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Row, Row, Row Your Boat ...

Rainier Valley’s Connection to the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal

US Men’s Eight – Rowing Team with coach Al Ulbrickson (right) and George Pocock (left), USOC Archives

Reading the captivating and best selling book Boys in the Boat, inspired us to piece together the Rainier Valley connection to the story. Al Ulbrickson, Johnny White, Johnny Merrill and Royal Brougham, all former Franklin High School students, had a role in the 1936 WA Crew year. With the release of the movie, Boys in the Boat, new fans across the globe share in the enthusiasm for the “against all odds” Olympic Gold Medal win. The following biographical information was compiled from Boys in the Boat, our RVHS collections, Seattle Public School archives,, Historylink, and the UW Crew archives.

ALVIN ULBRICKSON - (1903-1976)

UW Coach Franklin High School Class of 1921

Al Ulbrickson, the UW coach who navigated the 1936 charge to the Olympic Games, was born in 1903, in the Latona neighborhood. In the 1910 U.S. Census, the Ulbrickson family was renting a house in Rainier Valley at 4438 39th Ave S, near Rainier Playfield. Al was 7 years old at the time, with 4 siblings, his father 31 years old, listed as a City Park worker and his mother, a homemaker, aged 29. Ten years later, the census showed the Ulbricksons living in the Lakeview District, owning their home on wooded and considered affordable Mercer Island. Al’s dad’s occupation changing from park employee to a farmer.

Ulbrickson, 1925, MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5G.3102

Al was enrolled at Franklin High School in 1917, so it is unclear when exactly they moved to Mercer Island from the valley. The story goes, that Al rowed across Lake Washington from the southeast corner of the island to Rainier Beach to catch the streetcar to Franklin. The rowing distance, approximately 2 miles each way, no doubt paid off by the time he got to the University of Washington.

Ulbrickson, a star oarsman for the UW, rowed in the Varsity-8 to the national championships twice and was ranked by the national press, as popular as Babe Ruth. He also excelled in his studies, earning a Phi Beta Kappa key at the UW College of Business. Here’s a segment from our oral history collection between Dr. William Hutchinson and RVHS Founder Buzz Anderson, in 1996, where they talked about the ferry that transported people from Mercer Island, and Kennydale, to Rainier Beach.

Bill discusses his dad’s physician practice and how Al rowed to Rainier Beach from Mercer Island. (Dr. Hutchinson was 87 at the time of this interview).


Bill: Well you see all those towns had to depend upon either my father or a doctor from Renton and he could get there actually easier than they could because they had to come over land. (My father) would come by Harry Patterson’s boat which was a launch which operated between Mercer Island and Kennydale and Rainier Beach.

Buzz: We have a picture of that boat, with him, with the skipper, and --

Bill: It was a famous boat. Now the way they’d get along Mercer Island would be to put up on the dock, where they had the flags, and put up a flag and of course they’d know that they wanted them to stop, which they’d do and pick up whoever was coming into Seattle. Now interestingly enough, a great oarsman at Washington was Al Ulbrickson, as you know -

Bill: - and he was not only a great oarsman, but he was a great coach. And he would row across to pick up the street car, the Renton Express, at Rainier Beach, and then would stop there, and so every morning and every night he’d have to row home or row to get somewhere on the train. And so he was a great oarsman before he ever hit University of Washington. But they just couldn’t compete with him.

Buzz: I knew of him as a coach, but I didn’t know, I had never thought much about whether he was a good oarsman, but he probably was, that’s why he stayed with it then, as a coach.

Bill: And he had two brothers, both of whom made the varsity squad at the University, because they, too, would row a lot.


What was interesting, while researching Al’s early life, his student enrollment card at Seattle Public Schools showed his home address not on Mercer Island, but on the corner of Rainier Avenue and 57th, at 9246 57th Ave S in Rainier Beach (today where Jude’s restaurant is). There was a pharmacy and apartments on this corner, just in front of the streetcar stop. Whether Al’s father rented an apartment in Rainier Beach or used a PO Box there to show a Seattle residence for his children to attend FHS, is unknown.

Photo courtesy of Marist College Archives and Special Collections

Al Ulbrickson was inducted into the Franklin Hall of Fame in 2001. He was just 24 years old when he took over the UW Crew program, transforming it to match the class of back east programs, and led the University of Washington teams to great heights over 31 years. He coached his team to six national titles with his two biggest wins, the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal in Berlin, and defeating the Soviet Union in Moscow in 1958. “He was Seattle’s Man of the Year in 1936, was inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame in 1979, and was named by the Seattle Times as one of Seattle’s top twenty-five coaches of the century” (Franklin Hall of Fame).

