle of a bunch of wheat fields.”
“Because my dad worked on Lower Granite Dam, I knew there was water within a halfway reasonable distance and that it was big enough to accommodate rowing. I think he said, ‘Well, OK, there’s water, but there’s a lot more to rowing than just having water.’ He knew a lot of people at the University of Washington, and he thought he could finagle some old used equipment out of the UW shellhouse—which he did.”
The School of Architecture got involved with designing the boathouse. The Army Corps of Engineers allowed for the use of its land. The company Stager’s dad worked for furnished materials and poured the concrete slab. And students went to work. “We built the panels and stood them up. We built the trusses. We roofed it,” Stager says. “That first year was just building things and getting equipment.”
They used leftover wood from WSU’s Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory and Rogers Field to build a dock. After all that work and a few practice paddles, Stager “told the guys, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I started to see what it was actually going to take to be an oarsman, and I didn’t think I was committed enough to do it.”
“In retrospect, I guess I saw my role as a catalyst,” Stager says. “I remember feeling like this is going to happen because those guys were so determined. Most of the struggle—99.8 percent of it—happened after I was gone. I kind of see that as providence, that my part in it was just discovering people that were already there and wanted to do it. Once it got rolling, they had what it needed to keep going. It’s been a marvel to me.”
The First Coach
“They’d gotten a bunch of young men together who wanted to sit on their behinds and go backwards,” says Bob Orr, who moved to Pullman in 1971 to pursue a doctorate. “They’d never rowed a stroke in their lives. But they built their boathouse. And they built their dock. It took a good year before we got boats and put them in the water. They did the whole thing on faith.”
Shortly after arriving at WSU Pullman, Orr (‘73 PhD Elem. Ed.) told Ken Abbey that he wanted to be involved with the fledgling crew. “What I said was ‘I’d be happy to help.’ He said, ‘OK, you’re the coach.’ Everything was volunteer. We got $500 because it was a club sport. Then we called Dick Erickson, who was the head coach at the University of Washington. He gave us a set of oars and a couple of old shells.”
Orr paid for gas for the launch with his own money. After practice, he would take the boot stretchers from the shells and “repair them at home at night so we could row again the next day.” And when the shellhouse blew down in a windstorm, crushing boats and oars, “we called Erickson again, and he gave us more old shells, and we kept rowing.”
It wasn’t unusual for boats to take on water, especially when the river got choppy. “The word is swamped,” says Orr, a retired teacher, principal, and girls fast-pitch coach in Vancouver, Washington. “If you get a lot of rough water, it’ll slop over the sides of the boat. You just bail out of the boat and you swim the boat over to the shore.”
On Black Thursday, a storm came up fast and swamped a couple of boats. Another shell crashed into pilings, putting rowers in the water. It was spring, and the water was cold. Orr called to his crew, “‘Is there anybody that can’t swim?’ That was my first concern. We got as many on the launch as possible, then we rescued the oars. But the boat was a loss.”
Orr started The Pullhard newsletter. He held the first class race days, too. But he credits Ken Struckmeyer, the team’s longest-serving coach, with building the foundation of the program. Orr served two years; Struckmeyer served twenty.
Orr also invited Erickson to come from Seattle to speak at an end-of-the-year banquet. “He said, ‘Look at what you guys have started,’” Orr recalls, noting Erickson compared their beginnings to the start of Harvard University’s and the UW’s crew teams. “He said, ‘You guys come back here in fifty years and you won’t believe what this has grown into.’ Here it is, fifty years later, and it’s grown quite a bit. We’ve got men and women rowing. We’ve got a new shellhouse. And we’ve had some adventures.”
“I went everywhere with them,” says Len Mills (‘76 PhD Ed.). “Bob Orr, the coach of the crew, he and I were good buddies. He wanted to help get this thing going. My mission was the give them the best photography I could provide. It was pretty much all black and white in those days.”
