A Celebration of the Life of Jim Barker
As many people recently learned, Jim Barker passed away on August 16th, 2022. He led an extraordinary life and had an enormous impact on too many people to count. He valued friendship, loyalty, and above all else he loved his family. On a personal level he was a very humble and very funny man. And he always had a story, and they were always funny. So funny that you couldn't breathe you were laughing so hard.
See Jim's official obituary here: Obituary of James J Barker.
Jim Barker was born in 1930 and raised in the Brewerytown neighborhood of Philadelphia. His father was a teamster and he never forgot where he came from.
To say that he was a tough competitor would be an understatement. It's interesting to know that his first love was football. But because he was a lightweight, someone in his neighborhood suggested he try rowing as a way to build up for football. He was 17 years old. The rest is history.
As a competitor he won 24 National Championships rowing for the Undine Barge Club in Philadelphia. This was a record for many, many years. He was stationed in Japan as a member of the US Army in the 1950's. While there, he was asked to participate in their National Championship regatta. Needless to say, he won. He also rowed a double in the famed Gold Cup Regatta in the 1950's on the Schuylkill River. He was known as a fierce competitor which translated perfectly when he transitioned to coaching.
Jim started coaching at The Haverford School in 1962. Much like his competitive racing career, his coaching career was legendary. He coached at Haverford for over 50 years. His crews won countless Philadelphia City Championships, Stotesbury Regatta Championships, and Schoolboy National Championships among other major high school regattas. His oarsmen have also competed in the Canadian Schoolboy National Championships, the Cairo International Regatta, The Henley Royal Regatta, the Reading Town Regatta in England, the Maccabiah Games in Israel, and many Junior Rowing World Championships.
He was also the Head coach at Undine Barge Club for many decades. His crews won too many National Championships to count and on occasion the Barnes Trophy. Jim was one of a handful of rowing coaches in the country with true expertise in sculling. Hopeful scullers would come to Philadelphia to be coached and mentored by him. He sent many senior crews to international regattas including the Henley Royal Regatta and the Senior World Championships. Among the notables he coached were Fred Duling, world lightweight rowing champion Bill Belden, and Irish Olympian and three time Diamond Sculls winner Sean Drea.
Jim would say that rowing opened up the world to him. Through the sport he was able to travel the world, meet all types of people, and spread the gospel of rowing. He also deeply believed that if you got something out of the sport, you were obligated to put something back in. He certainly lived that phrase. In addition to all of his notable accomplishments on the water, he was an early proponent of opening up our sport to anyone and everyone, regardless of race, creed, or gender. He simply felt that rowing was good for everyone. It is well known on Boathouse Row that he pushed aggressively to allow Jews, African Americans, and women among others to join the clubs on the row and participate in our sport.
Jim was never one to slow down. As he neared retirement from coaching he decided it would be a great idea to bring back the Gold Cup. He gathered a group of interested individuals and told them where the actual Gold Cup was located. Then local businessman and philanthropist Herb Lotman bought the cup. He then called Jim and said " Hey Barker, I'm driving up the expressway right now and I've got the Gold Cup sitting on my lap. What the hell do we do with it now?" Since its resumption in 2011, it has become one of the few purse events in rowing and attracts Olympic medalists to compete for the prize.
Jim was recognized for his contributions to rowing in many ways. He was inducted into the Roxborough Hall of Fame, The Haverford School Athletic Hall of Fame, and the US Rowing Hall of Fame. Most recently he received the Dr. George Morton Illman Award from Malta Boat Club in recognition for his lifelong contributions to rowing. In addition, the lightweight double sculls at the Stotesbury Regatta and the high school single sculls events at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta are named in his honor. Fittingly, the Haverford School Boathouse in Conshohocken, Pa. is named the James J. Barker Sculling Center. Inside is the newly christened James J.Barker Jr. quadruple shell. This boat is permanently endowed and will be ever present on the Schuylkill River.
Jim Barker was so much more than a competitor and coach. He was a mentor, father figure, and eternal optimist to generations of rowers. He also had the privilege of spending his adulthood with the love of his life, Joan. He was truly one of a kind and will be sorely missed. But his ethos, his integrity, his drive for excellence will live on in all of those whose lives he touched. He was a remarkable man who lived life to the fullest. He was a giant in our sport. We're all better for having known him. That is a wonderful legacy.
Below, please see thoughts from just a small sample of people whom Jim influenced.
