David F. Figgins
If Dave Figgins had fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional
singer, Pittsburgh’s rowing scene, in fact the city’s very skyline,
would look dramatically different.
Blessed with a mellifluous tenor voice, Figgins moved from his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Toronto in 1954 in search of opportunity in the engineering field. He found a job at a small firm, but couldn't afford more voice lessons, so engineering won out. It was this career decision that eventually brought him to Pittsburgh for a job as a trainee estimator with the Mellon Stuart Co., then a small construction firm.
Thirty-one years later, Figgins retired as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Mellon Stuart, which had grown to one of the nation’s Top 10 construction firms. In Pittsburgh, Mellon Stuart built such landmarks as PPG Plaza and Fifth Avenue Place.
It was one Saturday morning about two-thirds of the way through that tenure at Mellon Stuart when he found himself driving along the banks of the Allegheny River on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, and came upon a group of men with muddy feet and sweaty clothes shouldering a rowing shell up from the water. He asked what they were doing. "Rowing," they responded.
Figgins was well aware of that, and he told them so in his typical straightforward style. He was a rower himself, a first-boater at Queens College in Belfast who had taken up an oar to gain strength and endurance for his favorite sport – rugby. In 1951, Figgins and his mates rowed at the prestigious Head of the River regatta in London, where they placed 13th out of more than 200 crews.
Figgins certainly knew rowing when he saw it. He also knew important people in high places with deep pockets, and, perhaps most importantly, he knew how to get things done.
At the time of that serendipitous meeting on the banks of Allegheny – the year was 1984 – rowing in Pittsburgh was just starting to make a comeback. Each one of the men standing there had a vision of the future. As they walked and drove along the rivers they kept thinking that a city with this much water had to have rowing. Back in the 19th century, Pittsburgh had been a hotbed of the sport, but years of industrial pollution and hazardous barge traffic had made it too dangerous.
The men in the boat, including Mike Lambert and Chris Ryan, wanted to do more than store their shells in truck trailers or smelly warehouses. They and a few others wanted a rowing program, with a real boathouse and school crews and regattas with buoys and finish lines, and maybe even permanent docks and dressing rooms. Other cities had them; why not Pittsburgh?
They weren’t quite sure how it would happen, since all those plans would cost a lot of money, but they had a gut feeling that Dave Figgins could help them one way or another. Not too long after that day on the riverbank, they learned how.
During a meeting not long afterwards, Figgins offered to lead the fund-raising efforts, and connected the Three Rivers Rowing group with Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community. He laid down one condition – that Lambert, Ryan and the others do the lion’s share of the legwork to bring the plans together.
In 1987, they incorporated as the non-profit Three Rivers Rowing Association, and Figgins became the first chairman of TRRA’s Board of Governors, the oversight board separate from the organization’s Board of Directors. He continued to lead fundraising efforts as TRRA expanded its boat storage facilities and then built a new $2 million boathouse across the back channel in the Millvale Industrial Park in 2002.
Today, Figgins lives with his wife Pearl on Washington’s Landing, and remains involved in TRRA activities. His son Pete and his grandson David have both been active participants in Three Rivers rowing programs, and many members have had the pleasure of hearing him sing a song or two in that sweet tenor that still sounds like he could have made a pretty good living as a singer.