Joe Creed died on the water. He had a fatal heart attack on April 8, while serving as chief referee of the Smoky Jacobs Rowing Regatta in Fairfax Station. But the 61-year-old Arlington resident with only a handful of living relatives was surrounded by family during his final minutes.
"His family is us, essentially," said John White, the secretary of the National Capital Area Scholastic Rowing Association (NCASRA), which Creed was instrumental in founding in 1979.
Creed has been a major part of the area’s rowing community for three decades. "He took to the sport," said Lee West, treasurer of the NCASRA. "There’s something about the sport. You either love it or you hate it. He loved it and he loved the people… With my kids he became part of the family."
Creed learned to row at Georgetown University in the late 1960s. His college experience was interrupted by service in the army, but he returned to the area after earning an honorable discharge. He ultimately earned a Bachelor’s degree from Catholic University and a Masters in Biochemistry from George Washington University. The remaining years of his life were dedicated to his work in the lab at the National Institute of Health, and to the rowing community in Northern Virginia. He was a founder and lifelong member of the Occoquan Boat Club.
Friends say that Creed’s legacy is not only the organizations and races that he helped establish, but the lessons, in life and in rowing, that he taught the area’s youth through years of coaching. He coached crew at Fort Hunt High School for seven years, founded the crew program at Gar-Field High School in 1984, coached the George Washington University freshmen from 1978 to 1980, and he was the head coach at Catholic University from 1992 to 2002.
"He started with the high school kids because there was a need there," said West. "Besides just teaching them how to row, what he gave to the kids was a true feeling that he cared about them. He instilled values in them… He loved the sport and wanted them to love it as much as he did." West recounted a story Creed used to tell about meeting an 80- or 90-year-old man carrying his shell into the boat house. Creed told some of his rowers to help him with his boat, but the old man waved them off, saying he wanted to do it himself. Then he told them why. He had been tracking his distances for his entire life, and that morning he had completed his one millionth meter. "Joe said, ‘You know what guys, we’re going to start tracking how much you row.’" A tradition began. At the end of every season, his rowers were given certificates imprinted with the distance they had rowed in practice and in meets. "It was a great thing," said West.
West thinks Creed’s passion for coaching stems from his experiences learning to row. "His former coaches made such an impression on him that he wanted to give back some of that to other kids."
Tony Johnson, rowing coach at Georgetown was Creed’s first coach. Both were new to Georgetown at the time. It was "my first year of coaching. It was new to me and I was new to him and I must say that it was a great year and a great place for me to be at that time."
"Seeing him since 1989 [when Johnson returned after an absence to coach at Georgetown] it’s so clear how much he gave back to the sport. That was the nature of the rowing team in the ‘60s. I was a volunteer coach. They did everything themselves. They didn’t have money and I didn’t want money. He’s given so much as a coach, as a consistent administrator for the northern Virginia league, a referee, and just on and on and on. Most people at that level, there’s burnout at some point, and Joe just continued to give and give and give.
Creed taught Lee West’s daughter Chrissy West how to skull, a type of rowing in which the rower is alone in the boat, working two oars. He genuinely cared," Chrissy West said. "He listened to everything you had to say… He just took a personal interest in literally everybody he came into contact with." Creed grew so close to the Wests that he would spend Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and even wedding celebrations with the family.
Chrissy West says she has a "memory of him always being there for me. I’m a rower and also an asthmatic. One particular race I had a really, really bad asthma attack. He wouldn’t let anybody else come over to get me. He came over in his boat, plucked me out of that shell and took me to the ambulance... He was like an uncle. It really touched me that he cared that much."
She said that his "family" will miss him the most when they are out on the water, and he is not. "He was always either standing out on the dock waiting to go out on his launch to officiate the races or chasing down the boats doing his official thing. He was literally always there… standing there in his official’s uniform with his whistle and his time watch around his neck with a big old smile. That’s the picture everybody’s going to see in their mind."
Just as Joe Creed helped to shape the rowing community in Northern Virginia, Creed’s life was shaped by the ethos of rowing. Creed was assisting at the finish line, taking boat times, when he collapsed. "He was doing his avocation, his passion," said White.
Creed will be buried in the uniform that those who loved him will always associate with him. It is the uniform he died in: khaki trousers, a blue chambray shirt with a scholastic rowing association patch, a blue blazer with a U.S. Rowing patch on the pocket, a white ball cap with a referee’s crest, and a tie. The tie will not be red because referees use red and white flags on the water.