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Douglas Turner: Memories of the West Side Rowing Club

In the days during and just after World War II, important things were done on a handshake. For example, people thought for years that the old West Side Rowing Club near the foot of West Ferry Street was a private club.

One day, I ordered a strange visitor out of the club’s bathroom. Overhearing, a coach came flying out his locker and gave me the dressing down of my life. The coach, intercepting the befuddled man down the road, gently led the fellow back to the bathroom for his moment.

The old club boasted a paneled ballroom with a boulder fireplace, a kitchen and a veranda with breathtaking views of the upper Niagara River rapids.

Then in the 1960s, The Buffalo Evening News disclosed the club was built and owned by the City of Buffalo, and funded with appropriations spliced deceptively into the budget.

After a fire, the current club was built privately but on publicly owned land. There was no permit, no hearing and no draft environmental impact statement.

All this was inspired by the club’s president in the first half of the 20th century, Michael J. Broderick. The club was his quiet obsession. Broderick mortgaged his home to pay for the passage on the U.S.S. Manhattan of the club’s entry – a four-oared crew – in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The WSRC had a heavy “sectional” boat in three parts it piled atop a sedan (crushing its roof) for the 1949 schoolboy championship near Detroit. Lafayette High School won a silver in the nationals and gold in the middle states regattas in that wretched boat.

For the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, Broderick always arranged with the New York Central and Canadian National railroads to carry the 65-foot-long shells in a special mail car to Port Dalhousie and back – for free. That is, until the Central brought a young hot-shot to Buffalo to clean up bad habits. He told Broderick the gift of the car is discontinued.

Hours later, Broderick reminded the young railroad executive that the city had not inspected the Central’s East Buffalo properties in years. Afterward, the big mail car was again provided – for free.

It was through Broderick’s influence that the club’s coaches miraculously found public employment in the Great Depression – in either the police or fire departments, or the U.S. Customs and Immigration services.

West Side had many fine volunteer coaches and leaders, including the late “Doc” Schaab, Charles Fontana and Irving Treubel. For me, another one of them stood out particularly: an Army vet and police lieutenant named John Bennett.

Bennett entered the clubhouse with the sunlight at his back dressed in a ski trooper’s parka. It was a stunning moment. He had movie star good looks and he governed his crews by attraction instead of fear.

Bennett never swore, or smoked, and never, ever criticized his charges in front of others. He did have a weapon. He believed in the health benefits of garlic, chewing a few cloves after breakfast. So when he did corner you alone you didn’t forget his words, let alone his breath.

A bit of the magic dissipated with Broderick’s death in 1951.

As a requiem, some old friends boarded a power boat after his burial and rode down the canal through the lock, visiting the old beer halls, and bicycle clubs. They were razed later for the Niagara Thruway.

What remains of that time are corroded medals, a parade of happy sprites and a line of once skinny kids who got a lift up from the West Side Rowing Club.

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