JOHN (“JOHNNY”) WHITE - (1916-1997)

Member of UW Gold Medal 1936 Crew Team Franklin High School Class of 1932

Johnny White grew up in a house above Lake Washington at Pritchard Beach. He attended Dunlap Elementary, then graduated at the young age of 16 from Franklin High School. Johnny and his dad decided if he were to take a couple of years off to save enough money to enroll at the University of Washington, he would also have enough time to physically catch up in size. He found physically demanding jobs at a shipyard on the waterfront wrestling steel and a construction job for the new Grand Coulee Dam, improving his chances at making the UW Crew team.

The White family home, perched above the Pritchard Beach parking lot, once a front yard garden to the lake that Johnny White’s father planted for survival during the Great Depression.

Johnny’s father was a first rate sculler from Pennsylvania before moving out to Seattle. John Sr. spent long hours rowing on Lake Washington and most likely taught his son how to row. When we met the current owner of where the White family lived, we were told that Johnny’s sister sold him the house, and she had shared some of Johnny’s diary with him, the writings that helped shape the book, Boys in the Boat. The home owner also found an old rowboat in the brush... Johnny’s Olympic gold medal is at an auction house with a starting bid of $10,000. He was inducted into the Franklin Hall of Fame in 2001.

ROYAL BROUGHAM - (1894-1978)

Sportswriter for the Seattle P-I, Franklin HS Hall of Fame

Royal Brougham attended Franklin High School from the Dunlap neighborhood until his Junior year, when he took a copy boy job in the sports department for the Seattle P-I. Royal’s passion for covering sporting events for Franklin continued, the 1912-13 Tolos show his articles and title as Editor for Athletics.

Despite lacking a formal education, Royal rapidly ascended from an errand boy to a part-time writer, eventually establishing himself as a full-time sports journalist as the P-I’s Managing Editor. As a senior sportswriter, Royal had the honor of covering numerous major sporting events including the 1936 Olympic Games. With Brougham’s support in leading the newspapers’ drive to send the team to Berlin, the UW successfully raised $5,000 to secure their attendance.

Front Page of The Seattle Times, July 6, 1936

Unfortunately, none of Royal’s Olympic Games’ reporting was published locally due to a strike at the P-I. Undeterred, Brougham famously attempted an impromptu interview with Hitler, although he was turned away after a brief encounter. Later he described the team, “All were merged into one smoothly working machine, they were in fact a poem in motion, a symphony of swinging blades.”

Royal’s impact extended beyond journalism. He befriended many athletes, coaches and managers as he actively engaged in community service, advocating for recreational amenities and fairness in sports. His legacy is underscored by honors such as the “First Citizen,” founder of the Royal Brougham Sports Hall of Fame and Museum; he served on the board of directors of the SeattleKing County American Red Cross; was Washington director for the National Commission of Living War Memorials; and was twice a member of the Olympic Games Press Committee. South Royal Brougham Way, near the stadiums, was named after him in 1979.

JOHN MERRILL - (1914-1984)

Franklin High School Grad - Rainier Beach resident - UW Crew

John Merrill, also known as “Johnny”, graduated from Franklin HS the same year as Johnny White. John didn’t share much about his early years with his family, they knew he lettered in Washington Crew, but not much else until they discovered his scrapbook. John had memorabilia from the ‘36 National Championship sweep on the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY. John was a coxswain for the team, perhaps a substitute, and possibly a student manager. Though his name does not show in the program he saved from Poughkeepsie with the coaches, team and George Pocock signatures, he was there.

John is mentioned in Boys in the Boat on page 106 as the coxswain navigating the ‘34 freshmen boat, when they nearly collided with a tugboat in Lake Washington. It is likely the other mention in the book was about John as well, in Poughkeepsie the night the Varsity-8 asked coach Ulbrickson if they could journey up river to find the President’s house. Instead of meeting FDR, his son Franklin Roosevelt Jr. answered the door and invited the team in.

On page 261, “the boys recruited one of the crew’s student managers as pilot and navigator, and piled into the launch...when they found the cove, they left the manager in charge of the boat.” Merrill’s keepsake in his scrapbook, the Western Union social message from Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., to the team saying “Good luck to you” and an apology for not making it to see them the night before the race. Following the Poughkeepsie National Championship, the UW team traveled to Princeton for the Olympic trials, from there they were off to Berlin to represent the United States in the ‘36 Olympic Games. John did not make it to Berlin, not everyone on the team did due to the budget.

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