"Jim meant so much to so many of his former rowers. He didn't go looking for fans or admirers. He just created them by helping each rower find their competitive inner spirit as he made them into champions. Good coaches make winners. Winning lasts a season. Great coaches build champions. Champions take that confidence with them into the rest of their lives. Jim built champions. He left his family, his former rowers, and the sport he loved much better off. I feel fortunate and blessed for having rowed for and known him." Charlie Clark, Haverford School '79
"Jim was my high school coach, mentor, and a force in the sport of rowing. Jim instilled in all of us the practice of giving more than receiving. On the water he was hard nosed, making sure we knew how to win. He was a true giant on and off the river." Craig Hoffman, Haverford School '73
"In truth, what I will remember most fondly is in the boat bays at Undine when we got "story time". Jim and Ed Pressman would fill the time proving they had senses of humor and accidentally teaching life lessons while they reminisced and inclement weather kept us off the water. It was hilarious and a source of quotations to this day! I think it was reflexive, just a part of his personality and effective at cutting through the misery of rain or disappointment." John Fetter, Haverford School '04
"When my father passed during my sophomore year at Haverford, Coach Barker had me back on the water under his watchful eye by the weekend. He stepped up immediately, with the right mix of tough love, encouragement, and his ever constant expectations of excellence. When I look at my life today and pinpoint the major catalysts and the "what if" moments in my journey, I always land on "what if I hadn't met Jim Barker". Any challenge I've faced in my life on the water and off, I take a breath and conjure Coach yelling "you can do anything for 500 meters, stop thinking" and I feel like I can run through a wall. I thank God for Jim Barker whenever I get a chance, and I always will." Chris Livingston, Haverford School '06
"When I was contemplating coming to work at Vanguard, I sat down with Jim at his home in Roxborough. Over cheesesteaks and beer he told me that the most important thing was to work for a company that had the same values I held deeply. That really stuck with me. He was like a second father, so I trusted his judgment at a time when I wasn't so sure about my own. He had a profound impact on my life." Bill McNabb
"Simply put, Jim Barker was a great man and a second father. He loved everything about rowing and his enthusiasm was contagious. If you crossed paths with Jim, you had a good chance of developing the rowing bug yourself. He was a tough, driven, demanding taskmaster on the water. But he was simultaneously kind, he'd give you the shirt off his back, and he wasn't afraid to tell someone that he loved them. That's my definition of a great man." Scot Fisher, Haverford School '74
"Coach Barker taught me everything I needed in life to be better at anything I did. The quote about hard work beating talent when talent fails to work hard, was his mantra. Show up, never give up, and keep your chin up. You can do this. I wouldn't put you in a race that you couldn't win. It was one of those lessons that only those who live it understand. While I will miss him, through his teachings, a part of him is always with me." Garth Hoyt, Haverford School '89
"Jim cared about and looked out for me and my son John III. I scull the way I scull because of Jim. He was my brother, he was my friend. Rest in peace." John Izzard Jr., Undine Barge Club
"Jim was a dear friend and was always there for my husband John and John III. He was the best coach I ever had. He was the brightest light in my sculling life. Rest in peace." Parthenia Izzard, Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club & Undine Barge Club
"If we are fortunate, each of us will know a few individuals whose role in our development we consider a rare gift — cherished for life. Jim was one of those people for me. He stood for honor, discipline, hard work, and a passion for excellence. He taught me so much at a difficult time in my life. I will miss him sorely along with everyone that had the great fortune of calling him a coach and a friend." Carsten Schwarting, Haverford School '97
"A few highly impactful people live on with us, and Jim is one of them for me. Fred Leonard was my coach at Haverford. Luckily for me, I rowed at Undine each of my high school summers and, thus, was lucky to get to know Jim (then Mr. Barker to me) as part of the rowing team. After the Navy I came back to Undine and was again lucky - Jim was our coach. A couple of admirable traits about Jim stand out for me.
1/ Honorable. Every aspect of Jim's life reflected this trait. Every hour of every day.
2/ Owning your outcomes. There were no excuses in Jim's world.
If we are lucky we will have one or two people in our lives who we can turn to when we are facing a dilemma or a situation that does not seem to have a light at the end of the tunnel. Jim is one of those people and will continue to be there for me." Don Callaghan, Haverford School '64
"I will always love Jim Barker. He was a great oarsman, family man, rowing coach, leader of young men, and sincere friend. As a man he taught me how to be a good son, brother, husband, father, and friend. As an athlete, I learned how to work hard, train, compete, win and lose. All life skills needed to succeed in life. He was quite a man and a second father to me. There will never be another like him in the rowing world. He was unique in many respects and I will always hold him in very high esteem. His friendship meant the world to me and my family. With much love and admiration always." John Clark, Haverford School '76
"Jim coached a bunch of us lightweights when we were switching to sculling from the US sweep team; talk about getting the right guy to bring you up to speed with two oars. Jim gave us everything he had, we were so lucky. Jim was the apotheosis of a certain Philly rower of his generation - hard-shelled, intense, sometimes gruff, and competitive as hell, yet the most generous, thoughtful, and kind-hearted man, almost a softy at times - and he always came through for us and so many others, especially when it really mattered. We stayed friends over the years, which I truly appreciated. What a gift it was to have him lead us just when we needed him the most; thank you for everything Jim!" - Ed Hewitt
"For more than 10 years I had the privilege of rowing for Jim Barker. But I was twice blessed: for more than 65 years, I had the amazing good fortune to have him as my father. He excelled in both roles. He was as tough on me as anyone he coached, but no more so. He was always clear that his role as my father far surpassed the other hat he wore. If coaching ever impacted me being his son, his coaching would end. My father influenced and helped to mold generations of oarsmen. More importantly to us, though, he was the guiding force behind shaping three generations of our family. I have no doubt that his influence will carry forth for generations to come." Jeff Barker