Celebrating Life, Death, Family, and “The Boys in the Boat”

An Interview with John Day
By Niall Dunne

Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Spring 2020 (In print March 2020)

For decades, the Arboretum Foundation has coordinated a commemorative tree and bench program at Washington Park Arboretum. The program offers places of physical beauty in the Arboretum for friends and family members to visit and celebrate their loved ones, while also raising critical funds to sustain the park. All bench and tree gifts are recognized with a dedication page in our permanent “Memorial Book,” located at the Graham Visitors Center reception desk.

I highly recommend taking a little time to read through this book. It’s full of stories, photos, quotes and poems that provide a glimpse of the lives and legacies of those being remembered. Many of the pages pay tribute to loved ones who have passed—some at a heartbreaking early age. Others honor the living—their births, anniversaries, and other milestones.

One tree dedicated this past year especially caught my attention for a couple of reasons. First, because the dedicator, John Day, chose a specimen—a beautiful 30-foot Freeman maple (Acer × fremanii) out on the north shore of Foster Island, overlooking Union Bay and the Montlake Cut. (All our other commemorative trees are in the mainland collection of the Arboretum). Second, because the tree not only honors John and seven family members—some living, some deceased—but also a famed University of Washington rowing team.

The first name on the list of dedications is Dr. Charles Ward Day, John’s father and one of the members of the University of Washington’s eight-oared crew that represented the United States—and won gold—at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Their story was detailed in Daniel James Brown’s much-loved non-fiction book, “The Boys in the Boat” (2013), and the “boys” are listed second on John’s list of honorees. Others include John’s nearest and dearest, including his son, Maxwell Thevik; Max’s mother, Karen Thevik; John’s younger sister, Kris Day; and his brother, Jeff Day—all of whom are still in the land of the living.

I contacted John to see if he’d be willing to share some more of the background behind his commemorative tree, and he very generously obliged.

Niall: What was the inspiration behind dedicating this tree in the Arboretum?

John: I got the idea after watching a PBS documentary called “Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death.” It gave me an awakening about being alive and also preparing myself for my dying time. It talked about how short life is, but also made the point that if you have things squared away, it needn’t just be a time of sadness—but of rejoicing. The tree seemed like a good way to memorialize myself and others in my family. I picked Foster Island because it is close to the Montlake Cut where my father rowed. His ashes are in the Cut, too—as, I believe, are those of some of the others who were part of the crew.

Niall: Tell me about your Dad. What did he do after he graduated from UW?

John: He became a doctor and served with the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. I remember him telling stories about seeing ships going down during a typhoon, and of a shipmate he saw getting washed overboard while closing the ship’s door. At one point, Dad got appendicitis and had to return to Hawaii temporarily to recover. He was offloaded to a Hawaii-bound ship in high seas and described a terrifying ordeal of being sent over to the other boat in a gurney attached to a 200-yard cable.

uw rowing team with oars

Olympic champion UW crew, with Chuck Day second from right. (UW Libraries, Special Collections, UWC0540)

After the war, my father and mother lived for a time in Yesler Terrace before moving to Madrona, where they began raising their four children. Dad was beginning his practice as an OB/GYN. He was a compassionate man and sometimes brought his maternity patients—women who had fallen on hard times—home to live out their terms with our family. They would help our mother around the house and stay with us until they had their babies. Many decided to give up their babies for adoption, and my Dad helped them deal with the sorrow and difficulty of that decision.

My family moved one last time to Laurelhurst, where we finally started to put down our roots.

Niall: Your dad died relatively young, at age 47?

John: Yes, he died when I was nine, of lung cancer, after many years of heavy smoking. Following his diagnosis, he had his left lung and a quarter of his right lung removed. However, he continued practicing medicine for the next five years. He became very anti-smoking, giving public speeches and talks about cancer.

Niall: How much did his life and experience influence you growing up?

John: A lot. In particular, he taught me the value of studying and working hard, and always being honest.

Niall: Did he have any favorite stories from his time with the “boys in the boat”?

John: Yes, he loved to tell the story—detailed in the book—about the Yugoslavian athletes making fun of the team in the mess hall before the big race. They were yelling expletives at the UW crew. Giving the finger and being obnoxious. The crew huddled together and decided they would have to do something. My dad was pretty feisty and was having none of it. He got up, walked over to their table—with the rest of the crew behind him—and a fight began. Then the Germans joined the Yugoslavians, and the Dutch team dove in to break things up.

