In 1917, H. Del Beekley began his rowing career for the San Diego Rowing Club as a coxswain on the waters of San Diego Bay. Known to generations of oarsmen, oarswomen, coxswains, and rowing supporters as “Del,” he proceeded to spent 77 years of his life coxing, coaching, building barges, organizing regattas (the San Diego Crew Classic was an idea that Del harbored for decades until its creation in 1975), and, eventually, being the “Boatman” at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. Most important, Del – who passed away in 2001 at the age of 102 – left a legacy that touched the lives of thousands of people. He taught the lessons of teamwork, sacrifice, hard work, dedication, and discipline to perhaps as many people as any person who ever lived. His positive influence upon the lives of so many people is impossible to exaggerate.
Del Beekley was born in 1898 (the first year that the women of San Diego Normal School – eventually SDSU – began rowing) in Waterloo, Iowa. As a boy in his family’s adopted home town of San Diego, he was placed into the coxswain’s seat of the 4s that regularly skimmed the waters of San Diego Bay, rowing out of the San Diego Rowing Club. This athletic endeavor he began when he was attending San Diego High School. He coxed for the University of California’s Golden Bears from ’22 until ’24, and then returned to San Diego to take up a career selling insurance. Over the course of the ’20s, Del coxed crew after crew that won the West Coast Championship wearing the Red and White of S.D.R.C. In 1928, his SDRC crew finished second to Harvard (by half a length) in the Olympic Trials. In ’32, again in the Olympic Trials, Del’s S.D.R.C. 4+ came in second to the Penn Barge Club. He also competed later in the Olympic Trials in 1956.
A track and cross-country runner in high school, he found early on that his diminutive stature (Del was 5’0″ tall, and his natural weight was 120 pounds) adapted well to the coxswain’s seat. “Being small like that, I always had a kind of inferiority complex, so the first thing that gave me some confidence was that I did well in track,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. It was once estimated that in more than 50 years of coxing, Del had traveled in a racing shell about one and a half times around the world!
In the 1930’s, while continuing to cox for the powerful Rowing Club crews of the era, Del began coaching crews at both San Diego and Hoover high schools. In 1941, just before the outbreak of World War II, Del coxed several of the SDRC boats that swept the California State Rowing Championships on San Diego Bay. After the war, Del began coaching a fledgling crew at San Diego State College. In its second year (1948), the Aztecs pulled off a shocking victory that remained the highest achievement of a State crew for many years. With only novices and second year oarsmen in the boat, the Aztecs were invited to “join in” with a race at the J.V. level between U.C.L.A. and Stanford, being held on U.C.L.A.’s home water. To the astonishment of the more experienced, traditional crews, the Aztecs pulled off a victory of several boat lengths!
Above: The 1955 crew, taking the water between their undefeated West Coast season and their trip to Philadelphia. At this time in his career, Del was 57 years old and had already coxed for almost 40 years.
In the interim years, when there was no Aztec crew, Del continued to be a coxswain at the Rowing Club … and continued to win big races. Even by that time, Del had developed the reputation of being the “winningest coxswain around.” After all, by the mid ’50s, he had coxed champions for almost four decades. In 1955, his 4+ garnered a great deal of attention due to the margins of victory that they posted over the course of the year. This crew were West Coast Champions again. It is sometimes difficult for us – so involved in college rowing as we are – to understand how important, and even “major” rowing was at the club level back in the glory days of SDRC. A trip to the new San Diego Rowing Club boathouse – located on El Carmel Point, right across the water from our own H. Del Beekley Rowing Center – will indicate to the visitor how many, many championships were won in those days.
Unfortunately, the attempt at putting together an ongoing Aztec program in 1947-49 was short-lived. The idea of an on-going San Diego State crew program remained unfulfilled until 1960. In that year, the money necessary to begin a program in earnest came to the Athletic Department, and Del became the first “official” head coach – of a university sponsored rowing team at State.
Of course, just because there was enough money to support the purchase of three 8s with oars did not mean that the program was financially stable and self-sufficient. Funds were hard to come by, and the on-going budget was limited. Much of the team’s success, and its growth, was due to the relentless commitment of Del. As the picture above indicates, he went so far as to build the first-ever Aztec barge right in his own backyard! Del then coached the Aztecs through to the ’71 season when, at age 73, he retired from coaching at State. Interestingly, in the decade after his retirement from the college coaching ranks, two substantial changes came to rowing in San Diego that affect Aztec crew in profound ways.
Within a year of each other, the San Diego Crew Classic was first put on in 1975, and the Mission Bay Aquatic Center – today’s home for the Aztecs – was opened. When the rowing center part of the Aquatic Center was designed and built, it was suggested that it was such an imposing structure that it ought to have hits own, separate name. It did not take a minute’s worth of discussion to come to the conclusion that our home today should be christened; “The H. Del Beekley Rowing Center.”
In 1982, when he was a mere 84 years old, SDSU Crew held a Testimonial Dinner for Del. The program for that event read in part;
“As a coxswain, Del was unequaled in his time. Now known as the ‘winningest coxswain alive,’ he coxed Pacific Coast Association of Amateur Oarsmen champion crews for decades … As a coach, Del started crew at several high schools and twice began a rowing program at San Diego State. Most important , it is with his warmth and humanity that Del has touched us all over these 64 years of rowing. Selflessly devoting himself to his sport and the University, H. Del Beekley has founded a tradtion, a pride in Aztec crew that sustains us all in today’s program. For a career full of accomplishments, we congratulate him. For a lifetime of memories and for the opportunities we have all had to row and enjoy his sport, we all thank him sincerely.”
Above: Del as the Mission Bay Rowing Association Boatman, circa 1990.