When the email came in Danika Chen was first excited, then skeptical.
She and fellow students in the Sequim High School Interact Club had just posted a 47-second video appealing to star actor/producer/director George Clooney to bring the premier of “The Boys In the Boat” — a film based on author Daniel James Brown’s book of the same name, and featuring as its central figure Joe Rantz, a Sequim icon — to the Olympic Peninsula.
The film screening, students said, would be a fundraiser for Sequim Sunrise Rotary’s Joe Rantz Rotary Youth Fund to help establish a home for local homeless youths.
The email, Chen said, turned out to be from an associate of Clooney’s, and support for the video surged. As of late last week, the video has been viewed nearly 240,000 times.
“Overnight, it blew up,” Chen said.
Now, students and Rotarians are in conversations with the film’s producers to screen “The Boys in the Boat” at the Sequim High auditorium tentatively in November 2023, Rotarian Pat McCauley said.
The fund was started in 2018 and was used to support students with scholarships, said McCauley, chair of the Rotary’s youth fund.
“We had been waiting for visibility, waiting for [the] movie,” she said, for a bigger project. That, she explained, is a Joe Rantz Rotary Youth House. Rotarians are looking to raise $750,000 to secure a home to help support youths in Sequim experiencing homelessness.
That’s where the legacy of Joe Rantz, the small-town boy who joined the University of Washington’s crew team to win Olympic Games gold and glory at the 1936 Olympic Games, enters the story.
McCauley said she’s been in contact with Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures production partner Grant Heslov, and that their tentative plan is for a world premier at the University of Washington boathouse in Seattle and then a screening soon after in Sequim.
Heart for youth
Merrin Packer oversees the Sequim School District’s McKinney-Vento program that supports “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
About 165 students in Sequim are considered homeless by the Office of Public Superintendent of Public Instruction, she said — about 6 percent of the entire student population.
Sequim has the highest percentage of homeless youth among school districts on the Olympic Peninsula, Packer said.
“People are shocked to learn the statistics,” she said.
The school district hosts a Care Closet, providing various hygiene supplies, clothing and more, and is available to any student in the district. Packer said Sequim Sunrise Rotary purchased and built the shelves for the closet and makes frequent donations. They also help with student fees for clubs and athletics, and funded four scholarships last year.
“Rotary has been incredibly supportive,” she said.
Apart from the day-to-day needs, Packer said, the issue of housing is a larger, more complex and more expensive problem. Part of the issue, she said, is that homeless students don’t look like what some might think of as a prototypical homeless figure.
“It’s not people you see in streets; [these are] elementary-aged kids,” she said. “These are families [whose parents] have two to three jobs.”
The state superintendent’s office notes that students served by McKinney-Vento programs can include children living in shared housing, motels or campgrounds, hospitals, emergency or transitional shelters, in abandoned buildings or substandard housing, bus or train stations, or other similar situations that are not “fixed,” “regular” or “adequate.”
Said Packer, “We have a gap: [there’s] no shelter for youth. There’s no place for them to go,” she said.
Fortunately, she said, Sequim Sunrise Rotary is also looking to fill that gap.
Creating the fund
The Joe Rantz Rotary Youth Fund was conceived in 2018, several years after the release of “The Boys in the Boat.” Club members realized Sequim was not honoring Rantz in his hometown, Rotarians note on their website describing the fund’s inception.
Around the same time, club members committed to the fund after hearing at their 2018 fundraising auction that two high school seniors had formed a pact to commit suicide the day after the graduation senior party because they didn’t see a future after high school.
“Fortunately, the SHS counselor got wind of their plan and got the girl’s help,” the Rotary site notes. “However, their story was a huge red flag for our club.”
Judy Willman, Rantz’s daughter, was at the 2018 auction as the guest speaker, and shared stories about some of her father’s experiences.
“Our Rotary club raised $28,000 without much of a plan moving forward, just a commitment to provide help in the future,” Rotarians noted.
(The Rotary’s web page, websites.dacdb.com/SequimSunrise_2824_v6 and Facebook page Facebook.com/SequimRotary, have links where those interested can donate directly to the Joe Rantz Sequim Sunrise Rotary Youth Fund.)
Now, the Rotary and Sequin High’s Interact clubs have a major fundraiser in their sights, a “Hollywood style premier” that Rotarians hope can raise as much as $60,000 toward the Joe Rantz Rotary Youth House, McCauley said.
“[The premiere] is the perfect opportunity to share Joe Rantz’s name and the effort behind [him],” Packer said.
“We know the shelter is a few years off,” she said, but that the community can support local students struggling with housing issues through the district, everything from tutoring to doing laundry to helping fund therapy sessions.
“It doesn’t need to be monetary … time is just as important,” Packer said.
Interact helps the effort
SHS’s Interact Club works with local Rotarians to raise awareness about “the five pillars of impact in a community: education, water, health, food and opportunity,” focusing on “projects [that] focus on both local and global levels to evaluate need, create projects, fundraise and reflect on impact.”
Earlier this year, the club hosted a blanket drive, and more recently helped sell tickets for “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a fundraiser for the Sequim Food Bank.
Interact club members meet with Sequim Sunrise Rotary members for breakfast each Friday, and one day Rotarians approached the club to pursue “The Boys in the Boat” premier, club member Ayden Humphries said.
