PORT ANGELES — Judy Willman said she knew her dream of using a time machine to go back and see her father, Joe Rantz, grow up was impossible.
Still, she yearned to see him raising himself through his teens in Sequim, through his college years at the University of Washington and particularly in that moment in 1936, when Rantz and eight other young men overcame daunting odds to win a gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
“I wanted to see it, hear it, feel it. Of course, it was impossible … until I met Daniel James Brown,” Willman told a rapt audience at the Port Angeles High School on Saturday night, moments before she introduced Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat.”
Brown’s account of the University of Washington’s improbable gold medal-winning effort at the so-called “Hitler’s Games” has become a New York Times nonfiction best-seller and the basis for the PBS film “The Boys of ’36.”
The book pivots on the back story of Rantz, a youth with a tumultuous childhood who was abandoned by his family in Sequim in the 1930s and found redemption in part with his UW classmates.
In the process of learning to trust once more, Willman said, her father and his teammates — each of whom have since died — earned that elusive 1936 Olympic Games gold medal.
Brown said he enjoys speaking about the book in many communities across the Puget Sound area, but “particularly here on the Peninsula with Joe Rantz growing up in Sequim, and also the rowing culture out here in Port Angeles and Port Townsend.”
Brown had recently finished his first book, “Under a Flaming Sky,” when he moved into Willman and Rantz’s neighborhood near Seattle in 2006. When Brown met with Rantz, who by then was in hospice care, he had his next book.
“I didn’t want Dad’s memory forgotten, and I didn’t want those boys’ memories forgotten,” Willman said. “It was pretty much a six-year odyssey.”
Brown noted that when he heard Rantz’s story of growing up alone in Sequim, “that really got to me. I was just transported as he told me this story.”
When Brown asked if he could write the Olympian’s story, Rantz told him no. “But he said I could write about the boat,” Brown recalled.
Brown noted that the story seems to resonate with readers because it isn’t a story about individual glory but rather how individuals coming together can succeed, particularly during times of hardship such as the Great Depression.
“It reminds us of what we’re capable of when we’re pulling together,” he said.
The author’s talk was the second of two speaking events in Port Angeles on Saturday, with Brown speaking earlier at an Olympic Peninsula Rowing Association event at the Vern Burton Community Center.
The Saturday evening event was a community collaboration between the Sequim School District, North Olympic Library System and NOLS Friends groups, Soroptimist International of Sequim, Sequim’s Trinity United Methodist Church, Sound Community Bank, Olympic Peninsula Rowing Association, Sequim Education Foundation, Port Angeles Education Foundation, Port Angeles High School, the Quileute Nation and Sequim Museum & Arts.
A grant from the Sequim Education Foundation helped pay for 500 copies for an all-school read at both Sequim Middle School and Sequim High School, SHS librarian Linsay Rapelje said.
She also noted the North Olympic Library System has given away 600 copies of the book.
“They have been such a huge promotional influence on this book,” Rapelje said.
The library system also used the book as part of its monthlong “Clallam Reads” program in October.
“I’m very passionate about this book,” Rapelje said Saturday, noting that school staff collaborated to make the author talk happen.
“It just grew and grew and grew … [but] then it was, ‘How are we going to get Daniel James Brown to come?’” Rapelje said.
Enter Willman, a promoter of not only the book but an advocate of rowing in the Pacific Northwest.
“Judy’s been with me every step of the way,” Brown said.
The author said the single-most frequent comment he gets about “Boys in the Boat” is that readers — particularly men — finish it with tears in their eyes.
And interestingly enough, Brown said, in this year of high-stakes politics, he gets similar comments from people of all political stripes: “If only people on the other side would read this book, the world would be such a better place.”
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.