Jack “Laddie” LeBlanc, 82, is synonymous with Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and has a legacy that continues to be carried out to this day. LeBlanc grew up in Ecorse along the Detroit River and was lured to the sport of rowing by his brothers, becoming a national champion and a Royal Canadian Henley Regatta champion in 1947 with his school’s rowing club before moving to West Bloomfield in 1957. After working in insurance at Metropolitan Life, LeBlanc joined his friend Justin Ross in starting the St. Mary’s rowing program in 1976 before eventually taking over as head coach. From 1978 to 1995, “Laddie” led his program to five state championships in addition to numerous other titles. The success that the St. Mary’s program has had since then, including numerous Hebda Cups, Midwest Championships, state titles, three Canadian Schoolboy titles and the 1998 single-boat national title, would not have been possible without the path that LeBlanc set. Not only is the St. Mary’s rowing clubhouse and the school’s Crew Classic trophy named in LeBlanc’s honor, but three of his grandchildren (Spencer and Parker McInnis and Sean Bauer) are members of the St. Mary’s football team that just won the Division 3 state football championship. LeBlanc has been married to his wife, Julie, for 62 years and has eight children and 29 grandchildren, some of which are either St. Mary’s students or alumni.
SCN: Tell us how you were introduced to rowing and how it became one of your passions. In your mind, what was your greatest accomplishment as a rower?
JL: My father’s house, where I was born and raised, was on the Detroit River in Ecorse. Right across the street was the boat club and all my brothers started rowing when they were teenagers and continued all through high school. At our high school, they started a rowing club and they were national champions along with me. Winning the national championship and the Canadian National Championship in 1947 (was my greatest accomplishments as a rower).
SCN: We also understand that your rowing skills came in handy when someone’s life was in danger. Please recall that day for us.
JL: I came from work with my dad with my suit on at about 3 o’clock and my son said there’s somebody out there screaming for help on the lake. I looked out the window and I saw a hand sticking out of the water about an eighth of a mile away from my house. So I had the canoe by the lakeshore, and I pushed it onto the water. There was a thin layer of ice, so I couldn’t put all my weight on the ice.
I had to scoot the boat towards this guy and as I got about 40 yards from him, here comes two firemen with a stepladder running out towards him, and about 40 feet from him they caved in. They were in full gear and boots and they came up screaming for help. They were holding onto the thin ice. I hollered to the guy “Grab a hold of my boat and I’ll pull you out.”
So I got him out and pulled him to shore and went after the other one and did the same thing. He wanted to come back with me to pick up the drowning guy and I said stay in, the ice is too thin.
So I went out towards the guy that was holding on for his dear life and I looked to the side and there was this stepladder and it had blown towards him after the fireman let go of it. I put it next to my canoe and I got in the canoe and the guy couldn’t even lift his hands up, he was almost done for.
I grabbed him from behind and I could lift him out of the water, put the body on this stepladder and dragged them both to shore and saved his life. It was scary. This was in March 1974.
SCN: Some people may think of rowing as a fun event out on the lake, but it can be a very physically demanding sport. What do you believe are some of the misconceptions people have about rowing? In your mind, what are the keys to a successful rowing coach and convincing young men to follow your lead?
JL: They think it’s an easy sport, but it’s the toughest sport in the world. You’re using every muscle in your body all the way through the full 3,000 meters and you can’t let go. If you let go, the oar sinks in the water and stops the boat. You gotta be on top of everything all the time, and you have to be perfect to win a good race.
Well, I’ve got pictures and medals and movies and we got all the boats we need at St. Mary’s for anyone that wants to come out to row. We get them in the boat one time and they love it.
SCN: You first came to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 1976 and began the rowing program with your friend Justin Ross. What were the biggest obstacles you and your team had to overcome when your program was just starting out? You later took over as the program’s head coach. How did you deal with the situation of coaching without your friend?
JL: Money (was the biggest obstacle to overcome), it’s an expensive sport. The boats cost $3,000. Money, travel and getting good kids that are dedicated (were the biggest obstacles).
Mr. Ross was the greatest person in the world. He was taught how to coach by my coach, Jim Rice. Jim was an old fella who coached a lot in college crews, mostly Columbia. He came after he retired and coached at Ecorse and I was his buddy. I was only about 12-years-old then and I’d run errands for him and I got to learn how to coach from him.
SCN: You ended up leading many successful teams throughout your coaching tenure. In your opinion, what would you say was the best year for St. Mary’s rowing while you were a head coach?
JL: All the years were good. We won almost every race we rowed in.
SCN: St. Mary’s has given back to you for your contributions, most recently naming the LeBlanc Trophy for the Orchard Lake Crew Classic after you. You also have family members who either attend or have graduated from the school. Could you have envisioned the bond between you and St. Mary’s turning out the way it has? What does the school mean to you?
JL: It’s the greatest school in the world, Christian-wise, teaching the kids how to live properly and get along together. I had seven grandchildren that went through it.
It’s tough to be a good coach in rowing. The kids have to be dedicated, they have to be 100 percent on the ball every day because it’s so hard to learn how to row. It’s not like baseball that comes naturally and you play it when you’re a little kid. They’ve never rowed before they come to St. Mary’s and I had to teach them how to get in the boat, how to hold onto the oar and how to get the boat moving with different strokes. If you don’t row properly the boat doesn’t move right.
There’s also running, weightlifting and calisthenics. You have to have good leadership with the sport. Once they get in the boat and they win a race, they’re hooked.
Every year is tough. Every year you get good people and it’s so competitive with the other sports in the school and you gotta have kids that are strong. You can’t get little skinny kids.
Then there’s the lightweights and heavyweights. The heavyweights have to be at least 6-feet tall and about 180 pounds. It’s so much competition every year and it gets tougher.
I love my grandkids and we get along real well. I’m not trying to keep an eye on them, I’m just looking at them and admiring what they’re doing and the good job their parents are doing and I thank God for good children.
SCN: You are living what many would consider to be a very blessed life. What do you believe are the keys to happiness and success that you would pass on to someone else?
JL: First of all, a good trust in God. All the kids are very religious kids. They stay away from drugs and rough company. They pick good company and they live a good life, thanks a lot to their mother and my wife. Having good leaders at the school, like Father Timothy Whalen and Msgr. Stanley Milewski — they really helped me out a lot.