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MIT's old man and the sea, still rowing on the Charles River at 92

At age 92, Ernie Knight plans to celebrate his 70th MIT reunion in the most appropriate way: he'll be rowing on the Charles.

"Pretty much all I did when I was a student was go to classes and row," said Mr. Knight, who celebrated his 65th reunion in 1993 by taking a single scull for a row.

Mr. Knight, who commuted to "Tech" from Quincy by rail and foot, plans to share a shell with his two sons, David of Philadelphia and Paul of Portland, ME, during the second annual Reunion Row on Saturday, June 6, the day after Commencement. David, a veterinary professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Paul, a postal worker, were both oarsmen in college--David at Cornell and Paul at Northeastern.

A resident of Raymond, ME, since he returned from the Korean War and moved up-country to help manage a family-owned marina on Lake Sebago, Mr. Knight has been writing a history of rowing at MIT, which is a work in progress. The completed chapters are available on line at <>.

Mr. Knight was a major serving as a ground officer with the 49th Fighter Group in the Pacific theater during World War II and was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He worked as an engineer for Boston Edison between hitches in the service and for Westinghouse before he entered the Air Corps in World War II.

He entered MIT to study electrical engineering shortly after the campus was moved to Cambridge, a heady time for Tech students. It was also the heyday of rowing.

The crew had acquired its own boathouse in 1922 and Mr. Knight's class arrived on campus at the same time the first full-time professional coach was hired. That was William Haines, lured to the big time on the basis of five successful years at Harvard University. The first brand-new shell was purchased in 1925. Several assistant coaches helped weed out 200-300 candidates each year.

The contrast with other sports was stark.

While the crew qualified for the 1924 Olympic trials, basketball was confined to a World War I hangar, baseball had no coach and players supplied their own equipment, and football was played only intramurally. One football team challenged a prep school team to scrimmage to prepare for Fall Field Day. "They lost, 98-0," recalled Mr. Knight.

Mr. Knight's classroom reminiscences are equally colorful.

There was Professor Leonard Passano of mathematics, a fashion avatar, known to his students as "Sneaker Joe" for his then odd taste in footwear. Professor Raymond Miller of mechanical engineering was contemptuous of people who neglected his beloved steam engines and cried for help when they failed. With ROTC mandatory, the cadets got used to the growling of a diminutive Sgt. Alfred Truax and referred to him as "Tenderfoot" or "Boy Scout"--though not to his face, of course.

Transportation was always a challenge for members of the Class of '28. Mr. Knight remembers the cruel winds blowing in his face as he walked across the Longfellow Bridge. Sometimes, rides were available--in a discarded police wagon salvaged by a fraternity, or in the two sport vehicles built in Arthur and Bill Nichols's father's machine shop in Newton. He also remembers Charlie Lyle's stripped down, single-seated (a folding chair for the driver) Duesenberg permanently parked on Massachusetts Avenue--at least it seemed to be.

While hacks were not yet known by that name, inventive pranks were very much a part of MIT life, even in those days. A Ford Model T police car mysteriously appeared one night on the roof of '93 Dorm (the portion of East Campus closest to Ames Street, the first of the two buildings to be erected). A telephone pole was passed through a window at Holman (now part of Senior House), across the center corridor and out the window of a room on the opposite side.

But the best was when a steer was coaxed off a truck and onto the roof of East Campus but refused to come down. (The students "learned that cows will climb but not descend stairs," says the text accompanying a photo of the cow on a recent poster depicting The Top 10 Hacks of All Time.) Mr. Knight believes the steer had to be lowered off the roof with pulleys.

Some things haven't changed much, including lectures in Rm 10-250 and the library under the Great Dome. Others have, particularly the demise of the slide rule in favor of computers and calculators.

"The nearby barber shop never seemed to be busy," Mr. Knight said, "yet I don't recall there being any long-haired students around as there would be today."

The Association of MIT Alumni/ae counts 87 surviving graduates from the 479 members of the class of 1928 who received SB degrees. "I hope we get a good turnout," said Mr. Knight. "Given our age, it probably will be about the last one for most of us."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.

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