Now a retired teacher in Milwaukie, Oregon, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Clackamas Education Service District, Mills moved to Pullman in 1972 and set up a dark room in his apartment. “I had always done photography. It was in my blood. It was a side profession. I was doing weddings, portraits, and publicity before I came to Pullman. When the crew was starting up, I said, ‘I’ll be your photographer.’ I took a ton of photographs. They’re all archived. I’ll be donating those negatives and proofs to the University because I know they will take good care of them.”
Mills had four cameras, including a Leica M3, Nikon F, and a Rolleiflex. He went to practices and meets, traveling with the team as far as California for the Western Sprints. “It was very exciting,” Mills says. “I went out in the launch sometimes. I wasn’t out in the shells; there’s only room for crew in the shell. But I got to see the guys getting their first jackets. They worked mighty hard for it.”
The First Female Coxswain
Kathryn “Figgy” (Figon) Kaatz was in a freshman landscape architecture seminar when the professor, Coach Ken Struckmeyer, started talking about Cougar Crew. And, says Kaatz, (‘76 Land. Arch.), “I didn’t know what crew was.”
She “was smart-alecky and naïve. Ken said they needed coxswains. And I said, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I have no idea why I said that. I was a complete non-athlete. I didn’t do team sports at all.”
Struckmeyer, the second head coach in the team’s history, said he would check with the guys.
“The next day, he came in and he said, ‘They are OK with it. Eventually, they added another woman. And, at some point in those four years, they started a women’s crew. But I was the only woman on men’s crew at that time.”
It’s common now, Kaatz says, “but there were only three of us in the U.S. then. I have much respect for the men who were willing to accept me. Just saying, ‘Sure, why not?’ and agreeing to have a woman coxswain was risky. It was probably more risky for them than it was for me. I really appreciate the courage my team had agreeing to show up at races with a girl in the boat.”
They faced some flack at times. But, Kaatz says, “I took it pretty lightly. This was the ‘70s. There were science buildings that didn’t have women’s restrooms.”
At the starting line of one race, she remembers overhearing the pep talk the male coxswain was giving in the next boat. “It ended with him saying, ‘And I’m not going to lose to a goddamn woman.’ Then, the great thing is, we won.”
Kaatz, who recently retired after 31 years of teaching kindergarten and fifth grade, “can still picture being on the water. I called, ‘We’ve got their bow. We’ve got their one. We’ve got their two.’ I don’t remember anything after that, only ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to win!’ If you lost, you were supposed to take the shirt off your back and give it to the winning crew. Well, one guy couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give his shirt to a woman. This oarsman came up to me and said, ‘He didn’t want to give you his shirt, so here you go.’”
In winter, the team would run the stadium steps. “Back then, you could just get into the stadium,” says Kaatz, who splits her time between Minneapolis and Cle Elum. “It was snowy, and those steps were slippery, and the guys behind me were so frustrated because I was going too slow and I kept slipping. They would grab me by the back of sweatshirt, pick me back up, and put me back on my feet. My reward was to be hung upside down in an empty trash bin. They grabbed me by the legs and lowered me down. But it was all in good fun.”
As a club sport, she says, “there was a strong sense of being in charge of our own destiny. I think that’s deeply embedded in the culture of Cougar Crew. There’s a sense of pride in being able to be a successful club sport.”
She “was always a coxswain, never a rower—except for one day when we decided to pull a joke on Ken.” The rowers lay down in the boat, and she got up on the gunwales and crawled down the sides while the shell was on the water, trading spots with the rower just behind the stroke oar (the stroke is the rower who faces the coxswain in the stern). “We attempted rowing, which was very dangerous with me in the seven seat. But it was the sort of amusing, ridiculous kind of joke someone in their late teens or early twenties would try to pull. We wanted to see if Ken would notice. He definitely noticed.”
