Mike Lambert struggled with rowing. Not the oar-in-the-water part, which he always performed with a comfortable ease, but the money part. Since he learned to row at Dartmouth College, he tried to balance out the beauty and fulfillment that rowing provided with the fact that it was, especially in the ’60s and ’70s, a sport of the affluent and privileged.
Even when he started raising money for a new boathouse at Three Rivers Rowing Association, Lambert noticed that donors were willing to give tens of thousands of dollars to construct a building, while he had fresh memories of struggling to raise much smaller amounts to help needy families and troubled youth in his social-service day job.
“I thought, ‘We have to struggle for two grand, but we can get $50,000 for rowing – no problem?'” Lambert recalled. “But then it came to me. Rowing can be a way to do good things. We will stay community-based. Perfect.”
And it was that philosophy that drove Lambert and the early supporters of TRRA. They were set on developing a high-quality rowing program that could satisfy the needs of the most accomplished oarsman – and they were mostly men at that time – while also creating a system that opened rowing up to everyone. Foundation funding also became more readily available when grantmakers learned of Lambert’s commitment to making rowing accessible to women and minorities of all ages.
Moving to Pittsburgh from his native New Hampshire in the early 70’s to attend graduate school (he earned master’s degrees in social work and in public health), Lambert admits being alarmed by the rivers clogged and air degraded with industrial waste. Nearly 10 years later, Pittsburgh began to emerge from this environmental cloud and the city was eager to improve its smoky city image. The timing was right and his idea to introduce rowing was met with positive support.
A chance encounter during a meeting for Lambert’s job at Catholic Charities, where his duties included writing funding proposals, turned into an important milestone in TRRA history.
After a session at the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation in early 1986, someone suggested that Lambert “do something with kids and rowing.” And it wasn’t an idle suggestion. The PCGF was planning to award a $200,000 grant to an organization serving children. Lambert had only two days to write a concept paper before he even had a chance to apply for the money.
“I had as much hope of getting it as the man in the moon,” he said. “We were up against all these big organizations with long histories. I thought there was no way.”
Lambert didn’t get his hopes up. He, along with early supporters Chris Ryan, Dave Figgins, John Lubimir, Don Schock and others, went about formalizing the TRRA structure, which had formed in 1984 as a program at the Downtown YMCA. A Board of Directors was selected, as well as a Board of Governors made up of well-connected community leaders with interests in rowing. They elected their first president, a woman named Debbie English, although she eventually moved away from the city.
The group officially incorporated as a non-profit organization at the end of 1986. It was around that time that TRRA was selected as one of only three organizations invited to submit a formal grant proposal to the Child Guidance Foundation.
“We were surprised,” Lambert said. “But it made us think, because we had to reorganize the way we functioned. We were going to need a more sophisticated program structure. We were going to need an executive staff. The board was a little reluctant to go down this road, but we put in the proposal.”
More time passed. A national search was launched to find an executive director for TRRA. Lambert hadn’t thought much about the job himself, partly because he envisioned a career for himself at Catholic Charities. But then another passing remark from a friend started him thinking.
“I bumped into somebody at a Bach-Beethoven brunch, and they said ‘Youre a damn fool if you don’t do it,'” he said. “Some people thought I was crazy, but I threw my hat in the ring.”
Around the time he was hired, and about the time that enough money had been raised to break ground on the new boathouse, word came that TRRA had won the $200,000 Child Guidance Foundation grant. Nobody was more amazed than Lambert.
“I think it showed tremendous foresight, because they had told us they were concerned that this would only be an organization working with affluent white kids,” he said. “I thinkthat winning that grant really challenged us to be fully community and youth oriented.”
And anytime another Foundation or donor asked about the organization’s mission, Lambert could just point to the CGF grant as proof that TRRA was committed to community service.
High school and college programs flourished. Adaptive rowing programs grew. Masters programs for men and women grew. Kayaking programs were added. Dragon Boating took hold. All of the programs, and TRRA’s continued dedication to diversity and accessibility, captured the attention of rowing organizations all over the country. Lambert and others from TRRA often were called upon to consult with start-ups and established clubs looking to increase their scope.
Lambert’s influence at Three Rivers Rowing has been wide and difficult to measure. He was known as a hands-on manager (and not always the best delegator, as he was known to admit himself) who represented the organization in many different ways.
He became active in other programs, including Friends of the Riverfront and Sustainable Pittsburgh, which shared his view, and that of TRRA, that environmentalism and diversity could provide long-term benefits to the city and all of its residents. From the beginning, he was often the most visible ambassador of Three Rivers Rowing in the community.
Dr. Mark Bellinger was a parent at Fox Chapel High School who had been rowing for a few years when his daughter and some of her high school friends developed an interest in the sport in early 1995.
“Mike was a great help to me in even thinking about starting a high school crew from scratch,” Bellinger recalled. “Mike came to Fox Chapel High School with an erg and some other props and we held a parent meeting that was successful in getting a crew started.”
From that meeting of 13 rowers and their parents, the Fox Chapel Crew grew to over 80 athletes who compete on the local, regional, and national level in both sweep and sculling. Bellinger ended up coaching the program, and was still going strong in 2009.
Lambert (right) in the Millvale Tanks
“We never would have been able to accomplish this without Mike,” Bellinger said. “He was very interested in scholastic rowing and helped quite a few clubs start and get parent groups organized.”
Rob Chambers served as TRRA’s Community Programs Director from 2000 to 2005. He recalls Lambert’s support when he first joined the organization to increase diversity among members and programs.
“Mike was always good to me,” Chambers said. “He has a great work ethic and he’s a good leader. He wouldn’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.”
Chambers, who took a job in business development at construction and real estate giant Massaro Corp. after leaving TRRA, said his time working with Lambert taught him confidence and integrity.
“Mike really walked the walk,” he said. “For me as a young professional, he was a good influence. He helped me embrace volunteerism by showing me that you don’t always have to give money, you can give your time. Mike took that to a whole new level.”
Lambert officially retired from TRRA in 2006, but he continues to be a familiar face at TRRA events, and remains involved in a wide array of community programs.
“Mike has done a lot of good things for Three Rivers Rowing and for the city of Pittsburgh, that’s very true,” said Tom Hilliard, an early supporter who helped make important connections in the philanthropic community. “Just look at what [TRRA] has turned into. It’s very big.”
– Spring 2009
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