He ran them until they could go no further, worked them until their hands blistered and their arms felt as heavy as concrete blocks. On occasion, he made them learn their craft by maneuvering around the ice on the Potomac River.
Saturday, the former members of Charlie Butt's 36 years of rowing crews at Washington-Lee High School will repay his "kindness" with a gesture of their own as they honor him at the Potomac Boat Club in Washington.
Butt, who lives in McLean, is the American legend of high school crew coaches. His first boat made history in 1949 by winning the national championship just two months after the team was organized. That has been followed by 11 more national titles, six appearances and two victories at the prestigious Henley (England) Regatta and a day in 1965 at Stotesbury, Pa., when W-L crews took home championships in five different classes.
"The kids who rowed for him end up thinking about him all their lives," said Paul Yager, who had never rowed before March 1949, but by May of that year was part owner of a national championship. "I'm in my fifties now, and some of my fondest memories are those of Charlie from high school.
Butt, 66, is a retired aeronautical engineer who rowed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has helped establish rowing programs at many other Fairfax schools that have become W-L's rivals and was instrumental in the development of collegiate crew teams at Georgetown, George Washington and Virginia.
Budget-consciousness has hampered crew's progress in recent years (new boats cost about $7,000, one oar runs about $200), so Butt, who has remained in contact with many of his former rowers over the decades, recently mentioned to several that the sport would need private support to continue on a competitive level.
"Charlie said, 'I need your help,' and when he asks, people come running," said Chuck Veatch, president of the W-L Crew Alumni and Friends association.
Veatch, now a real estate developer from Oakton, was the coxswain on the unbeaten 1960 boat that won a national championship at Princeton. He said members of Butt's crews forever become part of an unchartered fraternity.
Besides reuniting old crew teams, Saturday's celebration, which will begin at 3:30 p.m., will try to rekindle attention to the sport and to garner donations. Just mention of the reunion, headed by Washington lawyer Paul Pearlstein, has brought in more than $5,000.
That figure should rise considerably this weekend. While many of Butt's former rowers continued their rowing success -- many became members of major college crews, and Yale coach Tony Johnson won a silver medal in the 1964 Olympics pairs competition -- a great many also went on to become successful in life.
"I have no idea why they became so successful," said Butt. "I think one reason is that to be successful in crew, you must learn discipline. It makes you so tired from the hard work that you must learn to be efficient in everything else just to get things accomplished in the day.
"You must be competitive to be successful in crew, and a competitive individual in his sport will be competitive in anything in life."
Veatch said it is probably no coincidence so many of Butt's rowers continued their high level of success off the water.
"It was such a great experience for many of us," said Veatch, who was part of a shuttle of students that took turns picking Butt up from work in downtown Washington and taking him to practice because the coach did not have a car of his own. "There was a lot of independence involved. The rowing did not take place at the school. You were given a lot of responsibility, and there was a lot of traveling. It was also the first time in my life I ran into an adult who never let you call him mister."
Butt was not always blessed with the best athletes in the school. "We got a lot of people who were lousy athletes and we made athletes out of them," said Butt, who turned down numerous opportunities to coach at the collegiate level. "With high school kids, it's a whole lot of fun watching little scrawny individuals or fat little round balls of something become well-conditioned athletes and part of a successful team."
There were no cutting corners in Butt's system.
"There are still some sores involved from when one kid who would have been on our national championship boat was seen smoking," said Veatch. "He was warned, and when someone saw him a second time, he was off the boat. To Charlie, if you are going to do it, you do it all the way."
Butt will probably never end his quest to promote rowing. He admits he may have sacrificed time with his wife Millie and their five children, but rowing has always been a priority.
"I figure I learned a few things along the way that might be worth showing to other people," said Butt. "Now that it takes up so much time while I'm retired, I wonder how I ever survived when I was still going to work."