Leading Across Boundaries: Looking back at the illustrious boating history of UW

Photo of Shell House

The Shell House

On December 1st,  CLST’s “crew team” in cooperation with UW Advancement Officer Nicole Klein,  Sam Quinn, MBA Class of 2018, and the MBA Association leadership, held a Leading Across Boundaries or L.A.B. event at the Waterfront Activities Center (W.A.C.).

The L.A.B. event centered on discussing the history of rowing at UW, going back to its founder Coach Hiram Conibear, beginning with a distinguished panel of four public historians, experts on the region’s economic, social, military, educational, and sports history, which included:

  • Lorraine McConaghy, the Public Historian with UW, MOHAI & Smithsonian
  • Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s Senior Historian
  • Eric Cohen, Historian, UW Rowing Team
  • John Bolcer, Walter L. & Rosemary S. Berg, Endowed UW Archivist

Each historian took turns regaling the audience with stories and period pictures of Coach Conibear, the first men’s rowing coach, who took the job having no background in crew, and who was in fact, a football coach. We learned he was willing to be fired from his job several times during those early years around WWI, after launching a women’s rowing team, which was later suspended for decades after his untimely death in 1917.

Photo of Coach Conibear

Coach Conibear

Photo of The Original Boat House

The Original Boat House




Photo of Womens Crew Team

Womens Crew





Photo of Al Ulbrickson

Al Ulbrickson

The 30 MBAs in attendance from Foster, along with members of the rowing community, former crew members, family members linked to various parts of the history of rowing programs at UW, and of course, the “Boys in the Boat”, spent an hour listening to our four historians thread an amazing arc of the journey to being one of the dominant rowing programs in the world.

We learned from the Boeing historian Michael Lombardi how the Shell House started as a hanger for US Navy sea planes and was a hub of aviation activity centered on Lake Washington, including our first airport!

The Foster Business School can take pride in learning that one of our 1927 alumni, Al Ulbrickson, was the coach of the Olympic Crew team that won gold in Germany in 1936 during the Nazi regime, which is the same team that was the inspiration for the story shared in the national best-seller, “Boys in the Boat.”

The purpose of this L.A.B., and many others over the last 8 years, is to take our students outside the halls of the Foster School to get them to think differently. Looking back at our rich history in this region, and one of our points of pride, we discovered many lessons that we can apply to the development of our leadership.

Coach Conibear advocated for a women’s crew team before women had the right to vote for this country—doing the right thing risking his job and career. That’s what we expect of our Foster graduates.

  • To be a great rowing team, you need great coaching, such as provided by Coach Conibear and Ulbrickson, as well as great equipment, such as the sculls built by George Pocock, and of course legions of fans and supporters in our region. You also needed a crew that saw no boundaries on its aspirations, regardless of how they were, at the time, characterized as being ‘just loggers’ from the Northwest, by elite rowing programs around the globe.
  • We learned that many aspects of our region’s history in sports, industry, government, and the military contributed to building this great University and its arc of innovation. We can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it by setting unnecessary boundaries.
  • We learned you have to look back to understand where things started in order to fully think forward, and that one can never learn enough history to guide our strategic thinking. In fact, in crew, when a coach wants the crew to stop, they simply say, ‘way enough’. Well, there is never ‘way enough’ history from my perspective to form the basis for the best leaders who are strategic thinkers.

This event brought attention to our Shell House, hopefully being designated as a national historic site, to be refurbished to provide an activity learning center for our students, faculty, staff, and community for years to come!

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