Missing the Boat
Until mid 1973, Cougar Crew shells were rentals or gifts from other universities, particularly the UW. “They were past their prime, but they put us on the water,” says Alan “Mike” Klier (‘75 Physics). He joined Cougar Crew as a freshman in 1971. Back then, the boats were red cedar. “They were great ladies,” Klier says, noting at least two “were lost to the cruel vagaries of the Snake—and one to inexperience.”
The team’s first new eight, Cougar One, came from Pocock Racing Shells in Seattle. “In a stroke, that name celebrated the achievement of a struggling crew and spoke of the promise of our future,” Klier says. “‘One’ is the first, but also a beginning.”
Cougar One was either sold off or given away—“records and memories are both inconclusive,” Klier says—when the program moved to composite hulls in the 1990s. “Some of us have searched for her over the past decade to no avail,” Klier says. “No one can tell us where she went.”
Klier would like to see one of Cougar Crew’s early shells displayed at WSU, much like the Clipper which hangs in the UW’s Conibear Shellhouse. That hull carried “The Boys in the Boat” to Olympic gold in 1936 and regained fame with a 2013 book by the same name. The UW had gifted the Clipper to the Lutes, but, Klier says, “They thought better of it in time, reclaimed her, and put her on display.” The Huskies traded back for their old boat, giving Pacific Lutheran University a shell called the Loyal Shoudy in exchange. The Shoudy ended up at WSU, where—on Black Thursday—“the seam opened up just to my right,” Klier says. “We were completely submerged. A construction crew down at the dam rescued us.” After that incident, the Shoudy, then an eight, was fashioned into a four.
Klier became interested in rowing after watching the 1968 Olympics on TV. Freshman year, Rich Stager was a resident assistant in his hall. He told him he was starting a rowing club. “I said, ‘I weigh 112 pounds.’ He said, ‘You should come,’” Klier recalls. “I had been frail all my life so I had never competed in sports. I had a competitive spirit but no physical ability. As a coxswain, those disadvantages became assets.”
They went on the water for the first time in late fall 1971. When they graduated, they nailed their names to the back wall of the boathouse. “That was tradition,” Klier says. “When you graduated you marked yourself absent permanently.”
Recently retired after 39 years in the aerospace industry in San Diego, Klier returned to the river in August with a pal from the team to celebrate—and reminisce. They visited the old boathouse and looked for their names. They couldn’t find them.
But the holes from the nails that once held them in place were still visible. So was the old oar rack in the rafters, just inside the front door. “Seeing that oar rack up there was worth the whole trip,” Klier says. “We were a motley-looking bunch. We didn’t go fast. We didn’t win much. But it was a great experience. I don’t know that we thought about (leaving a legacy) at that time. We just wanted to row.”
Kitchen Grease and Wool Shorts
One of Mike Kimbrell’s earliest memories of Cougar Crew involves a swim test of sorts. Kimbrell (‘76 Chem.) remembers the coach telling the team something like, “‘We sank last week so everybody tread water for five minutes.’ He wanted,” Kimbrell says, “to make sure everyone could swim.”
Kimbrell grew up in Pullman. (His dad, the late Jack T. Kimbrell, was a professor of mechanical engineering at WSU Pullman for 32 years before retiring in 1986.) The first time he saw rowing was watching the 1972 Olympics on TV. That same year, as a freshman, he joined Cougar Crew. “I thought it was just an absolutely gorgeous sport,” says Kimbrell, a retired chemical engineer in Huntington Beach, California. “The boats were a work of art.”
The boathouse was a different story. It had no electricity, no running water, and no restrooms. Sometimes, student-athletes—often covered in kitchen grease—would use the headlights from their vehicles to help them see inside. To lubricate the oarlocks and slides, Kimbrell says, they used Crisco “‘cause it was cheap. We’d get that grease on the back of our legs.”
On colder days, they’d wear cotton long-johns on the river. Their uniform, however, included wool shorts which shrank when they got wet. “On race days, the coach would hand them out to us, and at the end of the race we would turn them back in. There were no two ways about it; they were awful,” Kimbrell says.