Dad also told us about how the German police cadets would do drills and play loud oom-pah music at night, keeping the visiting teams awake. He and his teammates—some of whom were engineers—got their revenge by rigging up some buckets of water so they could dump down them onto the street from the safety of their beds. One night, the Yugoslavs came back tipsy from partying on the town, and the police cadets were actually trying to quieten them, when the drenching occurred. A lot of commotion ensued, but in the end, the UW boys got away with it and finally were able to get a good night’s sleep.

Another story he liked to tell was about the job he got working on the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the summer of 1935—along with two of his rowing teammates, Joe Rantz and Johnny White. The guys became good friends and spent the summer doing things their coach Al Ulbrickson told them not to do—drinking, smoking, playing cards in bars. They were in their early years and full of moxie. Dad was a jackhammer man, hanging from ropes and drilling into rock. It was very hazardous work, and he remembered seeing a fellow worker fall to his death. More than 70 men lost their lives building the dam.

group of people by the water

The Day family at the UW boathouse, with John in the center.

Niall: What was life like after he was gone?

John: It was difficult. We moved around a lot, spending time in Spain and Mexico. Eventually we settled back in Seattle. In the ninth grade, I was sent to a military school in Victoria, BC, but thankfully that was only for a year. I finished middle school at Nathan Eckstein in Northeast Seattle, and then went to Roosevelt High School. I graduated in 1970 and then went off to see the world.

Niall: Where did you travel?

John: I hitchhiked through Europe—Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain, Hungary, Germany and Holland. I wanted to be an artist. I lived for a time in Amsterdam, working odd jobs and painting murals. After a stint in London, I jumped a plane to Singapore and then boarded a ship to Perth, Australia. I hitchhiked across that continent, from Perth to Adelaide, including the Nullarbor Plain—basically 700 miles of desert. I traveled on the East Coast for a time, then eventually settled in Queensland, a beautiful landscape for my art. I worked jobs in farming, forestry and brickworks.

After three years, I returned to Seattle and got a job with HDF Propeller in Ballard, grinding propellers for pleasure craft and large boats, such as ferries and trawlers. That’s what I did for my career—for 40 years, ending up with Sound Propeller, in South Park—while also raising a son with my lifelong partner, Karen Thevik. I recently retired with a disability, and I want to get back to painting again. I’m renovating one of the rooms in my house into a studio.

Niall: Art runs strong in your family!

John: Yes. My older brother, Jeff Day, has had a very successful career as a professional sculptor for the last 50 years or more. He has a studio on Whidbey Island. He’s been encouraging me to follow my passion and pick up where I left off years ago. That’s what I’m doing. I’ve also have been encouraged by mentors such as artist and pattern painter Alfredo Arreguin and the author and wildlife artist Tony Angell.

Niall: How many of your other siblings are still alive?

John: My younger sister, Kristin Day, lives in Bremerton. She’s the founder of London Maid Crumpets, a specialty baking company. Sadly my older sister, Sue, has passed. Her ashes—and those of my mom, Margery—are now with Dad’s, in the Montlake Cut. My Dad was a big believer in cremation. When he got sick, I asked him why he didn’t want to be buried after he died, and he told me that he thought burying took up too much room—too much land space on our shrinking planet. And that the important thing is to remember the spirit of the person who has passed on.

That’s why I like the idea of the memorial tree so much: It’s a place for my family—or anyone—to gather and watch the boats go by, to think, and to make those special connections. If the City approves, I’d also like to have a memorial bench out there by the water—hopefully, in a somewhat-shaded spot with a view of the Cut and the Shell House, which the UW is planning to restore and turn into an active learning space and museum dedicated to my Dad’s rowing team.

Niall: How did you find out about the tree program in the Arboretum?

John: A friend of mine, Dana MacDonald, dedicated a tree in the Arboretum to his mother, Janet McMullen, a counsellor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, who got Altzheimer’s and passed away. Dana took me to see the tree one day, and it was a moving experience. I got hold of Caroline Maxwell at the Arboretum Foundation, and she was wonderful. She contacted Ray Larson at UW Botanic Gardens, and they found me something. We drove out to Foster Island on a golf cart to see the Freeman maple, and I loved it. It’s so gorgeous there. I love the spot so much.

Niall Dunne is the editor of the “Arboretum Bulletin” and the communications manager at the Arboretum Foundation.

The Day’s Freeman Maple

The Freeman maple, Acer × freemanii, is a sturdy hybrid of red maple and silver maple that grows well in a forest setting or as a focal point in a landscape. The Freeman maple is a large shade tree, which grows up to 70 feet tall and produces brilliant red-orange color in the fall. There are seven specimens in the Arboretum, including one on the southeast edge of the Seattle Japanese Garden, just outside the fence.

The Day’s commemorative tree is located on Foster Island, north of the SR-520 Bridge, east of the central trail, and just south of northern point of island.