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The Mysterious Saga of the Elusive Leo Burt

BY DR. ROWING

Bob Madden, an old friend and fellow rowing fanatic,  recently copied me on an email that seemingly was sent to everyone who ever rowed in Philadelphia, had ever visited Philadelphia, or had ever munched on a cheesesteak–pure manna from heaven! Attached was a copy of the program from the 1966 Head of the Charles, the second one to be contested. Bob pointed out a number of mutual friends–Larry Gluckman and Bill Miller rowing for Northeastern–and then drew my attention to the seven man in the Penn A.C. lightweight eight, Leo Burt. For connoisseurs of weird rowing stories (aren’t we all?), the Leo Burt story is one of the strangest.

None of the people who knew Leo Burt ever suspected that he would go from a quiet, serious boy who loved rowing to a fixture on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. With two accomplices, Burt, then 22, loaded a stolen van with 1,700 pounds of homemade explosives on the night of August 24, 1970, and detonated a bomb outside the University of Wisconsin’s Army Mathematics Research Center. The bomb destroyed most of Sterling Hall and killed a young researcher and father of three. A massive manhunt ensued, but Burt escaped and is still at large almost 50 years after the bombing. He remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for Domestic Terrorism.

Burt had rowed at Monsignor Bonner High School, just a few miles from Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row. What struck Leo Burt’s classmates most about him was his intensity. He was never laid back, never paced himself. Throughout high school and his first three years of college, rowing had been his first love and took precedence over everything else. He went to the University of Wisconsin and stroked the freshman eight in the spring of 1967. That summer, he rowed at Penn A.C., and his eight won the junior eights event at the Canadian Henley. As a sophomore, he roomed with the late Tim Mickelson, a silver medalist in the 1972 Olympics and world champion in the 1974 U.S. eight. At barely six feet tall, Burt was undersized compared to his teammates. As a junior, Burt lost his seat in the JV and moved down to the dreaded third varsity. That did it. He began to voice his disaffection, talking politics in the apolitical world of the boathouse.

As happened in those days, hair length became a divisive issue. Following a Wisconsin rowing tradition, Coach Randy “Jabo” Jablonic announced that all oarsmen would get haircuts. Burt wrote to Jabo protesting the order, arguing that many of the oarsmen whose faces looked down from turn-of-the-century photos had long hair. A notice was posted on the boathouse bulletin board: Anyone who showed up at the alumni dinner with long hair should clear their locker and be gone the next day. Leo cleared out.

He began to write for the campus newspaper, covering political rallies. At one rally, violence erupted, and Burt was clubbed by a Madison policeman. He went over the edge and began to live a radical lifestyle, consumed with fury at the Vietnam War and the illegal bombing of Cambodia. “The Leo we used to know was not the Leo who committed this crime,” one of his teammates said. “The war changed him tragically.” 

The bombers issued a press release that began: “Today, the battle cry against imperialism was raised once again, as the mathematics research center of the U.S. Army was struck by revolutionary cadres of the New Year’s Gang. If [our] demands are not met, revolutionary measures of an intensity never before seen in this country will be taken by our cadres. Open warfare, kidnapping of important officials, and even assassination will not be ruled out. Although we have sought to prevent any physical harm to all people in the past, we cannot be responsible for the safety of pigs if our demands are not met. Power to the People!” For those of you too young to remember, this is pure Sixties Radical Prose.

Burt was never apprehended, although his three accomplices were caught and did jail time. He apparently reached Canada successfully, despite his FBI 10 Most Wanted status. There was a moment at the Worlds in St. Catharine’s that summer (1970) when Tim Mickelson, rowing in the U.S. eight, received a couple of phone calls from an unidentified caller. Was Burt trying to get in touch with his old boat mate?

 “I came back to the dorm from the race course,” Mickelson told me. “The caller wouldn’t leave a message, and except for my family, no one would have been calling me. I found out later that the Canadian Mounties were watching me carefully at the regatta, in case Burt called. You know, at that point [only two weeks after the bombing], it hadn’t been made public yet who the suspects were, so if he had called…sure, I would’ve lent him money. He was an old rowing friend, and I credit him with some of my success. The summer after my freshman year, I lived with his family in Philly and rowed with him. He was a fanatic about rowing, and he pushed us all to be more intense.”

 Within weeks of the bombing, Burt posted a letter to his parents in which he disavowed any part in the bombing and closed with a familiar oarsman’s plea: “Please save those rowing nationals clippings for me.”

“When I flew back from St. Catharine’s, the FBI was waiting at the airport for me,” Tim Mickelson said. “They told me about his part in the bombing. They thought that rowing had been his greatest connection at the university, and he might try to seek help from one of his old rowing buddies. Every two or three months for the next few years they would call me up to check whether I’d heard anything.

“No, I don’t have any theory about what happened to him. The FBI thought at some point that maybe he got onto a freighter or something and reached Australia or New Zealand.” Burt vanished without a trace. From time to time, his story has been resurrected in the press, most recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014. After nearly 50 years, he is the fugitive who has gone the longest without being caught. Coach Jablonic is quoted in the book Rads saying, “God, if Leo had only made the varsity, this might never have happened.” Who knows? Dr. Rowing has certainly known a number of people for whom rowing has been a lifeline. Maybe things could have turned out differently.

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