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Duvall HechtHeroes may appear on large stages or small. In 1936, millions listened on their radios as the U.S. eight-man rowing team battled to victory for Olympic gold against Hitler Germany. The crew, recently honored in the bestseller Boys in the Boat, came home to celebrations across the U.S. Twenty years later as the sport waned, Duvall Hecht and James Fifer won Olympic gold in two-man crew. Hecht quietly returned to graduate studies in journalism at Stanford University and a job teaching English and coaching at tiny Menlo College in Atherton, California.

But his own “boys in the boat” at Menlo will never forget this man who changed their lives. Charles (Toby) Westbrook, Menlo College class of 1960, points out that Hecht started the school’s rowing club, somehow getting his hands on sculls for an 8-man crew, a four, and a single. He recruited students, most of whom had never held a blade, or oar, and began teaching them to work together in a sport where the tiniest mistake, such as lifting the blade a fraction late, would result in defeat.

Westbrook recalls getting up at dawn with his teammates, shivering in the cold wind blowing off the San Francisco Bay, and trying to meet Hecht’s standards in this demanding sport. Practice ended about 7:30 a.m. when Hecht with his exhausted, sweating students piled back in their cars and headed to class.

There, the discipline continued. Says Westbrook, “Duvall as my English professor was a true inspiration and deserves full credit for finally helping me pull my act together and pushing me in the right direction.” Hecht’s students learned to think for themselves, applying their own standards to recognize good literature.

Says William Failing, another student, “Professor Duvall Hecht was my All-purpose Teacher-Coach-Advisor-Menlo-Friend. In my collegiate experience, which includes UC Berkeley, there was never anyone like him. One minute he would introduce us to e. e. cummings, the next he would be driving us to the estuary for 6 a.m. crew practice.”

Failing, now in his seventies, points out that Hecht also taught students to look for inspiration outside the classroom. “He would take us to Stanford to see classic films such as Eisenstein’s Strike! or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.”

“He said you should read the Economist magazine the rest of your life,” says Failing. “I still look forward to my weekly edition.”

Professor Hecht’s biggest lesson, however, was the example of his own life. He was the epitome of a self-made man. A former pilot in the Marines, he took a job after Menlo in securities in Los Angeles at Bateman, Eichler, Hill, Richards. While there, he also coached crew at UC Irvine, another program that he started from scratch.

By the 1970s, Hecht was commuting from Newport Beach to Los Angeles and wanted something substantial to listen to during the long drive. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, he explained, “I was tired of music and news. So I wrote off for all the information I could get on what I could listen to in the car.”

“You could get language tapes, the Bible on tape, self-help tapes, tapes on how to close an insurance sale, but I wanted something that would help me get through life today.”

Hecht tried to talk the publishing firms into buying the rights to full-length readings for audio tape. The publishers were not enthused.

“When I went back East to talk to them about it, they said it didn’t make any sense,” he said. “They asked me who would use it. I said, ‘Commuters.’ They said no, commuters read the New York Times.”

But Hecht believed in what he had taught his first Menlo students: Hold onto a good idea and put it into action. In 1976, he and his wife started Books on Tape, making a grand total of $17,000 in the first year.

By 1991, revenues were $7.5 million and soon thereafter, Hecht sold the company to Random House.

Despite his successes, he has not forgotten his first students at Menlo. When recently asked about a photo of his first varsity crew, he responded with a two-page memo detailing each student’s career. And they have not forgotten him.

The movie of The Boys in the Boat, directed by Kenneth Branagh, will be out soon. As those from the Menlo crew team watch it, many will replay their own scenes of plying the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay just as the sun was coming up. “More power! Row!” Duvall Hecht would shout at them through his megaphone, teaching them the techniques of a tough sport, helping them become men.

Menlo College

Menlo College