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A Tale of an Oar: A Hidden Message Revealed

by Charles C. Lewis ’68, ’71L

My father, Charles Irving Lewis ’30, ’31 (M.A.), was a member of the Harry Lee crew that raced for many years against the Albert Sidney crew on the Maury River. He died in February of 1994, but I still have his 1931 Calyx that shows him standing defiantly on a wooden dock with his Harry Lee teammates, each holding an upright oar that towered over their heads.

When I came to Washington and Lee as a freshman in 1964, I remember seeing the crossed oars of the two crews on display in Doremus Gymnasium. The oars reflected the colors of each crew: blue for Albert Sidney and red for Harry Lee. I would never have known the significance of those crossed oars if my father had not pulled one for Harry Lee almost two decades before I was born. Since crew was no longer a University sport in 1964, I suspect my classmates must have seen the oars only as decoration. But that was not so with me.

From the time I was a small child, I was aware that my father had rowed in races on the Maury River. No, my father did not tell me bedtime stories of long-ago victories or defeats in those races. Instead, I could see evidence of those races in the rather dark and damp basement of our home in Petersburg, Va. For up on a wall, over my father’s old, fat-tire bicycle, was a single wooden oar that he had once used at W&L as a young man when he rowed for Harry Lee.

It was probably the first family story I ever remembered. No one seems to have told me about it; I just remember always knowing it. If a crew member pulled so hard on an oar that it broke, he was allowed to take the oar home with him as a remembrance of his time on the river. The end of this oar, where the rower’s hands would have gripped it, had been cleanly broken off. As a child, I imagined my father making one last mighty pull on that oar as Harry Lee raced desperately to beat Albert Sidney, only to hear the ominous crack and to have the oar fall lifelessly in his hands. But whether the race was won or not, my father had his trophy. And there it was on the wall for his three small sons, all future W&L graduates, to see and believe in their father’s strength.

Indeed, the oar was to me a symbol of my father’s mighty strength, and it certainly must have symbolized something similar to him — perhaps the vigor of his youth — because he always kept the oar with him. Over his long career as a Presbyterian minister, the oar followed the family as it moved from town to town and church to church, and then to still more places after his retirement. Strangely, though, the oar never had a place of honor in the home. Instead, it was usually stored in a basement, a garage, a barn or a backyard shed.

After my father died and the home was broken up, I did not take the oar with me. I am not even sure where it was at that time. My brother John finally ended up with the oar. Almost two decades after our father’s death, he telephoned me out of the blue and asked if I wanted the oar that he was then storing in a backyard shed. Amazingly, the oar had recently been on my mind, and I accepted his offer immediately.

Not having seen the oar for many years, I was amazed by its lightness and its length, over eight feet long. I saw that the end of the oar was cleanly broken off near the point where the oar had been set in the oarlock. Looking at the Calyx picture of my father holding perhaps the same oar, I am able to estimate that about three feet of the oar is missing, making the oar’s original length about 12 feet long. Certainly the oar in the picture is over twice my father’s height, and he was probably 5 feet, 10 inches tall. Even at eight feet long, the shortened oar barely fit in my car for the trip home.

It was later on a hot summer day that I took the oar out to my backyard and began to clean off the dust and dirt that had accumulated on it over the years. I used a lemon oil treatment that was designed to clean wood and restore its natural oils. As I reverentially rubbed the oil on the old oar, the wood turned a much darker and richer color, and I had a warm feeling that the treatment was peeling back the years to 1928 and 1929, when my father rowed with Harry Lee. And when I rubbed the oil over the paddle portion of the oar, I immediately noticed that the oil brought out the color red that was barely visible through the dirt and dust of the years. Yes, indeed, it was the red of old Harry Lee shining clearly through the years!

And then suddenly, quite magically, as I rubbed the oil over a portion of the oar that had otherwise no describable features, some letters and a number, obviously scratched by hand into the oar, appeared distinctly before my eyes. Apparently the oil, in making the outer wood of the oar darker, did not seep into the scratched indentations and darken them in a similar manner. The resulting contrast in color then revealed to my eyes the previously hidden letters and number: “H.F. Madison, Jr., ’19.”

This revelation stunned me for a moment as I stared at it with astonishment, trying to take in what had so suddenly appeared as if from nowhere. Of course, I eventually recognized the letters and number as a name and a date, possibly that of a W&L student who had previously used the same oar as my father.

Who then was H.F. Madison Jr.? Surprisingly, my deceased father was able to give me the answer. In 1981, he had sent to me a Washington and Lee alumni directory. Using that directory, I found an entry for H. Flood Madison Jr. ’20,* from Monroe, La. He had attended W&L during the years 1916–1920. This entry apparently identified the person who scratched his name on the oar. The only inconsistency between the directory entry and the scratched letters and number on the oar was that H. Flood Madison Jr. graduated in 1920 and not 1919. Why then did he put ’19 after his name and not ’20, the year of his graduation? My guess is that he meant to identify the year when he scratched his name on the oar and not the date when he hoped to graduate.

Assuming that the ’19 indicates the year when H.F. Madison Jr. scratched his name on the oar, it dates back at least 10 or 11 years before my father ever used it. Using the year 1919 as a starting point, the oar in 2013 would be at least 94 years old. World War I had just been over for a year, and the Great Depression was still a decade away when H.F. Madison Jr. scratched his name and the date on the oar.

The oar could have been used by a number of W&L students even before H.F. Madison Jr. used it in 1919. Others certainly used it afterwards and before my father ever joined the Harry Lee crew. The more I thought about the number of W&L students who also might have used the oar, the more I began to see the oar not just as a symbol of my father’s great strength, but instead as a symbol of the long line of W&L students, like H.F. Madison Jr. and my father, who over the years have loved Washington and Lee, its history and traditions, as well as Lexington and the Valley of Virginia. Those students, of course, rowed not just for Harry Lee, but also for Albert Sidney, and, indeed, include all of us who have over the years come to Washington and Lee and left with a part of it in our blood.

Thinking of that long line of students reminded me of a passage that I read years ago in Dr. Crenshaw’s history of Washington and Lee, “General Lee’s College.” In that passage, he described an event that took place in 1869, four years after General Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. General Lee, by this time, was president of Washington College, and he sat upon his horse on a high bank of the North River (later the Maury) and watched a boat race on the river between Washington College students. He was joined by faculty from Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute, some of whom had served with him in the army. Women and children were also there to cheer along with the others for the team they hoped would win the race. This event, so simple in description and seemingly insignificant, was in fact significant in that it occurred so soon after the death, destruction and desolation brought about by the Civil War in Virginia.

The event was also significant for another reason as well. The boat race on the river that day in 1869, according to Dr. Crenshaw, triggered the “official encouragement” of crew at Washington College. The next year, 1870, two rival clubs were formed, Albert Sidney and Harry Lee, and an annual regatta developed between the two clubs as a regular part of Commencement. I suppose we do not know the names of the students who raced on that memorable day in 1869, but they certainly started the long line of men who pulled the oars for Albert Sidney and Harry Lee.

I should add that my father’s oar now has a place of honor in my home. After cleaning and oiling it, I bought brackets, on which it now rests high over the bookshelves in my home office, where I can see it as I type this Tale of an Oar.

Charlie Lewis is a professor of law at Campbell University, Raleigh, N.C. His brothers are Dr. John Lewis ’66 and Dr. Tom Lewis ’64.

*Madison appears in W&L records as both Henry Flood Madison and Henry Ford Madison. According to the 1920 Calyx, Henry Ford “Buddy” Madison Jr. served as the president of the Harry Lee Club and as No. 2 on the first crew.