In boat 3, the Holy Rowers, sponsored by St. William Catholic Church in Foxboro, participate in the 2022 Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival Aug. 27 in Superior. The Holy Rowers, initiated by Joanie and Bill Thompson in 2003, have participated every year in the Rotary Club event that began in 2002. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

A life vest, sunglasses and ball cap are not normal attire for a chancery employee, unless you’re Dan Blank, director of Administrative Services, and you’re a paddler participating in the Superior Dragon Boat Festival.

Before Blank was a familiar name among diocesan leadership, he was involved in various community and parish roles in Superior. His involvement with the Rotary Club, as a member of the Board of Directors, goes back to his Iowa roots. In his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Blank’s maternal grandfather, John Kehrer, was an active member of his local Rotary Club.

His young grandson picked up more than his grandfather’s love for golf. He learned an appreciation for community involvement and creating opportunities for youths, as had Kehrer’s efforts to promote youth golf programs.

In the early 1990s in Superior, Dan and his wife, Sue, met Fr. John Gerritts, who later asked Blank to chaperone a youth mission trip. That was the start of decades of working with youths as a chaperone and catechist.

Over the years, Blank continued to volunteer. A good friend recruited him to Superior’s Rotary Club in 2008.

“Rotary’s motto is ‘Service Above Self,’” Blank said, “and we recite the four-way test every weekly meeting that challenges us to live in truth, fairness to all, build goodwill, better friendships, benefit others … sounds kinda Catholic, eh?”

Blank explained that Rotary International was founded in Chicago in 1905, with the Superior club starting in 1912, “back when citizens were proud of their Christian faith.”

“My, how the times have changed,” he reflected, noting that he sees the Holy Spirit directed him into an organization that “lived out Catholic values.”

One of the Superior Rotary Club’s major annual events is the Dragon Boat Festival held at the end of August at Barker’s Island in Superior Bay, which is protected by Park Point in Lake Superior. The first Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival was held in 2002, but the history of dragon boat racing dates back more than 2,000 years, with connections to Chinese mythology.

Since the 1970s, the sport of dragon boat racing has grown and spread around the world.

Of the dozens of teams that participate in the Superior dragon boat event, many come together for the one-day event, while others belong to teams that train regularly and take part in regional events throughout the Western Great Lakes.

One of the local teams – the Holy Rowers from St. William’s Catholic Church in Foxboro – started in 2003, one year after the first festival. Joanie and Bill Thompson were spectators the first year but decided after seeing the event that they could start a team.

The name “Holy Rowers” was coined by the Thompsons’ two daughters, and the team raises funds for their registration and towards the festival’s annual charity beneficiary through a BBQ and silent auction at the parish.

Their original rowing team was made up mostly of St. William’s parishioners, some of whom still participate.
“This type of rowing is totally different from kayaking and canoeing,” Thompson said.

Most have never done this type of rowing – long narrow boats and synchronized paddling led by the rhythmic beats of the drummer. Participation with the up-to-25-person team includes a training session the Thursday before the Saturday races. Boats are brought in for the event with paddles and life vests provided.

Thompson admitted that some years, it has been harder to find rowers than others, but that they are pleased to have the few bronze medals the Holy Rowers have won on display at St. William’s.

For Joanie Thompson, nearing 20 years of involvement, what started out as a fun family and friend event has transformed into a sort of memorial and tribute.

Her daughter, Barbie, the Holy Rowers’ original drummer, died in 2007 at age 27.

“She had everything going for herself,” Thompson said of her daughter.

The team rowed in her memory, in particular because in the early years of the dragon boat festival, the charity beneficiary was related to cancer research and care.

Two years later, in 2009, Bill also succumbed to the disease.

Barbie and Bill Thompson are named among many others during a special moment of memorial on race day, when rose petals are tossed into the water.

The 2022 festival’s charitable partner was 23rd Veteran. The organization’s goal is to free veterans from the effects of severe trauma through a 14-week mental health program and activities to help them and their families form new memories. One of their motto’s is “Happier Veterans, Healthier Communities.”

Blank emphasized the Dragon Festival is a major, major event for the Superior Rotary Club.

“It is awesome, amazing and fun! It provides free entertainment for families and raises lots of money for many charitable causes in the Superior-Duluth community,” he said.

He summarized his role in the diocese as “supporting and cheerleading the good in our diocese and trying to encourage parish leadership and parishioners to be active parts of the local and universal church.”

Blank added, “While not preaching or intentionally evangelizing for the Catholic Church, I hope and pray that my actions are doing that in some way through my involvement in Rotary and the Dragon Boat Festival. As they say,” he continued, “‘Actions speak louder than words’ and to ‘preach the Gospel always, when necessary use words’ … I sincerely hope that my actions as a Catholic community member are a good example of practical evangelization.”

Blank concluded, affirming his belief that “It takes a whole village to raise a child. And it takes a whole diocese to keep our faith and Catholic Churches alive.

“As we say in Rotary, especially during the Dragon Boat Festival weekend: Paddles up!”