Rowing on the river: Boys from St. Francis Xavier learn rowing and lessons in manhood

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Maxine Pleasant stood beneath a tree near the statue of a Norse explorer on Kelly Drive on Sunday, watching her grandson rowing on the Schuylkill.

The day was warm with a nice breeze.  The water was calm and relaxing.

Her grandson, Tyler Boone, 15, was with a group of boys, seventh and eighth graders from St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic School in Fairmount. 

It was their last Sunday of rowing for the school year as members of the Learn to Row Club at the Malta Boat Club on Boathouse Row, which, for the last decade, has built character, confidence and muscles for scores of boys. 

“I wish his mother could see him now,” said Pleasant, a former contracting officer at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Pleasant said her daughter, Robin Boone-Pleasant, died of breast cancer when Tyler was 8 and his sister, Taylor, was 10.  The grandmother, who gave her age as “in my 70s,” has reared both children since their mother’s death. 

Looking out at the water, Pleasant said she was thinking that last Sunday was Mother’s Day, this was the final day of rowing, and Tyler’s eighth-grade graduation would be coming soon. “I was thinking that she would have been proud to see him finishing up.”

She has seen personal growth in Tyler since he started rowing in seventh grade.

 “I like them being out there. It gives them independence and self-reliance,” said Pleasant, who lives in Overbrook. “You get out on that water, you’ve got to have no fear at all.”   

The Rev.  George Thiers, one of the parish priests at St. Francis Xavier Church, also happens to be a member of the Malta  Club.

About 10 years ago, he suggested starting a Learn to Row club for seventh- and eighth-grade boys.  Malta agreed to provide the space, the equipment, and some free coaching time.

“We are honored by the generosity and support of the Malta Boat Club,” Thiers said.  “This is all at no cost to the students.”

Right now, the program is for boys, but there have been  discussions about getting girls and female coaches involved, too, one of the coaches said.

Cass and John Neal were at the Malta Club watching their youngest son, Connor, the third of their four sons to row there. The eldest had graduated from St. Francis Xavier before the rowing program started.

“They all love it,” John Neal said. He said the boys gained confidence and discipline.

Connor Neal, 13, said he was excited to join since watching two of his brothers row.  “I couldn’t wait to get on the water.”

Rory O’Donnell, 13, said he learned a lot about working as a team.

And Tyler Boone said he like rowing mainly because “I want to get stronger for basketball.” He said he will concentrate on basketball when he starts Roman Catholic High School in the fall.  (The boys rowed from 10:30 a.m. to noon Sunday. Tyler’s grandmother said she had to take him to a baseball game later at 4 p.m., while her granddaughter had a rehearsal for a Philadanco recital, also on  Sunday.) 

Thiers had the highest praise for the young men who volunteer their time coaching the boys for two months in the fall and for another two months in the spring.

“They have been just a blessing,” Thiers said. “They’re cool guys, they’re athletic, and they go to Mass on Sundays.”   He said they are all mentors for the students.

The coaches on Sunday were Liam Leyden, 28, a new graduate of Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law; Sean Stewart, 27, who works in finance at Deloitte & Touche; Alex Benner, 28, a dentist, and Andrew Voystock, 27, a lawyer.

“We want to see them go further and pursue rowing in high school and possibly turn it into a college scholarship or just be a part of rowing later in life,” said Benner, who has been a coach for four years.

“Rowing is just one part of it, to instruct them in the sport. But on top of that, we want to be positive male role models for them, as well.”

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