A Life On The Water

Oct. 9, 2008

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

He points up to the name, Execution, emblazoned on the bow of a sleek black carbon-fiber shell cradled in a boathouse rack. Tom Sullivan '70 smiles, impishly noting that the Holy Cross boat's moniker has nothing to do with the death penalty.

Well, almost nothing.

"You can't write this," Sullivan cautions with a keen appreciation that some folks might be slightly offended by what he is about to confide. "The last minute of a sprint is sometimes called `Seeing Jesus.' That sounds awful, but it describes how you feel sometimes at the end of a grueling 2,000-meter race," Sullivan explains.

No doubt the combination of utter exhaustion and endorphin euphoria can cause what many an oxygen-deprived crew member has likened to a near-death experience. Indeed, photographers on Lake Quinsigamond's bridge try to capture in a click the essence of this awful beauty born out of the sheer agony that eight humans rowing with ferocious precision and passionate puissance endure.

Execution is embossed in gold on Holy Cross' newest high-tech boat--and refers to "the perfect timing and technique needed to maximize power," clarifies Sullivan.

Conveniently that word nicely sums up Sullivan's 34-year career coaching Crusader crews from 1974 until his retirement this summer. During dawn patrols and into the evening skies at Lake Quinsigamond, Sullivan would shout urgings, demanding one thing from his student-athletes: execution. For him, that word is loaded with meaning: coordinated effort, determination, guts, teamwork, selflessness, smarts, endurance and, yes, occasionally, "Seeing Jesus."



Tom Sullivan prefers not to talk about himself. He does not feel the College's amazing growth and accomplishments in crew should be credited to him alone. He makes it clear that he has been only one of many who have nurtured Holy Cross rowing. He is merely another guy in the boat trying to pull his weight. Sullivan thinks like a creature of crew. One for all, all for one. He believes rowing coaches belong to a loyal, tight-knit social club. Crew folks form a cult of caring for each other.

As we tour the Hart Center with its rowing tanks and its lobby lined with 40 ergometer exercise machines -- and later meander through the Lake Quinsigamond boathouse, Sullivan name-drops, ensuring he shares any possible plaudits that may come his way.

There was Ken Burns, once a Shrewsbury police chief and forever the King Neptune of Lake Quinsigamond rowing. Burns, the long-serving guru of the Eastern Sprints, helped Jay Foley '60 start a full-fledged rowing program at St. John's High. In turn, Foley helped Sullivan blossom as a top-rate competitor as a high school senior and co-captain at Holy Cross -- where he now resides as the sole rower in the Varsity Club's Hall of Fame.

After completing Boston College Law School, Sullivan hooked up with Foley as a Holy Cross assistant coach in 1974. The next season, Sullivan assumed his "part-time" head coaching duties. Don't let the term "part-time" fool you. It only reflected his pay.

"Friendships with other coaches are so important," Sullivan says. "We're out in tough weather, practicing year-round. We don't get a lot of publicity. We travel together, swap duties, anything to make the program better. Naturally we form close relationships. We're like family."

There remains a triumvirate of very close friends -- Sullivan, Patrick Diggins '86 and Francis "Bud" Ermilio '81. Over the years, they have propelled the Crusaders to a membership in the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges (EARC), an elite men's league that includes the eight Ivies and 10 other colleges. They compete for the league championship each May in the storied Eastern Sprints on Lake Quisigamond. The Holy Cross women compete at the same venue in the ECAC National Invitational Championship.

Not so long ago, the College would be an invited guest to the Sprints as regular winners of the City Championships. Now Varsity 1, 2, 3 boats and JV and freshmen boat compete. And the men have been chosen to compete in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championships in eight of the last 10 years.

The stories of Sullivan, Diggins and Ermilio are so intertwined that they seemingly can finish any sentence another one starts. They are all rooted in Worcester's signature institutions: St. John's High, Holy Cross and that rowing-paradise, Lake Quinsigamond.

