After that rough introduction the to LaSalle rowing program, Joe Sweeney did come back to Crescent, again and again. He discovered that coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom “Bear” Curran were not just founts of rowing wisdom, but also had some remarkable rowing stories from their younger days.
One of Joe Sweeney’s favorites was the story of the Reich Chancellery theft.
The American “Big Eight” that won the gold at Liege, Belgium in 1930 consisted of Charles McIlvaine in bow; Tom Curran, 2; Jack Bratten, 3; John McNichol, 4; Myrlin Janes, 5; Joe Doughert, 6; Dan Barrows, 7; Chet Turner, stroke; and Tom Mack, coxswain. In the final, the Penn AC “Big Eight” beat Italy by two lengths, and Denmark by six lengths. During their trial runs, the Philadelphia Irish “Big Eight” made 2,000 meters in an astounding 5 minutes and 18 seconds. According to Joe Sweeney, “there was considerable speculation that this might be the fastest eight ever seen.”
The Philadelphians of Penn AC teammates tried to repeat their time to enter the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, but they sadly lost to crews from the University of California and the University of Washington crews, respectively. In 1936, the men of the Penn AC eight went to Berlin to participate in the controversial, high profile Olympic games of that year. Although they didn’t make the US eight, the Penn AC men rowed in various smaller boats.
There, they faced a few challenges. The first had to with equipment. The University of Washington crew (of The Boys in the Boat fame) brought their own boat with them: a magnificent cedar-and-mahogany eight handbuilt by the British-born master boatbuilder George Pocock. Yet the other American rowers, including the Penn AC boys, had to make do with quads and pairs loaned to them by the Germans.
The Nazis had their own agenda: proving the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. at the expense of the foreign teams.
“The rowers swear they were sabotaged,” Sweeney said. Tom Curran and Joe Dougherty, who rowed in the Penn AC pair, didn’t even make it to the finals.
The second problem was that their coach, Frank Mueller of Vesper, was a German national who was terrified of being detained in his native land and being conscripted. He stayed behind.
The young men of Washington won the gold at the 1936 Olympics in their American boat, running the Langer See course in a mere 6:25.4, beating out Italy at 6:26, and Germany at 6:26.4. Bringing their own boat across the Atlantic probably made that .4 second difference.
After the games were over, Dougherty, Curran, and the Penn AC boys stayed in Berlin for a week to take in the sights of the Germany capital, which on the surface seemed radiant and prosperous, a shining symbol of a renewed Germany. Little did they know of the concentration camps, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The highlight of their week in Berlin was a tour of the Reich Chancellery, recently renovated and expanded by architects Paul Troost and Leonhard Gall in a sleek, somewhat sinister Art Deco style.
While touring Adolf Hitler’s private office, the story went, Tom Curran spied an elegant pen set on the Fuhrer’s desk. While no one was looking, he swiped it, and took it back to his room at the Olympic village. That night, a group of men wearing black jackets, swastika armbands, and high jackboots showed up at the Penn AC dormitory, waking the men up.
It was the Gestapo.
“The pen set is missing,” the lead Gestapo officer snapped at the Americans. “We want it back.”
Joe Dougherty, who was the captain, took a guess that it was the “bad boy” of the group who committed the crime. He turned to Tom Curran and ordered him to hand the pen set over to the Gestapo. Curran went back to his bunk and gave it to Dougherty. The stern, starchy Philadelphia Penn AC captain then solemnly handed Hitler’s pens back to the Gestapo officer.
He turned to Curran and punched him square in the jaw. Curran fell to the floor, groaning in agony.
Dougherty then said to the Gestapo officer, “Are you satisfied or are you next?”
“I’ve heard that story from two or three other people,” Joe Sweeney said of the coaches he got to know twenty years later when he towed at LaSalle. “They were gentlemen. They had their own ethics. Really good guys.”
Joe Sweeney, “History: The Saga of a Philadelphia Rowing Club,” Penn AC. http://pennac.org/about-us/history/, accessed March 27, 2017.
Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.