Honoring the largest high school regatta in the world

This week in North Philly Notes, we honor the recent Stotesbury Cup Regatta by posting an excerpt from Dotty Brown’s Boathouse Row

Edward T. Stotesbury was 78 years old in 1927 when he decided to underwrite a high school rowing cup. Little did he know that this small gesture would prove to be his life’s greatest legacy, setting the course for a legendary high school regatta.

Called “Philadelphia’s first citizen,” and a “banker’s banker” by newspapers and civic leaders of his time, “Ned” Stotesbury was one of the richest men in the nation, with a net worth of more than $100 million (nearly $1.4 billion today). A widower for many years, at age 62 he married a socialite and built her Whitemarsh Hall, a 100,000-square-foot mansion on 300 acres in suburban Wyndmoor, Pa. With 147 rooms, 28 bathrooms, and 24 fireplaces, it was described as the “Versailles of America.” The couple summered and wintered in their other palatial retreats in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Palm Beach, Florida, where they entertained the likes of Henry Ford, Will Rogers, and the crown prince of Sweden.

Boathouse Row_smThe son of a Quaker mother and Episcopalian father, Stotesbury had worked his way up from a clerk’s position at Drexel & Company to become senior partner of the banking behemoth. He was also a partner in J. P. Mor- gan, finance chairman of the Reading Company, and a top fundraiser for the Republican presidential campaigns of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. With his economics acumen much in demand, he was recruited to the boards of nearly three dozen banking, rail, and coal companies, and helped open the doors to China trade by negotiating a major loan to its railroads. He was also a trustee of both the University of Pennsylvania and the Drexel Institute (now Drexel University).

Civic-minded as well, for 26 years he served as president of the Fairmount Park Commission. He also chaired the American Red Cross’ local chapter during World War I, helping to raise $3.5 million and winning the gratitude of the French, who honored him as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

If his now-forgotten achievements went on for pages, so did his membership in clubs and societies, through which he sought recognition and connections, as did so many Philadelphians of his time. The Social Register of 1901 lists Stotesbury’s membership in nine clubs before ending its entry in “etc.” These included the Ritten- house Club, the Art Club, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, the Radnor Hunt, the Germantown Cricket Club (vice president), the Union League (president), and the Racquet Club (president).

In his acerbic look at Philadelphia society, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy, Nathaniel Burt attributes Stotesbury’s social reach to his not quite blue blood. Stotesbury, he writes, was “fairly definitely not an Old Philadelphian, despite a good old-fashioned semi-Quaker family and so his social row was harder to hoe than that of his predecessors.”

It may be one reason why in 1887, the aspiring Stotesbury, still in his 30s, decided to join the Bachelors Barge Club, though not as a rower. He valued the camaraderie of the club on Boathouse Row, whose members were of the highest pedigree. Only a social member, the slim, jocular financier dined at the Bachelors’ upriver club, the Button, with men with names like Burpee, Clothier, Lippincott, and Wyeth. There, members would address Stotesbury by his one-syllable nickname, a Bachelors tradition that continues today. Stotesbury, who had a quirky sense of humor, was “Brother Gum,” perhaps deriving from a song he liked to sing about a shared family toothbrush, “all covered with slime.”…

One day in 1927, “Brother Gum,” now 78, was approached by 32-year-old “Brother Loft”—high-flying rower Garrett Gilmore, who three years earlier had won Olympic silver in the single scull. Gilmore wanted to see a blossoming of schoolboy crew, which had so faded after the war. He asked Stotesbury to fund a silver trophy cup for a new eight-oared race on the Schuylkill.

Along with Gilmore, another Olympian, John B. Kelly Sr., was also trying to lure more teenagers into crew and had begun recruiting students at West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys to build bench strength for his club at the time, Penn AC.

Six weeks after the West Catholic boys began practicing with Penn AC’s storied coach Frank Muller, its crew won the very first Stotesbury Cup race, on May 30, 1927.… In 1935, Gilmore expanded the Stotesbury cup race into a full-fledged regatta.

Follow Dotty Brown’s blog on Boathouse Row history at: 
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