Even people only somewhat familiar to the story of an American eight-man crew that took gold in the 1936 Olympic Games seem to be drawn in by that tall, lean, blond youth with the thousand-mile stare and heart-breaker of a back story.
Joe Rantz, the boy who overcame a hard luck childhood to become part of an epic story of athletic achievement at what’s now known as “Hitler’s Olympics,” is once again the cornerstone of a retelling of that UW crew’s feat.
PBS’s American Experience produced and premiered “The Boys of ’36,” a documentary about Rantz — a former Sequim resident — and his fellow gold medal-winning crew, on Aug. 2. The film is now available online at pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/boys36/. It’s also available on DVD.
“I thought that they did a wonderful job,” Rantz’s daughter Judy Willman said. “It came out being very artistic, which I love, because rowing is such an artistic sport anyway.”
Willman was one of several interviewees featured in “The Boys of ’36,” along with family members of others on the crew, authors Tim Egan and David Clay Large — and author Daniel James Brown, whose bestselling account of “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” also was rooted in Rantz’s story.
“I knew that American Experience had the ability to get their hand on footage we’d never seen,” Willman said. “I was very excited about that prospect. Dan did such a great job on the book. But it’s not like seeing my dad actually moving. It’s like the guys were alive again, practically. I was super pleased.”
Willman said she was a little apprehensive about being interviewed on film.
“I haven’t done all that many on-camera interviews anyway,” Willman said. “(It was) the specter in the back of my mind of saying something so totally stupid or going blank somewhere. On the other hand, the opportunity to be involved in that and talk about things that you wouldn’t get from anyone else (was) a privilege.”
Willman said the film crew — director Margaret Grossi, writer Aaron R. Cohen, editor Mark Dugas et al — did a great job getting the story right.
“Of course they had to shorten a lot of stuff; there were things they had to leave out,” Willman said.
“I did think they did a pretty good job of getting across that, in the end, they were rowing for each other. There was no way any one of those guys would back off and let any of the rest of the crew down. That was a large part of why they were able to win under those circumstances. No one was willing to give up,” she said.
“On the whole the process of the story going from point A to point B (there was) enough of what had happened to Dad, you would realize going into the university why it was so incredibly amazing that what happened, happened.”
Rantz was the epitome of an underdog on a team of underdogs. He was abandoned by his family in Sequim to fend for himself while just a teenager. It wouldn’t have turned out so well, Rantz recalled in a 2006 interview, without the help of the McDonald family, who lived on adjacent land and kindly took him in for meals and get-togethers.
Rantz did what he could to make ends meet: cutting down cottonwoods along the Dungeness to sell at the Port Angeles pulp mill, pulling salmon out of the same river to supplement what food he could get at friends’ houses and playing various musical instruments to entertain and make a buck.
In his senior year of high school, Rantz joined his brother in Seattle. There, University of Washington crew coach Al Ulbrickson discovered the 6-foot 3-inch Rantz on the school’s gymnasium high bar.
Rantz and fellow UW rowers went on to become the nation’s best eight-man crew, then shocked the world by overcoming great odds (and a final race deficit) to earn gold.
Rantz went on to a successful professional career as a chemical engineer at Boeing.
The nine crew members (the eight-man crew plus coxswain) agreed to meet once each year for decades and did so nearly each year, until they started passing away. H. Roger Morris, the last surviving member of the U.W.’s legendary 1936 men’s crew, died July 22, 2009.
Rantz died in September 2007 at the age of 93, but not before a serendipitous meeting with Brown, a neighbor, that led to the author’s penning of “The Boys in the Boat.”
John Halberg, president of the Olympic Rowing Association, said he saw the “Boys of ’36” documentary twice — one at a premier in Seattle and again at a premier in Port Angeles in late July.
“It’s a terrific show,” Halberg, who helps promote rowing on the peninsula through OPRA, said.
He said the documentary puts a kind of spotlight on rowing in the Pacific Northwest.
He added he hoped to have some of the crew from the PBS film visit the Olympic Peninsula, considering the interest the story has drawn here and regionally.
Halberg said Willman, who is on OPRA’s bard of directors and helped introduce the film at the Port Angeles preview of “Boys of ’36” on July 29, is a key instrument in promoting the sport, not just her father’s story.
“She’s really in great demand, now that the book’s out,” Halberg said.
Willman said that, were he alive to see “Boys of ’36,” Rantz likely would have been a little embarrassed by the attention.
“Those guys all were … I suppose ‘humble’ was the best word for it,” she said. “They weren’t out there bragging on themselves. They didn’t even really talk about their university years. The concept of this thing being this big, with this much celebrity surrounding it, for any of those guys would have been uncomfortable.
“On the other hand, the clarity which the story comes through, it has given an amazing new life to rowing,” she said noting the spike in interest in rowing at all age levels.
“And, especially in Dad’s case, people can read the book and get inspired,” Willman said. “They can take a step out there and do something, (thinking) ‘If Joe can do that, I can do this.’ Inspiring and encouraging people would have been something he would have been pleased with.”