WCHS class project a catalyst behind inspiring movie, ‘The Boys in the Boat’

Editor’s note: The following story is from an interview taken from the public affairs radio show, In the Know, that was recorded Thursday, and a news release issued Friday by Warswaw Community Schools Corporation.
By Dan Spalding
News Now Warsaw

WARSAW — There is a movie playing at North Point Cinema in Warsaw, The Boys in the Boat, that tells the story of a rowing team from the University of Washington competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, during the Great Depression.

Dr. David Hoffert

It’s a tale about grit, teamwork and athletic success set in the era of Nazi Germany, that would have never come together if not for a 2006 history class assignment at Warsaw Community High School.

It was a U.S. history class led by then-teacher Dr. David Hoffert that dove into the story of the rowing team after students reached out to one of the last living members of the team and turned it into 10-page report that eventually became the catalyst for a New York Times best-seller — and now a nationally-released movie.

The connection began in 2006 when Hoffert had been leading high school students into projects in which they would reach out to veterans and write reports with their help.

Those assignments turned into numerous projects that students embraced.

“Our kids loved it because it gave them the opportunity to actually interact with history. It was a lot more than a textbook,” Hoffert said.

At about the same time, one of Hoffert’s classes had been learning about the Berlin Olympics and the tumultuous times that of that era when some of the students wondered out loud if they could find any remaining key players from the 1936 Olympics who were still alive.

So they searched online for the words, “1936 Olympic medalist from the United States still living.”

That took them to Joe Rantz, who was apparently the only surviving member of the Olympic Gold rowing team from the University of Washington. 

They were able to find an address and sent him a letter inquiring about his experience. 

Rantz was in his upper 80s and was on the verge of moving into hospice when the students reached out, but his daughter, Judy Rantz Willman, became involved and served as a go-between.

As it turns out, the project also gave Rantz Willman a chance to fill in the blanks in what had been, for her, a spotty understanding of his father’s Olympic experience.

“His daughter used that opportunity to really talk to her dad, to build on something she had wanted to do for quite a while because she knew a little bit of her dad’s story but they didn’t know everything that had gone on,” Hoffert said.

A couple of weeks later, the class received an “incredible packet” back from them, Hoffert said.

The package contained a few photos from the rowing team and a ten-page synopsis.

The students then assembled their own report and sent it to Rantz and his daughter.

She was so motivated by the report, Hoffert said, that she shared her own synopsis with her neighbor, Dan Brown, who happened to be an author.

He took a look at that synopsis and and they began a six-year mission to write Rantz’s story, Hoffert said.

Over the next six years, Brown and Rantz’s daughter looked further into the history and Brown was able to produce ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ which turned into a best seller for the New York Times that was published in 2013.

Rantz Willman alerted Hoffert about the book with a letter, writing, “I consider your initial request to Dad to have been one of the critical springboards which forced me to collect my thoughts and all the history that I had been gathering from Dad and put them into a cohesive form.” 

Hoffert, in a news release issued by the school on Friday, added, “It’s evident that the credit for this story goes to Joe Rantz, who lived this incredible life along with the relentless efforts of Judy, and Dan Brown, the author to record this legacy.”

“I am grateful that the curiosity of our high school students in Indiana ignited the preservation of this exceptional tale of teamwork and American spirit. Our students and the Warsaw community share a unique bond with this story and in many ways reflect the values and spirit Joe Rantz exemplified,” Hoffert  said.

Much of what made the book interesting is that Rantz had never rowed before going to college and saw it as the only way he could stay in college in the midst of the Great Depression, Hoffert said.

Hoffert was quick to point out that much of the hard work had come from Joe, who lived the story as well as his daughter and the author.

“Our part was so little,” he said. “The thing we did was ask a lot of questions and we just cared about somebody as a human,” Hoffert recalled.

Hoffert was in Florida and saw it with one of his sons on Christmas day when it debuted.

The theater as nearly sold out and the audience roundly applauded the movie at the end.

“It’s a feel-good American patriotic pride movie of the greatest generation that we miss so much today,” Hoffert said.

The story continues to make an impact.

High School junior Reed Nelson is getting ready to start an independent study focused on collecting oral histories and sat in on a phone conversation with Hoffert and Rantz’s daughter last week.

He shared his thoughts on the interview: “It’s beyond words. Seeing people connect with the past and keeping those stories alive gives me goosebumps. I love learning about things I never knew and being part of that discovery.”

On top of that, the school district is now working to have Rantz Willman visit the community next fall.

In anticipation of the visit by her and her husband, Ray Willman, both Edgewood and Lakeview Middle Schools are planning a school-wide read of ‘The Boys in the Boat’ for this spring.  They will also be participating in building-wide activities designed to immerse students in the themes of the book, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the historical context.

The Boys in the Boat is rated PG-13. It was produced and directed by George Clooney, and is scheduled to continue showing at NorthPoint Cinema until at least Thursday, according to the theater website.

See the trailer here.