Rowing their own way Ruth Robinhold secured a place for women on Boathouse Row 65 years ago.

Posted: June 17, 2003

The tour has begun at the Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club at 14 Boathouse Row, and Ruth Robinhold is leading the way. Wearing a white long-sleeve T-shirt adorned with a sterling silver rowing pin, white slacks and white sneakers, Robinhold bounds from room to room. She points out the pictures, plaques and framed clippings that adorn the walls, many of which include her, many of which date back to the 1930s.

Celebrating its 65th birthday this year, the Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club celebrates Robinhold every day. One of 17 founding members of the club when it was formed in 1938, she has been the only continuous member for the entire 65 years.

But Robinhold, of Lafayette Hill, is much more than that. She's as much a part of Boathouse Row as the Christmas lights that illuminate the houses and the statue of the legendary Jack Kelly Sr., whose storied son she rowed with in the 1940s.

"I never miss a meeting," she said. "You have to see where your money goes. We hold them the first Thursday of every month, and we've never changed that."

Robinhold celebrated a milestone birthday earlier this year, but she politely declined to reveal her age. She graduated from Germantown High in 1930 and was married to William Robinhold for 63 years before he died in January at age 94.

"They'll figure out I'm over 80," she said with a mischievous grin.

William Robinhold was a member of the Undine Barge Club for 75 years, serving as both its president and as commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, the governing body for the 10 clubs on Boathouse Row. After his death, Ruth was named an honorary member of Undine.

The Robinholds were rowing royalty in Philadelphia. Ruth is still the queen but doesn't want to be treated as such. Undine and the PGRC are next-door neighbors, and Ruth and Bill met on the river.

"He helped me carry my boat in," Robinhold said.

Unlike today, opportunities for female athletes were rare in the 1930s. Also unlike today, Boathouse Row's clubs were for men only. Women such as Robinhold, however, wanted to row, too, and they wanted a place to call their own. The PGRC building, completed in 1861 for $4,873, formerly housed the Philadelphia Skating and Humane Society. PGRC bought the house in 1963 after renting it for 25 years.

"I loved it that we organized the club," Robinhold said. "It was to educate young girls with rowing. I never dreamed we'd be in competition. We were the mommas of women's rowing."

Not only has the club competed, its members have enjoyed national and international success over the years. The club won the national title in the women's eight from 1966 to 1968. Liesel Hud rowed to national crowns in the single in 1984 and '88 and was a member of the U.S. quad that placed fourth at the world championships in 1985.

Current Agnes Irwin coach Liz Bergen joined the club in 1965 and served as the Schuylkill Navy's first female commodore in 1980-81. Agnes Irwin still rows out of PGRC.

"It's a pretty amazing place," Hud said. "It's a place where people support each other and a place people can row at any level they want."

Hud formerly coached at Agnes Irwin, and she still works with the club's novice and junior rowers, such as Crissy Stotesbury of Springfield (Montgomery County) and Masterman's Anna Vresilovic and Alex Lipski. She doesn't have to look far for inspiration.

"Ruth is just an incredible person," Hud said. "I want to be like her. We went out in a double a couple of years ago, and she still has it."

While Robinhold doesn't row on the Schuylkill anymore, she still works out on a rowing machine at home and on the club's ergometers. Her presence is everywhere at PGRC. Four boats have been named after her, and she darts down the basement stairs to show where the Ruth Robinhold IV is stored with the club's many boats.

Waiting for the return of four women out for a Sunday morning row, Robinhold points out a sprawling spruce tree that didn't exist when the club was founded. She talks about her quad winning its first race at the Middle States Regatta in Baltimore and the time she rowed in a mixed quad in the 1940s with Jack Kelly Jr., one of the few times she remembers being nervous.

"He said, 'Don't forget, I steal the start,' " Robinhold said of Kelly's lightning-quick start. "Of course, we won. He stroked."

The winner of the girls' junior quad at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta is awarded the Ruth Robinhold Trophy, and Robinhold herself is there to present it with hugs and kisses and a hearty handshake.

"Ruthie has words of wit and wisdom for all," PGRC member Blake Adams said.

Of two things, Robinhold is certain. The club's name will remain Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club regardless of the age of its members. And it won't admit men.

"We were girls in the beginning, and we were Philadelphia girls," Robinhold said with a laugh. "Many, many women belong to the men's clubs. We don't want men. We're chauvinist pigs. It's for women educating other women. It's been much of my life."

Said club member Mary Kiely: "She broke the mold so we could come in."

Contact suburban staff writer Ira Josephs at 610-313-8002 or ijosephs@phillynews.com.

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