Bringing home the gold

Bill Becklean '54 honors Exeter with his Olympic rowing medal.

Patrick Garrity
July 30, 2018
Bill Becklean (right).

Bill Becklean ’54 (right) with assistant crew coach Greg Spanier. 

One crisp morning in May, as a crowd gathered behind Saltonstall Boathouse and the Squamscott River was on the rise, Director of Athletics Shane LaPointe sidled up to a bystander. 

“Want to see something cool?” she asked, reaching into her coat pocket and fishing out a timeworn leather clamshell.

She pried open the box to reveal its treasure: a gleaming Olympic gold medal.

The story of how a gold medal from the 1956 Melbourne Games found its way into LaPointe’s pocket is actually Bill Becklean’s story, coming full circle that morning on the banks of the Squamscott.

This was the place Becklean ’54 came of age six decades earlier as a small boy from the Plains who found mentorship and brotherhood on the river. Becklean connects his time at Exeter and his experience as coxswain in Big Red crews with so much success that followed for him — Yale, Harvard, a career in investment banking and, of course, that Olympic gold.

Bill Becklean's Olympic gold medal.

So, Becklean was back on the river on that spring morning to present the Academy with a very special gift. The coxswain of the 1956 Olympic champion eight-man crew was back to deliver his gold to Exeter.

“I didn’t want it to end up in somebody’s sock drawer,” Becklean told the crowd. Instead, the medal will be placed on permanent display at Thompson Field House along with his Exeter and U.S. Olympic jerseys and his megaphone.

Becklean, 82, has great tales about his days coxing at Exeter and Yale and about winning the gold. But he purposely led his remarks to the assembled audience with a story about H. Hamilton “Hammy” Bissell ’29; P ’58. Becklean credits the legendary teacher, coach, mentor and admissions officer for leading him to Exeter and introducing him to the sport of rowing.

“Hammy Bissell changed a lot of lives, none more than mine,” Becklean said through tears. “This gold medal wouldn’t be mine without Hammy Bissell.”

Becklean’s presence at Exeter was the product of Bissell’s travels across the Midwest to find boys “from every quarter” to broaden the Academy’s ranks. A fortuitous recommendation by a former boss of Becklean’s mother in Kansas City led him to an interview with Bissell. After some tests, some uneasy questions and a piano performance that Becklean remembers as “a disaster,” he figured his chances were sunk. But Bissell suggested the two take a walk.

It was on that walk that Bissell first told Becklean of his days as a former coxswain for Exeter and then Harvard. “He said I might like crew at Exeter, and I was immediately intrigued,” Becklean recalls.

His first outing on the Squamscott hooked him. “Coxing a rowing shell was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and I was eager to learn all I could about it,” Becklean wrote in his essay, “A Lifetime on the River.”

As a lower, he coxed the varsity boat that won the New England title, and he pursued his newfound passion after moving on to Yale in 1954. There, as the cox of the varsity eight that included fellow Exonians Dave Wight ’52 and Bob Morey ’54, Becklean guided the Yale boat to victory in the Olympic trials and the right to represent the United States at the 1956 Melbourne Games. 

A disappointing heat required the Americans to scramble through the repechage, a “losers bracket” contest in which the top two finishers earn a place in the final. Following a hard-fought but psychologically crucial win against Australia in the semifinal, the American boat edged the Canadians and Australians for the gold in a frantic race to the tape.

Becklean (front) and his gold medal-winning American teammates.

Wight, who died late last year, told the New Haven Register in 2016, “I have a recording of the radio broadcast of the race, and if I ever want to get my heart rate up, all I have to do is play that recording.”

Four members of the team remain: Becklean, Morey, Thomas Charlton and Caldwell Esselstyn. Of the 1956 Melbourne crew, only one, Rusty Wailes, went on to compete in another Olympics, winning a second gold medal in 1960.

But Becklean’s love for the sport never waned. He continues to race both as a rower and a coxswain and he coaches the boys novice team at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School near his Massachusetts home.

He also has never forgotten how he wound up in a rowing shell. He donated a boat to a Boston rowing club with one stipulation: that it be christened the Hammy Bissell. On the day he graciously gave Exeter his gold medal, the Academy dedicated a new four-person shell, the Hammy Bissell, to Becklean’s delight.

“The sport has given me many hours of pleasure, taught me many lessons in life and established an irreplaceable network of friends around the world,” Becklean wrote. “It has, in a sense, been the mainstream of my life.”

As he presented his gold medal to LaPointe and crew coaches Albert Leger and Sally Morris, Becklean closed his poignant remarks with a simple salute.

“Thank you, Hammy. Thank you, Exeter.” 

A boat for Hammy

Head of the Charles shell named for Exeter icon

A walk among the rowing shells hanging idle in Saltonstall Boathouse is a stroll through Academy history.

There’s a boat called Salty, for none other than the boathouse’s namesake, former Principal William G. Saltonstall ’24.

Swifty is named after longtime rowing coach Charlie Swift‘24; P ‘55, P ‘59. E. Arthur Gilcreast bears the name of another legendary coach and one of the program’s most loyal benefactors. Anja honors the late beloved math teacher and visionary, Anja Greer.

Now, a new shell hangs among the hallowed. Hammy Bissell, a speedy, four-seat racer, took up residency last fall. The sleek black Resolute Z4 is named for H. Hamilton Bissell ’29, who spent a lifetime at PEA as a teacher, coach and director of scholarships.

Becklean and Exonians dedicate the Hammy Bissell shell with sparkling cider.

The shell, made possible by the E.A. Gilcreast Fund, was bought with one prestigious race in mind: the Head of the Charles regatta in Boston. Exeter’s interscholastic crew season is in the spring, but two years ago, the school decided to enter the Head of the Charles as Phillips Exeter Academy, even though that competition occurs in the fall, when crew is generally an intramural endeavor. PEA strictly races eight-person crews in the spring, so it was decided that procuring a four-seater offered the best chance to field a competitive entry in the October event.

Competitive, indeed. A crew of Evan Saltman ’18 (cox), Lucas Stevens ’18 (stroke), Jacques von Steuben ’18 (threeseat), Will Kalikman ’19 (two-seat) and Francis Baviera Maloney ’18 (bow seat) powered the Hammy Bissell to an eighth-place finish among 86 entries at the 53rd regatta.

The shell was formally dedicated May 13, with the Head of the Charles crew dousing the bow with sparkling cider, then taking the Hammy for a ceremonial spin. The boat sliced the black water of the Squamscott River, straight and swift. 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.