“In general, we’re accustomed to how social media works,” he said.
The club’s video intersperses images of Rantz and local scenes with their entreaty for the film premier.
“It’s so nice … that people associate ‘The Boys in the Boat’ with Sequim,” Interact Club member Julia Jack said.
Interact Club members said they are quite familiar with Rantz’s story. In Sequim in early 2016, the book became fuel for a district-wide read. A collaboration between the Sequim School District and Sequim Education Foundation has put the book into the hands of students with 500 copies of the publication; 250 copies of the Young Readers Adaptation went to Sequim Middle School, and 250 copies of the original edition to Sequim High School.
The North Olympic Library System also reportedly gave away 600 copies of the book.
The library system also used the book as part of its month-long “Clallam Reads” program in October 2016, encouraging readers in its network across the Olympic Peninsula.
“Most people haven’t read his story; this is our hometown hero,” Humphries said. “This is just promoting his legacy.”
SHS teacher Chelsea Reichner, who serves as Interact Club’s advisor, said “The Boys in the Boat” addresses so many themes for readers, in particular the class struggles between individuals like Rantz and those who compete to win in what some see as an elitist sport.
“There are so many themes that could play out [in the film],” she said. “It’s exciting to hear people are reading it again.”
Humphries said the book also lays bare the stark realities of rural life.
“[This] showcases how rural schools struggle,” he said. “It’s a story that you can go on and do great things, but it’s also a struggle.”
A homeless youth survives, then thrives
Born March 31, 1914 in Spokane, Rantz lost his mother at the age of 3. He at times lived with his father Harry and his older brother Fred, as Harry sought work across Western states.
Rantz recalled in a 2006 interview that struggles with his stepmother Thula led to various living situations. In 1925, the family moved to Sequim; Harry had purchased the Sequim Tire shop and Rantz was brought back to live with the family in the apartment above the shop. There was a sort of uneasy truce for several years, but in 1929 the family left Sequim, leaving Joe Rantz, at just age 15, to fend for himself.
It wouldn’t have turned out so well, Rantz recalled in that 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 River 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.
(Current Sequim high students note that Rantz reportedly played a banjo on the same stage at the SHS auditorium where they’d like to screen “The Boys in the Boat.”)
By his senior year, Rantz was hoping to attend college. His brother Fred, a teacher at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, said no university would look at Rantz if he had a diploma from Sequim — there was a question, his daughter Judy Willman recalled years later, of whether Sequim High would be accredited the following year — so his big brother convinced Rantz to move in with him.
A chance encounter with University of Washington crew coach Al Ulbrickson during Rantz’s senior year at Roosevelt High led to a chance at rowing crew at UW. In 1934, UW’s eight-man freshman crew was so good that Ulbrickson promoted the whole team to varsity in 1935. How good were they? In the collegiate four-mile races, they simply got stronger as the race wore on while others didn’t. Rantz and company never lost a collegiate race.
At the USA Olympic trials, UW’s Huskies pulled away from runner-up University of Pennsylvania, earning the right to represent the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, often described as “Hitler’s Olympics.”
The UW crew followed that up with an unexpected, come-from-behind victory at the Olympic Games, defeating the world’s best and giving hope to a nation struggling to emerge from the depths of the Great Depression.
Rantz, who went on to a successful career as a chemical engineer at Boeing, died in September of 2007 at the age of 93, but not before a serendipitous meeting with a neighbor that led to “The Boys in the Boat.”
‘Boys’ get their due
Willman was reading “Under a Flaming Sky,” Daniel James Brown’s account of an 1894 firestorm in Hinckley, Minn., to her father during his time in hospice care.
Brown, as it turned out, was a neighbor.
“All I knew about Joe,” Brown recalled at a book signing in Seattle in 2014, “was that he rowed in an Olympic race. Over the next hour Joe began to spin a tale … it mesmerized me.”
Brown noted in a presentation in 2016 at Port Angeles High School that when he heard Rantz’s story of growing up alone in Sequim, “That really got to me. I was just transported as he told me this story.”
As Rantz filled in the details of the screenplay-worthy twists and turns of plot — U.W.’s world record-setting preliminary race, the Americans’ poor lane placement in the finals designed to give Germany and Italy an advantage, the Americans’ last-place standing halfway through that final, the furious charge that gave Rantz and company gold — Brown knew he had something more than an anecdote to pass along in conversation. Others needed to know this story.
It wasn’t so much the championship race that entranced Brown, but rather the humble beginnings of Rantz and the eight others on the team — oarsmen Don Hume, George Hunt, Jim McMillan, Johnny White, Gordon Adam, Charles Day, Roger Morris and coxswain Bob Moch — and the generation they represent.
“One of my motives for writing this book is to honor all of them,” Brown said.
Brown penned the best-selling book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” published on June 4, 2013. The book was a hit with readers regionally and across the nation.
“Against all odds, Brown’s book has become a global phenomenon,” Timothy Egan of The New York Times wrote.
The story of the gold medal-winning crew inspired a 2016 PBS American Experience documentary, “The Boys of ’36,” and the film rights, purchased back in 2011, have become fodder for a film to be released this fall, with Clooney directing.