Firstly, their dads all received degrees from Holy Cross: George Sullivan, Class of '34, and Francis Ermilio and Jim Diggins, both Class of '50. In addition, they all rowed for St. John's and Holy Cross. Sullivan coached Ermilio and Diggins. Ermilio coached Diggins when he was a St. John's captain. Diggins coached at St. John's as well -- and is now the College's director of rowing and women's coach. Sullivan -- who also has a law practice -- and Diggins are partners in Worcester insurance businesses. Ermilio, who retired from coaching in 1998, is a local chiropractor -- and known widely as "Dr. Bud," also the name of a shell dedicated in his honor in 2000.

They have played musical chairs -- coaching the men and women, the heavyweights and lightweights, the varsity, jayvees and freshmen -- and switching titles from head coach to assistant to fill the College's needs as, year-round, 100 student-athletes row, row, row their boats not-so-gently down the stream.



Pictures on the walls -- at the boathouse and Hart Center -- spur Sullivan's fond recollections as we stroll down memory lane.

He stares up at a framed black-and-white photo. "That boat was competing when our big race was the Worcester City Championship," Sullivan notes. "That guy wearing the headband, he's an orthopedic surgeon at Dartmouth Medical Center. I remember we had to convince him not to compete in the Worcester championships and to go to take his medical boards instead. We've come a long way. Now Holy Cross is a provisional member competing in the Eastern Sprints."

He peers at another boatload of success stories: "That was the 1995 boat ... a doctor, an architect with a graduate degree from MIT, another doctor, a teacher, a doctor, a businessman with an MBA from NYU, a lawyer, a Ph.D. ...''

It is obvious Sullivan knows every crew member intimately, knows how they did as rowers and what they are doing now.

"That was the Mamie Reilly, our first boat, which we bought with green stamps,'' Sullivan says. Quickly he waggles his finger at another picture. "That wooden sectional was a second boat, the Father (Francis) Hart (S.J.). It got damaged when it fell off the roof rack of a car ... we still have the bow."

Looking at the wooden shells and oars highlights the sharp contrast between the onset of Holy Cross rowing and the modern era. The College's 11 carbon-fiber shells for eight rowers and a coxswain cost $36,000 each. They weigh only 198 pounds soaking wet. They are rigged with all kinds of electronics including a sound system and a coxbox that calculates the rowers' stroke-rates. The oars cost $285 each and have blades shaped like hatchets rather than spoons.

Sullivan ponders a 1981 boat named Buy an Inch. For him, it is not an empty phrase. "The kids did a lot. They sold the boat by the inch to alums. The boat actually had the names of all the contributing alums all around it."

Now his heart, not pictures on the wall, prompts Sullivan to speak.

"The kids are the ones who do all the tedious, hard work," he says. "They train all year long to compete in maybe 10 races a year. They pull double sessions when we go to Florida and Georgia to train and put them through two practices of 2.5 hours--and then, at night, review videotape to improve their technique."

Rowers expect no special privileges, he says. They rarely hear the shoreline applause of smallish crowds. Their training is imbued with that eerie sense of isolation often associated with long distance running.

"The kids aren't always the greatest athletes," Sullivan says. "Some are walk-ons coming out to learn a sport and maybe become a varsity competitor; some are kids whom we recruit, luring them only with a promise of an excellent value-based education. Yet their work ethic and perseverance are second to none. They row in the Hart Center tanks and at the Lake; they exercise on ergs in the Hart Center lobby and work on their strength in the Carol and Park Smith Wellness Center. They are self-motivated, determined to become the best they can be. And every year the kids raise the bar, and every year our rowing program raises its expectations."



For Sullivan, rowing has been a family affair.

"I have a very understanding wife,'' he says. Kathy (Daly) Sullivan has been there every stroke of the way. She has seen her husband running through the kitchen like a madman, tearing off his business suit as he heads for a 6 o'clock evening practice at the lake. She has seen boats loaded on top of her station wagon and more tied onto a trailer behind it as the family takes off for the South for "vacations."

Son Tom Jr. '95 excelled at Holy Cross; named three times as All-American by the U.S. Rowing Association for his rowing and academic achievements, he went on to row for the USA National lightweight crews in 2000 and 2001.

