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australian rowers profiles and history

Don Roberts OAM

Nepean Rowing Club, St Ignatius College and Sydney Grammar School (NSW)

Donald Anthony Roberts OAM, died aged 86 years in December 2020.

The following tribute by Charlie Rowe was published on the Rowing NSW website on 8th December 2020.

Don’s rowing career started on the Nepean River when he joined Nepean Rowing Club as a coxswain when he was nine years old. A long-time member of the club, Don was proud of his rowing origins and told many stories of the colourful characters of the club in those early days. As a testament to his years at Nepean, several members of the club were present at his funeral, among those was club stalwart, Lindsay Callaghan.

During Don's tenure as NSW State Team manager, NSW won the King's Cup in 1968.  As a long serving boat race official, Don was on the jury at the  1970, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1982 and 1985 National Championships.  Don was also on the organising committee for the 1982 National Championships held on the Nepean River and the first National Championships held at the Sydney International Regatta Centre in 1996.  

Don was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2014 for service to the sport of rowing. He sat on the board of Rowing NSW (formerly the NSW Rowing Association) from 1970 to 1975 and managed the NSW Rowing Team in 1968 and 1970. He received the Australian Sports Medal in 2000.

I knew Don in my rowing days last century when Don was a boat race official with NSW rowing. Don could always be relied upon to be fair and scrupulous in his umpiring. He knew rowing and had the anticipation needed in boat race officiating that only an experienced oarsman and coxswain had. If Don gave you a command in a race, you followed it, because if you didn’t, the consequences would be swift and sure, but most importantly you knew that he was right.

I came to know Don very well when he joined the Riverview Rowing Club in the 1984-85 season and from memory, because his eldest son, Anthony, had started in the sport that Don loved. 22 years of dedicated service followed. His successes were many, his experience was invaluable, but his stories and escapades, especially with his great mate, Dick Florance, were legendary.

Don coached every class of boat at the Club, from the old wooden tubs, the quadruple sculls, the Junior VIIIs and Year 10 VIIIs, the GPS IVs and the 1st VIII. I think the only crew he didn’t coach was the 2nd VIII. Don had great success with all the crews he coached, with many victories, especially in the GPS IVs. Don’s contribution, however, was far greater than his many victories. He was a very significant role model for these young rowers. He was a gentleman, first and foremost, a trait that was so important for these young men who were at a crucial stage of their development and indeed for all the coaches at Riverview and beyond.

Don formed a very strong bond with all of us who coached together in those 22 years he was at the Riverview boatshed, but perhaps his closest friendship was with another one of life’s great gentleman, Dick Florance. A very interesting book could be written using Don and Dick stories, but perhaps the most enduring recollection for many of us was at the annual rowing camp in January, where we stayed at the ANU residential colleges in Canberra. I would certainly be in the bad books if I didn’t manage to arrange it so that there was a connecting balcony between Don and Dick’s rooms. The fact that we christened it the ‘honeymoon suite’, was for the simple reason that each morning, before the rowers had been raised form their slumber, Dick would wake Don with his early morning cigarette smoke wafting in from the balcony, which was a signal for Don to make two cups of very strong coffee for them to sit and savour on the balcony before they faced the day! A delightful old couple, indeed!

Don’s service to Riverview rowing has directly impacted on the lives of many young men who have had the benefit of his knowledge of, his experience in and his passion for the sport that he loved. My son was one of these on two occasions. This has stood these rowers in very good stead for the future beyond the waters of Riverview. 

Personally, it was a significant privilege for me to work alongside Don for so many years, but I am perhaps most grateful for the opportunity to have coached the 1st VIII with Don in 2006 and 2007, his last years at the Riverview Boatshed.  His technical expertise was invaluable and his calm and measured approach ensured that these two seasons were among the most enjoyable I had experienced. I believe that it was the same for him.

Don was a very good man, especially as a mentor and a friend. I will miss Don.

Charlie Rowe
December 2020

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