If Daniel James Brown had never made it to his homeowners’ association meeting that day several years ago, he might have never met the woman who led him to write his career-making book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“This story literally walked into my life [at that meeting],” he said during an intimate conversation with ULI Foundation governors at the 2017 Spring Meeting in Seattle. “My neighbor came to me and said she was reading my first book to her dad, who was in hospice care at her house. She asked if I could come meet her dad, named Joe Rantz.”
Joe Rantz ended up being the main protagonist in Brown’s book, the true story of a nine-man crew team from the University of Washington that, despite long odds, made it all the way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and became the improbable winners of the gold medal, beating out Italy and Germany in a close race. When Brown met Rantz, the latter was frail and elderly, but shared with Brown stories of growing up during the Great Depression. He then mentioned his experience on the crew team and the Olympics, and Brown was hooked. “I fell into the story that day [and] I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Brown said. “The next day, I got to work on the book. It’s probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
ULI Foundation Chairman Stephen R. Quazzo interviewed Brown, asking how Brown pulled together his story when seven of the nine crew members were already dead. Rantz, in fact, would die shortly after initially meeting Brown in the mid-2000s. Brown spent “hundreds of hours” with Rantz’s daughter, Judy, who had had the foresight to follow her father around with a tape recorder during the last few years of his life. She is also the one who connected Brown to the families of the crew team, many of whom had kept letter, diaries, and newspaper clippings from the 1930s, when rowing was incredibly popular and widely covered in the news media at the time.
Quazzo and other governors were interested in parallels between the crew team’s story and the business world; and indeed, Brown noted, there are several. “One thing I’ve noticed, anecdotally, is a hard correlation between people who rowed in college and those who have had very successful careers,” he said. Rowing requires several skills relevant to the business world including grit, determination, perseverance, and trust. It also demands a level of self-awareness to understand how one fits into the team.
“You have to have a big enough ego and be audacious enough to go for it,” Brown said. “But you also have to know how to fit that ego in with eight other egos on the boat.”
In addition to Rantz, there were several other memorable characters in the book that Brown said he became attached to as he was writing about them. Bob Moch, the feisty coxswain of the crew team, went on to attend Harvard Law School and be a crew coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “He was good at making quick decisions, had a lot of attitude, and knew how to get these guys pulling together,” Brown said. Another character was George Pocock, the British-born builder of the racing boats, or “shells,” who handcrafted each one out of cedar.
“He was the consummate craftsman, and he taught these guys to approach rowing the way he approached his craft of building boats,” Brown said. “He taught them to put their heart into it, be earnest about it, and that they could lift themselves up by performing their craft as well as they could.”
Brown closed his talk by touching briefly upon his next, highly anticipated project—a book about the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a highly decorated U.S. Army regiment made up Japanese-American men who, despite being American citizens and forcibly relocated with their families to internment camps during World War II, chose to serve their country anyway.