2017-04-20 / Community

One city is bound by one book

Author of ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ Dan Brown, to speak at Agoura library
By Stephanie Bertholdo


Dan Brown Dan Brown When author Daniel James Brown met his neighbor’s father, Joe Rantz, he fully expected to hear a fascinating sports tale. After all, Rantz was a member of a college rowing team that ended up winning Olympic gold in 1936.

But it didn’t take long for the writer to realize that Rantz had a far more compelling story to share, one that would be the basis of Brown’s best-selling, nonfiction book, “The Boys in the Boat.”

The book was chosen by Agoura Hills Mayor Denis Weber as this year’s One City, One Book selection, a national literacy program created to encourage community members to read the same book and come together to talk about it. This year’s local program will have an Olympic theme and will include activities for people of all ages.

Brown will be the featured speaker during the event that runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thurs., April 27 at the Agoura Hills Recreation and Event Center, 29900 Ladyface Court. Brown is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m.

In a Skyped interview with Brown, The Acorn got the chance to pick the brain of an author who was a stickler for nailing down facts about the Depression, the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany and the personal background of a man who struggled with family strife yet found a unique path in life.

Brown said his neighbor Judy had talked to him about her father in 2007 at a homeowners association meeting where they both live on the outskirts of Seattle. Rantz, Judy’s father, was in hospice care at her home at the time.

“I hardly knew her,” Brown said of his neighbor, who actually lived quite a distance away since the homes in their neck of the woods sit on large lots.

“I met Joe, and we talked and talked about his experiences as a kid and the hard times during the Depression,” Brown said.

The first interview, conducted in the spring of 2007, lasted about two hours.

“I was just mesmerized,” the author said. Over the next two and a half months, Brown visited Rantz seven or eight times.

The former Olympian died Sept. 10, 2007, at the age of 93. Before his death he was able to tell Brown the story of his life, including the hardships imposed on him by a harsh stepmother who pushed him out of his home and away from his family at a young age.

Brown said that despite the adversity Rantz suffered as a child, he was a “relentlessly optimistic guy. Even when he was dying he wanted to talk.”

Rantz was traumatized as a child, but instead of becoming bitter and angry he tried to understand why his stepmother felt so threatened by him, Brown said.

The author surmised that the stepmother couldn’t look at Rantz without being reminded of “the other marriage.”

Rantz’s mother died when he was 3, and over the course of the next 12 years, he was abandoned by his father twice, adopted by his brother and by the age of 15 was fending for himself.

Even as a teen, Rantz demonstrated fortitude, stick-toitiveness and the will to shape his life as he saw fit. He worked after high school so he could afford to attend the University of Washington. During his freshman year in college he was recruited onto the rowing team.

While Rantz’s stories were fascinating, Brown knew he needed more information to complete the book. He dug into history and the archives of stories collected by Judy Rantz. There were diaries, letters and boxes of material to sift through to glean information about a man who defied the odds of a troubled life to become a worldclass rower.

Brown said he also tracked down the family of eight of the members of the rowing team to add more depth to the story.

He also absorbed some atmosphere by hanging out at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, where Rantz worked as one of the builders to help pay for college.

“Readers feel a connection to this story,” Weber said, calling the book compelling.

“The Boys in the Boat” was released in 2013 and landed on the best-seller list for 152 weeks. It has been published in a Young Readers adaptation, and it inspired the PBS American Experience documentary “The Boys of ’36,” which aired last summer. A film based on the book is in development.

Weber said the book is “a way to spotlight young people attempting something good and uplifting as a team and succeeding, even during a terrible time in the world.”

For more information on One City, One Book events, call (818) 597-7361 or visit 91301.org.

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