Fund-raiser will aid longtime Boathouse Row figure Fred Duling

Posted: March 11, 2011

In the weeks after the accident, as time began to clarify the devastation visited upon his body, Fred Duling couldn't see much use for himself in this world.

He saw an old guy in a wheelchair, dependent on others.

Now, a couple of months later, he can see something different. Something more.

Duling, 66, sees he can still fulfill his many roles, still be a husband, father, and grandfather, a friend and a mentor. He sees he will still be an integral part of his beloved Boathouse Row.

Fred Duling - champion rower, esteemed coach, cherished friend - is slowly making his way forward after breaking his neck in a fall at the Malta boathouse on Dec. 6.

Forward to what? He's not completely sure. Toward as much health as he can regain. Toward the family that buoys him in low moments, his wife, Edith, his children and in-laws, who sit night after night by his bed at Magee Rehabilitation hospital.

Toward friends in the tight-knit rowing community who visit, call, and write.

On Saturday, Duling's friends will throw a reception to raise money for therapy, equipment, home care, and other expenses not covered by insurance. Tickets are available at www.pullforfred.com. A second fund-raiser is planned for April 2, when the historic houses of Boathouse Row will open for public tours.

All gifts will go to the Fred H. Duling Rehabilitation Fund.

"What he's put into Malta, the physical building, the people, the rowing program - he's as much Malta as Malta is him," said Kip Wetzel, the club secretary and an organizer of Saturday's event.

Duling's friends know he'll need more than emotional support. Health-care and living expenses for people with similar injuries can reach $536,000 the first year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Alabama.

"The whole fund-raiser, and people wanting to help me, I'm just astounded by that," Duling said in an interview at Magee. "I don't see myself as anything extraordinary. I was just guy who loved what I did, loved rowing and being a part of it."

'Stay with us!'

He doesn't remember the accident.

What others pieced together is that he was working alone at Malta, possibly hanging Christmas decorations, when he tumbled over the stairway banister.

There's no indication that he suffered a stroke or heart attack. It appears to have been a simple fall, not that far - maybe six feet. Just far enough to change a man's life.

Duling remembers waking in a pool of blood, his son, Fred, beside him, shouting, "Pop! Pop! Stay with us!"

He fractured his spine in four places, injuring his spinal cord at the base of the neck. He broke his jaw, nose, cheek, and an eye socket, and suffered a concussion and deep cuts on his face and head.

Duling, who lives in the city's Fairmount section, spent Christmas in intensive care at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he underwent three surgeries. A respirator helped him breathe, and his neck was fixed in place with a halo screwed into his skull.

A weaker man might have died on the boathouse floor. But Duling was strong and greyhound thin, all muscle and sinew.

Three times he represented the U.S. national team as a rower. As a coach, he led rowers to national championships. In 50 years at Malta, he's served in nearly every capacity, currently as vice president and board member.

He was moved to Magee on Jan. 3. Today, free of the halo and breathing on his own, his cuts and bruises healed, he looks pretty much as he always did. He has use of his hands and arms. His handshake is firm.

He's not yet able to transfer himself from bed to wheelchair. He's lost weight and strength. He underwent surgery Tuesday in preparation for a more serious operation next week to repair a pressure wound on his back. That procedure seems sure to delay his progress.

"It's been painfully slow, but we have to look at where he's come from," said Amy Duling, the eldest of three children. "He's making tiny steps every day, doing a lot more for himself. Things that seemed miraculous, like brushing his teeth, now seem normal."

Duling's mind and personality are whole. One change is that a man known for toughness is now easily touched. When Duling talks about the love and devotion of his friends and family, his voice catches.

He puts his hand on his heart, the gesture speaking for itself.

Hope and sorrow

In his dreams, he doesn't see himself rowing through the blue chop of the Schuylkill. He sees himself walking.

He wakes to the fresh sorrow of legs that don't work.

"It would be nice to say it's all positive, but it's not," Duling said. "There's a lot of long nights. A lot of long days."

Some days it seems everything goes wrong, his therapy ineffective. Some days everyone tells him that he looks great, and all he can think is that he feels awful.

It's impossible to know how much mobility he might recover. He was such a good rower that people expected him to win. And now they expect him to walk.

"But that may never happen," Duling said. "I always have hope that I'll walk, but if I don't, that's OK. That really is OK."

Because the skills and techniques acquired during a half-century of rowing are still in his brain. He can still coach, maybe in a specially fitted scull, maybe by reviewing videotape.

He won't leave it. Rowing is his life. It saved his life.

Duling grew up in Darby in a home that today would be politely described as dysfunctional, with an abusive, alcoholic father, and a mother working two jobs to try to hold the family together.

At 16, Duling had already had scrapes with the law when an uncle took him to the river. A clutch of older guys offered coaching and encouragement, teaching him not just how to row, but to be a good and decent man.

"I loved it so much for how it changed my life," Duling said. "And how I could change someone else's life."

Now his life has been altered anew, forcing him to learn ways to do what others take for granted. Like getting dressed, or taking a shower.

The goal is to leave Magee and go home. But he doesn't focus on that. He focuses on the day ahead, on what he must do today to eventually be able to throw a ball with his grandchildren, to travel with Edith. To get back to the river.

"Those things I did outside of racing - administratively, the weigh-ins, I actually have pictured myself doing that, in a wheelchair. That's good. That's a realistic picture.

"Nothing has happened to my knowledge base. I still have that. And that I can share."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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