Also on race days, “you would bet your shirt.” The losing team would give their shirts to the winning team. “My freshman year we lost every single race we rowed, heavyweight and lightweight. That’s a lot of shirts. My sophomore year, we started winning. I collected all those shirts and kept them all through the years.”
That wasn’t the only winning tradition. “If you won, you got to throw your coxswain in the water,” Kimbrell says. Alan “Mike” Klier was that coxswain. The two friends were in the same boat as Paul Enquist, and in 1984 they both went to the Olympics to watch their old Cougar Crew teammate row for the gold. “That,” Kimbrell says, “was just terrific.”
Meat Wagon Memories
“In the early days of Cougar Crew, there weren’t a lot of rules,” says Doug “Doc” Engle (‘80 Bio., ‘82 MS Env. Sci.). “You had an interest, and you went out and rowed. We were under-funded and, in a lot of ways, discounted. To me, Cougar Crew really represents the heart of being a Coug. You go out there, and you put your time in, and you put your work in, and you can succeed.”
Engle, who retired last summer after 35 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture—he was a food technologist at the Western Wheat Quality Laboratory at WSU—joined Cougar Crew as a freshman in fall 1975. He served as vice commodore during the 1978-1979 season, and volunteered as junior varsity coach for the 1979-1980 season. Among the best memories of his rowing career is being part of the “Meat Wagon,” a varsity four with coxswain boat that won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association 1979 national championships at Lake Onandaga in Syracuse, New York.
Engle was an oarsman, along with Chris “Squish” Gulick (‘80 Life Sciences), Rich “Flip” Ray (‘80 English, ’86 MA American Studies), and John “Yumbo” Holtman (‘82 Social Science). Al “Shack” Fisher (‘79 Liberal Arts) was the coxswain. The oarsmen’s average weight was 204 pounds, and their average height was six feet, four inches. At six feet, seven inches and 220 pounds, Engle was the biggest. “We were the biggest people in the program, gathered in one boat,” he says. “We were extremely heavy heavy-weights.”
They had practiced together on Sundays on the side, racing officially for the first time in Bellingham in spring 1979. When they beat a crew from the University of Washington, Engle says, “we knew we had a pretty decent boat. In rowing, times are really dependent on course conditions: headwind, tailwind, sidewind, the choppiness of the water, the current. We knew we had some speed, but we didn’t know how fast we were. The start of the race was really choppy so—because we sat low in the water—it really gave us some trouble. We came into a more protected portion of the course and our cox, ‘Shack,’ called for three consecutive ‘Power 10’ strokes. We went from being a length behind to a length up and won the race by a good amount of open water. That one race really solidified us and gave us confidence that we weren’t wasting our time going to Nationals. I don’t think we raced again”—until Nationals.
Camping Out and Giving Back
When Ernie Iseminger (‘91) was coaching Cougar Crew, the team often camped out overnight near race courses because “we didn’t have money for hotels. I remember sitting by a campfire one night before a race telling my rowers, ‘Other teams can have every advantage and all the funding and equipment, but you have worked hard and you have trained hard and you will win tomorrow.’ And guess what? They did.”
If they weren’t camping, they were packing “eight or nine guys into a hotel room. You’re not supposed to do that, but we did what we had to do. We pooled our money for all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut. I didn’t know if we’d have money for gas for the coaching launch or to camp or to eat. We rarely stayed in hotels; it was either camping or floors. If we could find someone who knew someone, the whole team would stay with them.”
Iseminger became head coach in 1993 and served in that capacity for five years. He also rowed for four years at WSU and worked as the freshman/novice coach for three years. Rowing, he says, “prepares you for your professional life. When I think about my career, my success, my trajectory, I can draw a straight line back to the lessons I learned on the Snake River. You cannot let your teammates down. You have to work together or you’re not going to achieve your maximum speed. And you have to be in perfect sync for the shell to go the way it’s supposed to.”
