Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part IV)

Vesper Boat Club, April 8, 2003. The club’s motto is “All together!”

When the Penn AC Olympians came back to Depression-era Philadelphia, they got jobs as builders and beer salesmen. Beer gave them their wages and also their strength.   “These were Depression era guys,” Joe Sweeney said of the men who would become his coaches and had grown up hauling kegs around. “They used to take the trolley from West Philadelphia, bring a lunch bag, row, eat lunch, and then go home.  All  were beer salesmen and worked for beer manufacturers. They’d go around to bars, take orders for beer, had to buy a round for everyone in the bar. I got to like them because I was from their old neighborhood. I got that whole culture thing.”

After he graduated from La Salle University in 1964, Joe Sweeney joined the Penn AC Rowing Association, the rowing club most associated with the “Irish mafia” godfather John B. “Jack” Kelly.  As an up-and-coming rower and building contractor, Kelly had spent his formative years at  the venerable Vesper Boat Club. In the 1920s, he and a group of his Irish-American friends founded the Pennsylvania Athletic Club and built a magnificent clubhouse just off Rittenhouse Square. Sadly, the club was completed just after the stock market crashed in 1929, and Penn AC had to move to more modest quarters.  Still personally flush with cash thanks to New Deal building contracts, the Democratic Party powerbroker and head of “Kelly for Brickwork” approached Vesper with a proposition: in exchange for a name change, Penn AC would give financial support to Vesper’s rowing programs.

Vesper turned Kelly down.

Undaunted, Kelly then set his sights on West Philadelphia Boat Club, which had fallen on hard times and only had about 4 active rowing members.  West Philadelphia happily agreed, and it changed its name to the Penn AC Rowing Association. Over the years, Penn AC became a hub of Catholic high school rowing. From this club, Curran and Dougherty coached generations of students from West Catholic High School, LaSalle High School, Cardinal O’Hara, and St. Joseph’s University.

Belfield, the former Wister mansion and home of the President of La Salle University. 5596 N.20th Street, October 14, 1957.

Patriarch Kelly took a liking to Joe Sweeney, the up-and-coming novice Lasalle rower and Navy vet. Sweeney, although he had never rowed before coming to college, quickly proved to be a skilled and powerful oarsman.  Shortly before his death in 1960, Kelly gave Sweeney a job with the Parks Commission. Kelly’s son John B. Kelly Jr. (known as Kel) carried on his family legacy, both as a rower and coxswain for Penn AC.  Kel had honed his athletic prowess under his father’s tutelage and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1947, Kel won the Diamond Sculls Regatta at Henley, the same aristocratic contest that  his father could not enter because, supposedly, he had worked with his hands as a bricklayer.

“I got to know the family and I was of the age where young Jack was competing and I was in some races he was in,” Joe remembered.

He also got to know Jack’s beautiful sister Grace, who occasionally came back to Philadelphia from Hollywood.  When Grace was a girl, Kelly had used his position as president of the Parks Commission to get a playhouse built for her behind Belmont Mansion.  “Grace Kelly used to study her lines and performances in a bar on City Avenue called The Wynnewood,” Joe remembered. “We would stop there while on the rounds with the rowers and coaches who worked as beer salesmen.”

Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly in the 1956 movie High Society, based on the 1940 play The Philadelphia Story

When Kelly came back to Philadelphia after it was announced she would be marrying Prince Rainer II of Monaco, she of course paid a visit to Boathouse Row. As the star of the 1956 film High Society made the rounds with the Philadelphia rowing community, Joe Sweeney served as her chaperone. By the 1980s, Joe Sweeney was Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, and traveled with Kel to Hong Kong to be the first Westerners to compete in the Crown Colony’s dragonboat races.

On the way to Hong Kong, the twenty men from Philadelphia had a layover in San Francisco.  They used their downtime to train, running up and down the city’s hills. “At the top of one hill, we stopped and rested,” Joe recalled, “and there was a residential brick building being built. Young Jack started to describe how a brick building was like a strong family.

“You have to have strong family connections,” Joe recalled Kel saying. “Each course was a family, each individual brick was a person. Great Irish malarkey.”

The men of Philadelphia won the silver in the Hong Kong dragon boat regatta, the first Western team to win a medal in the race’s history.

When Jack Kelly Jr. died in 1985, Joe served as the usher for the Monaco side of the family at the memorial service.

Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the Academy Award winning actress who became Princess of Monaco, in an MGM publicity photo from 1954.

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.

 

 

 

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One Comment

  1. Seamus Keating
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    As a rower I am familiar with this story. I have also had the great pleasure of knowing some of the great oarsmen from boathouse row, and also rowed on this stretch of river. I also come from the same town as Sean Drea. 2018 is my 50th year of rowing.

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