An Inspirational Rowing Reunion of Jensen Beach Alumni

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By Glenn Bunting

Today, it would surprise many Florida Tech students and alumni to learn that FIT was once home to two vibrant, bustling Florida campuses. One, of course, is the university’s current, historic location in Melbourne; the second, much smaller campus, was located some 70 miles south, in the community of Jensen Beach.

FIT Jensen Beach, as it was known, was located on a picturesque semitropical riverfront compound that had previously been home to another small college. When FIT acquired that property in the early 1970s and established the School of Marine and Environmental Technology, an entire new generation of proud FIT alumni was born.

This story chronicles the inspirational reunion of five such alumni …

In the fall of 1973, FIT rowing coach Bill Jurgens transported an old but serviceable eight-oared rowing shell from Melbourne to the Jensen Beach campus—to help establish the FIT Jensen Beach rowing team. John Hennon, an accomplished oarsman and recent graduate of Florida Southern College, was then living and working in the Jensen Beach area. Hennon soon learned of the fledgling rowing squad and accepted the challenge of developing the FIT Jensen Beach Crew.

By the following fall, Hennon had built a solid nucleus of more than two dozen rowers and had resourcefully raised funds from the local community to add an additional eight-oared shell to the small team’s “fleet.” That same year, four freshmen, Bill Bater, Glenn Bunting, Jay Niec and Tim Tress, joined the team. Bater was a talented and successful high school rower from the Philadelphia area; neither Bunting, Niec nor Tress knew the first thing about the sport.

Dad Vail, 1975

Nevertheless, by the end of that 1974–75 school year, Hennon took this group of freshmen rowers, along with coxswain and teammate Eric Botnick, to the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, then considered the “Small College National Championship” for the sport of rowing.

At that two-day event in May 1975, Botnick skillfully steered a borrowed shell containing the FIT Jensen Beach rowers down the Schuylkill River race course in the “Collegiate Freshman Four” event. The crew advanced handily through their preliminary heats, earning a lane assignment in the Saturday afternoon Finals—next to five other crews from prestigious colleges across the country. Then, in one of the more improbable races of the regatta, the upstart FIT Jensen Beach crew earned the respect and appreciation of thousands of cheering spectators lining the banks of the Schuylkill River as they rowed an almost flawless race that saw them surge strongly into the lead at approximately the 1,200 meter mark of the 2,000 meter race course, and then gradually increase that lead for an open-water victory over the entire field.

Thus it was that the FIT Jensen Beach Crew earned gold medals at Philadelphia’s 1975 Dad Vail Regatta, adding an inspiring exclamation point to that year’s dominant performance by the FIT Melbourne Crew—who captured gold medals in no fewer than three (!) of the Dad Vail Regatta’s eight-oared events.

Although each member of that victorious FIT Jensen Beach crew continued their collegiate rowing careers, the 1975 Dad Vail would be their last collegiate race together, as two of their members transferred to other schools, including that “other” FIT campus.

Eventually, the members of the 1975 FIT Jensen Beach freshman crew completed their educations, raised families and developed successful careers. Unfortunately, as so often occurs, the teammates also lost contact with one another.

Fast Forward Four DECADES …

In 2015, one member of the crew, upon reflecting on the now-40th anniversary of their Dad Vail victory, located another crew member via the internet. Together, they spent the next couple of months tracking down their remaining three teammates.

After reconnecting with one another and learning that each member of their boat had been blessed with good health and had remained active and fit, the five teammates decided to do what any other similarly situated group of rowers would do—climb into a rowing shell together for some practice, and then return to the site of their previous victory for a reunion race on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River.

February 2016 practice session with Bill Jurgens in Melbourne

The teammates’ first challenge was to find the time, and a suitable location, to reunite for practice. All five individuals are immersed in busy, challenging careers (banking, engineering, law, media production, safety/IH) and reside in California, Indiana, Maryland, Florida and Louisiana, respectively. Notwithstanding that geographic dispersion, the question of location was solved with a single phone call—to Bill Jurgens, who, although officially “retired” from coaching, continues to serve as Florida Tech’s athletics director. Jurgens immediately agreed to donate one of his rare “open” weekends to coach the rowers in Melbourne. With that offer in hand, the five crew members coordinated their work and family commitments and traveled to Melbourne in late February to reunite for five on-the-water practices during a three-day weekend under Jurgens’ tutelage.

By the end of that February practice session, Jurgens’ efforts were readily apparent—the crew members were again synchronized to move together in the boat as one, and there were some promising signs of boat speed. The plan was on track! The crew agreed to step up their training programs at home and race together at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in late October.

For countless hours over the next eight months, the crew members doggedly immersed themselves in their respective training regimens—in order to be in “racing shape” by Oct. 29, 2016, the date of the regatta.

When that date came, they were ready.

Back to the Schuylkill …

The crew members convened in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, Oct. 26, for two days of practice prior to their race. Fittingly, John Hennon, their FIT Jensen Beach coach, joined them as well; his presence made possible by some additional internet searching that had finally revealed his Washington State address. The crew was now complete!

On Thursday morning, Oct. 27, at Bachelor’s Barge Club on Philadelphia’s historic “Boathouse Row,” the crew gently lowered a borrowed four-oared rowing shell into the Schuylkill River, repeating the identical process from 41 years earlier.

Their practice row that Thursday was encouraging, as was their Friday row. As an added bonus, Hennon was able to borrow a coaching launch from Drexel University, allowing him to coach the crew as he followed them on the river.

Finally, race day!

After waking up to a brisk, sunny, autumn day, the crew members made their way to the boathouse for final pre-race preparations. By 9 a.m., the crew pushed away from the dock to begin their warmup while proceeding three miles upriver to the regatta’s starting line. An hour later, they started their race.

Forty-one years melted away in an instant. The FIT Jensen Beach crew had yet another extraordinarily strong and smooth race on the Schuylkill. Seventeen minutes later, they had completed their journey! A journey that had begun at freshman orientation in early September, 1974, at the Jensen Beach campus of Florida Institute of Technology.

From left: in the order in which they rowed in the boat, beginning in the bow: Tim Tress, Jay Niec, Glenn Bunting, Bill Bater and Eric Botnick, cox

The bond between these members of the 1975 FIT Jensen Beach crew is one that has remained strong and intact for over four decades, and that is sure to continue for many more. Now, these particular Florida Tech alumni have already begun preparation for their next challenge—more training, and an encore performance at next year’s Head of the Schuylkill Regatta!

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Christena Callahan is editor of Florida Tech Today magazine.

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