A Legacy, in the Water and Out

Renaming of Boathouse Will Honor Retired Coach’s Contributions as Motivator, Mentor, Father Figure

(This article ran on June 1, 2006. See the original here.)

By Jamie Stockwell, Washington Post Staff Writer

Anyone who has rowed the Potomac in Alexandria in the last 60 years is no doubt familiar with the sprightly 80-year-old man known simply as “Dee.” One only has to wander inside the boathouse on the banks of the Potomac in Old Town Alexandria to understand the influence the retired high school crew coach has had on the tightknit rowing community since the 1940s.Dee Campbell

Inside the A-frame structure, the storied career of T.C. Williams High School coach De’Arcey “Dee” Campbell is on display, with team photographs and numerous trophies. Next weekend, the most notable recognition of his work will be on the boathouse, when it becomes the Dee Campbell Rowing Center.

“The institution of rowing in Alexandria is Dee Campbell,” said T.C. Williams Principal John Porter. The school owns the boathouse, which was built in 1987 and is used daily by students and residents. “It is a tribute to the man who was, and is, the grandfather of rowing for Alexandria.”

In April, the Alexandria School Board approved renaming the boathouse, which has been known as the Alexandria Boathouse or the Madison Street Boathouse, because of its location on Madison Street in Old Town. Campbell will be feted at a dedication ceremony June 11, and dozens of his former students are expected to attend.

Campbell retired last summer after 46 years coaching. He moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., but plans to drive back to Alexandria for the festivities. In a soft gentlemanly drawl, Campbell said that he was informed last year by parents of former student rowers about the campaign to name the boathouse after him and that he feels “mighty honored.”

“I can’t stand to talk too much about it because I get choked up,” he said. “It’s a real honor. . . . I’ve got to feel good about it.”

After some prodding, Campbell talked about rowing competitions 40 years ago and the influence he has had on a generation of youths. He coached the boys’ crew team for several years and took over the girls’ team a year after it was formed in 1974. Many of the students were from single-parent homes, he said, with no strong male influences in their lives. Others had self-esteem issues and were awkward and shy.

And so, in a role that felt completely natural, he became a surrogate father of sorts to countless girls, the man to whom they could turn to learn about life, to know how it feels to be loved and supported simply for being themselves. The student rowers “were my children,” said the lifelong bachelor who has no children of his own. “I was married to crew.”

One woman who so adores Campbell and grew to rely upon his guidance and on him like a parent said that when it came time to marry her boyfriend, there was no doubt who would walk her down the aisle.

“After I met Dee, he immediately became a powerful force in my life,” said Nora Lansing, a 1981 T.C. Williams graduate who started rowing for Campbell the summer before seventh grade. “I had seen my own dad maybe three times in my life, and Dee stepped in and became that father for me. He encouraged me and became just a huge part of my life. It was life-sustaining for me. It made all the difference.”

Campbell worked as a supervisor for Washington Gas and coached the rowers before and after school. Lansing said that despite his day job, Campbell was never late.

“He poured himself into the kids. He always looked for the best in someone and would expect a lot out of you,” she said.

Their best is what he received, judging by the number of championships the T.C. girls’ crew team took home.

The team was formed two years after federal legislation prohibited schools from discriminating against or excluding girls from sports. Campbell said the team’s first coach didn’t enjoy the job and quit after a year, so he took over. The first year under Campbell, only 13 girls rowed, but the team won its first championship, at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta. Dozens of championships followed over the years, and more and more girls joined.

In 1996, Campbell was named the All-Met Girls’ Rowing Coach of the Year by The Washington Post, which recognizes the region’s best players and coaches. The following year, the undefeated senior women’s eight became the only women’s eight in U.S. history to sweep the renowned Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia, the Scholastic Rowing Association’s national competition and the Canadian equivalent.

These days, the T.C. Williams girls’ team boasts an average of 85 athletes. In addition to instilling a lifelong love of the sport in hundreds of girls, the team and Campbell have launched numerous rowing careers, including that of Linda Miller, who competed with the U.S. team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Miller, who coaches the boy’s crew team at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, said Campbell “planted the seed and then nurtured it all the way to the national team.”

“He’s the reason I became any kind of athlete whatsoever,” she said. “I didn’t do sports at all because I had asthma and was always sick. But he gave me the confidence and the motivation to try. My love of the sport came from him.”

Still, it wasn’t so much Campbell’s passion for rowing that Miller said she continues to carry with her, but the lessons he taught her and the other students about life. Campbell helped them develop the talents and traits that would carry them into adulthood, she said.

Since the 1940s, when Campbell began rowing at what was then George Washington High School in Alexandria, his muscular frame and broad grin have been fixtures on the water and at the boathouse. The accolades he has received from coaching and mentoring hundreds of students have made him an icon in the city.

So it was fitting that the city’s only boathouse be named after him, said Debbie Wells, president of the Alexandria Crew Boosters, the fundraising arm of the student teams. Wells said it is traditional to name a boat for someone who has made a significant contribution to the rowing community.

“But a boat just didn’t seem like enough,” she said. “The boathouse, now that just seemed like the perfect idea. It’s something good and positive for the community.”

Wells and other crew boosters spearheaded the effort and collected dozens of e-mails from students and parents, presenting them to the School Board for a final vote in late April. It was a unanimous decision.