During his time on the team, Cougar Crew transitioned from the old boathouse at Boyer Park downriver from the Lower Granite Dam to a new facility at Wawawai Landing, upriver from the Lower Granite Dam. Also during his tenure, the team moved away from rowing with wooden boats and oars to equipment made from composite materials, commonly carbon-fiber, and no longer allowed student-athletes to drive personal vehicles to practice about 20 miles southwest of Pullman.
Today, Iseminger lives in Chicago, where he serves as vice president of institutional advancement at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He’s also a co-owner of the All-Star Sports Bar in Des Moines, Washington, where he’s slated to open another eatery, the Waterside Bistro, this fall.
Iseminger spent more than twenty-five years in higher education, helping raise more than a billion dollars at five colleges and universities throughout the country. The Chronicle of Philanthropy named him one of “6 People to Watch in 2015.”
He says his fundraising career started with Cougar Crew. Now, he’s proud to be among its donors. At this year’s gala, he and his wife Alice gave their third shell to the program: the Fox Iseminger, named for their oldest grandson.
Danny Brevick (’05 Const. Mgmt.) served as commodore his junior and senior years. His second year, “the team almost died. We had eleven people, no coach, and a budget of about $18,000. It doesn’t take much apathy at that point to go from eleven to zero.”
He remembers worrying, “What happens if we go down to seven? What do we do then?”
While his team was small, “at the same time, it was a tight-knit group of people. You eat a lot of meals together. You travel together. You know everything about everyone’s lives. You’re extremely proud of what you represent, even if you don’t really understand at the time what it is. You just know it’s something special.”
To him, Cougar Crew “really embodies the scrappy underdog nature of WSU. We were not fast. But we took pride in what we were doing because it was hard work.”
Brevick focused on drawing support from a group of about 40 select alumni. “I figured a good place to start would be the commodores. There had to be a lot of collective wisdom in that group, people who had been up the river and over the mountain. I spent weeks penning what I thought was the most invigorating email. I was hoping to arouse some of their passion and bring that passion back to Pullman.”
His brother and then-roommate, Peter Brevick, helped. He resurrected The Pullhard newsletter and was a sounding board for the email that would help re-ignite the alumni. “We got a really good response from a couple of really key people,” Danny Brevick says. “It was the passion and experience of those key people that helped propel us forward.”
Today, Danny Brevick lives in North Bend and is vice chairman of the Cougar Crew Alumni Association. His brother is head coach.
Back on Board
Herbert M. “Tim” Richards III (‘84 DVM) remembers the moment he got on board. He was a freshman at WSU Pullman, registering for his first semester of classes. Cougar Crew was displaying one of its shells as a way to interest new recruits—and it worked. Richards rowed for three years, serving as commodore his final year before making the choice between the commitments of rowing and the demands of veterinary school.
“Putting the right people in the right seat is in part skill and in part art with the idiosyncrasies we all have,” he says. “You have to have almost a mirror image in the boat so you’re off-setting each other. You can take eight guys, put them in a boat, re-arrange them, and it doesn’t row the same way.”
The longtime veterinarian has headed up the Cougar Crew Alumni Association since its reconfiguration in the early aughts. “In 2003, I got a letter from then-commodore Danny Brevick, followed by another letter. He kind of pulled on the heartstrings by what he wrote. One Sunday afternoon, I called him. What he was saying about Cougar Crew was what I remembered, and it kind of started a fire in me.”
Richards went to work rekindling that spark in other former Cougar Crew members, who worked together to retool the alumni organization, its brand, and its by-laws. “We needed to build our foundation first,” Richards says. “That’s what we worked on: reconnecting, reconnecting, reconnecting. We tried to build that base. Success is in succession. We had a huge amount of student support. Our board is student-directed with alumni oversight.”
It’s made up of eleven people: six alumni and five current members. The board—like the team—“is always evolving. Where we are today is light years ahead of where we were. People are engaged and are taking this program forward. I get a kick out of seeing that never-give-up, never-say-die kind of attitude. That’s where I get my satisfaction: watching these guys do better.”