"What Tom Jr. accomplished is amazing,'' notes Patrick Diggins. "Not only did he excel in rowing, but he played hockey for four years at Holy Cross.''

Daughter Kerry Sullivan O'Keefe '96 captained the 1996 women's team under Diggins. Daughter Kara received her degree from Boston College in 1999.

"There are so many good stories," Sullivan says. "We'll be driving down to Philly now to see Tom and I'll be telling Kathy, `See, right there is where the radiator blew up, and we had to borrow someone's truck to get to the regatta.' Much of our lives have been spent on the water. Our kids still call Quinsigamond `daddy's lake.' It's been a lot of work but a lot more fun.''



Pearson Named Head Coach

Todd Pearson '98 is the new head coach of the Crusader men's rowing team. The first full-time coach hired to handle the men's rowing program, he succeeds Tom Sullivan `70, a crew coach in several capacities at Holy Cross since 1974. After earning his bachelor's degree in biology, Pearson went on to earn a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences in 2003 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He lives in Worcester with his wife, Annie '01, and their daughter, Tessa. Pearson was a member of the first College crew to row in a varsity event at the Eastern Sprints, finishing 10th in the varsity lightweight-8 in 1998. He earned two bronze medals at the New England Championships as a member of the second varsity-8 in 1996 and the varsity lightweight-8 in 1997. During the 2007-08 season, Pearson served as a volunteer assistant at Holy Cross, a position he had held at Dartmouth College from 2003-05. From 1998-2003 Pearson had been the College's men's freshmen coach. In 2002, his second novice-8 boat won the gold medal at the New England Championships, while, in 1999, his Crusaders took home a bronze medal in the second novice-8 race. Pearson was also assistant coach for the men's varsity from 1998-2003.




"Dr. Bud" doesn't pull any punches. He calls Sullivan "the best coach in the country."

"I knew him only as a St. John's legend when I walked onto campus in 1977," Ermilio recalls. "I remember our first meeting. I asked, `Mr. Sullivan, where are the oars?' He snapped, `Don't call me Mr. Sullivan. I'm just Tom.'

"Tom knows how to build morale on a team," Ermilio explains. "He's a master. Nobody is neglected. Whether you're a novice on a `dog boat' who just loves being part of a team or a top rower on the first boat, Tom treats you the same. He knows all their names, all their stories. All get the same shot."

Sullivan knows exactly how to mix talent, to get people in the perfect position on a boat so they work in harmony. He is the wily baseball manager who fills out the lineup card with everyone in the perfect place in the order.

"Tom knows when to holler, when to back off. It's a grueling season. He knows how to mediate and how to motivate," Ermilio adds. "And he has an eye for the perfect stroke."

Teaching a rowing stroke is not unlike teaching a golfing stroke. It's more about timing and efficiency, synchronizing all the components of a sweeping motion in order to maximize its power.

"But, most importantly," Ermilio continues, "Tom taught me and countless others in crew what the possibilities are if you refuse to give in and work hard at your goals. He does it all. I remember him pitching the Lake as a rowing venue when Boston tried to win the Olympics. Tom has been the best ambassador ever for Lake Quinsigamond and the Worcester area."

Then comes a litany of accomplishments. How Sullivan's efforts have led Crusader rowing from the dark ages; how his business acumen has spearheaded fundraising amongst rowing alums and others. How endowments now fund the continuing need for high-tech equipment and full-time coaching salaries.

In the process, Sullivan worked himself out of a part-time job by building Holy Cross rowing into a top-flight program which now requires a full-time men's crew coach. His successor is Todd Pearson '98, one of Sullivan's boys and part of the first-ever Holy Cross varsity lightweight crew to compete at the hallowed Eastern Sprints.

"What a wonderful ride it has been," says Sullivan. "Coaching a sport I love in my hometown, at the lake I love, at my alma mater, surrounded by family and friends, coaching great kids. I feel like I went up to Holy Cross in 1966 and never graduated.''

Sullivan's legacy of building a respected and self-sustaining rowing program while mentoring and inspiring student-athletes over four decades will reside atop Pakachoag Hill forever.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.