The Granddaughter in the Boat

Rowing Legacy Lives in the Family of Central Figure in The Boys in the Boat

By Elizabeth Lonergan – Posted on October 20, 2019

Joe Rantz’s granddaughter Jennifer Huffman, 3rd from right. (Photos Courtesy of Jennifer Huffman)

Eighty-three years and nearly 4,000 miles separate the 1936 Olympics and today’s Head of the Charles Regatta, but they do share one thing in common: a family’s legacy of rowing. The story of Joe Rantz is among the most famous in the sport, thanks to the 2013 book The Boys in the Boat. Rising above a hard Washington-state childhood, Rantz walked on to the rowing team at the University of Washington as a freshman, and four years later he and his largely working-class Washington teammates stunned the rowing world by winning Olympic gold in the Berlin Games. More than 70 years after that gold medal, Rantz became the central figure in Daniel James Brown stunning book.

Growing up, Jennifer Huffman did not know much about her grandfather’s rowing career. “He was an amazing grandpa, very loving and supportive,” she said. “He was a community leader, and taught a number of classes—from teaching women how to change their car oil, to being a square dance caller. Our childhood was filled with laughter and music, but rowing was hardly mentioned.”

It was not until 2009, two years after Rantz passed away, that Huffman picked up an oar, and since then, she has been hooked. To date, she has won 26 medals at the Northwest Masters Regional Championships, winning gold in both the singles and doubles six times, is the 2014 Canadian Masters National champion, and Saturday, placed second in the Women’s Senior Master Eights at the Head of the Charles with her College Rowing Club teammates.

She rowed in small boats in the Head of the Charles before, but this was her first trip in an eight. Rowing the same boat her grandfather rowed all those decades ago is a dream for Huffman. “My teammates have taken me in with open arms and being able to experience what is like to be with a crew of eight women who are very fast, driven, and competitive is just the most awesome experience ever,’ she said. “I couldn’t ask for a more supportive group.”

The parallel between the 49-year-old Huffman’s story of transferring into an eight, and her grandfather’s story of learning to give up control and become a team player is not lost on her. “Starting out in the single and double, I always wondered what it would be like to be in an eight. He and all the other guys talked [in the book] about the feeling of leaving everything you had out there for seven other rowers and having the ultimate trust in the other people you’re in the boat with. I did not think I was ever going to get to experience that.”

The book that originally no one believed would be a success, has changed the world of rowing. In fact, the book is now so intertwined with the University of Washington, that it is required reading for a university course titled “The History of Washington State.” While Joe Rantz died before he got to read the story himself, he did engage in long interviews with Daniel James Brown about his life, opening up much more to Brown than he ever did with his children, or grandchildren.

When asked what her grandfather would think of the book, Huffman laughed and said “he and all the boys would have hated the publicity aspect of it. None of them ever understood why my mom and others were so set on preserving and telling the story. To him, it was just a piece of his life. I think that now, looking at what people have taken away from the book, that would have been a very fulfilling thing to him, that he was able to influence people, give them hope, and even change some lives.”

Huffman was joined at the regatta this weekend by her parents, Ray and Judy Wilman. Judy is Rantz’s daughter, and was the one who connected her father to Brown, which inspired him to write the story. To Wilman, it was important to her that her father’s story did not fade away, and it was important to her father that the story of the boys did not fade away. Wilman’s active involvement in the story has made the whole family appreciate and understand a side of Rantz they never saw growing up: the champion.

To Huffman, rowing is a way to connect with her late grandfather. As a young girl, she was a competitive gymnast, and hadn’t even seen a crew shell up close. “It was not until ten years ago, when I tried to guilt my son into becoming a coxswain by telling him “great-grandfather would be so proud looking down from heaven” that she actually decided to get in a shell herself. Never in her life did she believe that in her later years would she become a prominent figure in a sport that she did not pick up the age of 39. “Actually, my mother tried to get me to row at the University of Washington, but I wanted to focus on coaching gymnastics, because that is how I put myself through college. Now, I look back and kind of kick myself that I never got into the sport earlier. I would have loved to talk to my grandfather about it, because you do not really understand the sport until you have been in the boat.”

The Boys in the Boat has changed Huffman’s life. Even though Rantz died more than ten years ago, Huffman feels closer to her grandfather than ever before. Rowing has taught her a lot about how she performs when facing adversity and pain, and she is so grateful to have finally discovered this lifelong sport.

It has been 12 years since Joseph Rantz passed away, 10 years since Huffman started rowing, and six years since The Boys in the Boat was published. The legacy her family brings to the sport is a continuation of a 1936 story of determination, teamwork, and courage. Huffman feels nothing but gratitude and appreciation towards the sport that has given so much to four generations of her family, and hopes to continue rowing for the rest of her life.