Xavier Magazine

Old Man and the Pep Band

At first glance, Paul Denning’s close-cropped hair, well-proportioned physique and enthusiastic nature portray a man who lives a fairly typical life. But only if one considers it typical to return to college at 46, join the rowing team at age 48, become the rowing coach at 52 and survive a fifth bout of cancer—all while working full time and maintaining a schedule that would disable most people’s Daytimer.

“Plus, I played the tuba in the pep band.”

Holding forth over hummus and pita chips in the Gallagher Student Center, Denning’s agenda for the moment is not only telling his story but also convincing two students they need to join the team. They’re more interested in demolishing their meatball and marinara footlongs, so Denning turns back to the tuba.

“The tuba is the ultimate fashion accessory,” he says. “And you get a great seat at the basketball game.”

Plus he adds, in his abundantly enthusiastic nature, for the last 30 years or so, he’s made it a point to learn an instrument a year. “I’ve worked through all the brass instruments, violins, keyboards, and am currently learning the bagpipe.”

Originally a music major at the University of Kansas, Denning was recruited by General Electric to work in its technology department, so he dropped out and moved to Cincinnati. Career advancement required he complete an undergraduate degree, so he began taking classes in the evening. While walking across campus one day, crew team members were staging an ergothon—a fundraising event using rowing machines. Though closer to the age of the students’ parents, Denning sat down for a friendly competition with one of the rowers.

“I was already doing marathons and triathlons,” he says, “so here I was, a 47-year-old guy rowing against an 18-year-old.”

It’s all true, says Jacob Smith, a junior, former crew member and one of the lunch bunch Denning is trying to bring back into the fold. “I thought, what are we going to do with this old guy? Is he really going to row a boat with us?” Smith says.

Row he did—12 competitions over two years. After graduating in 2009, Denning began coaching the team. He even credits the crew with helping him through chemotherapy as he battles recurring cancer.

“I need the team as much as they need me.”

And whether the task at hand is cajoling just one more student to join the crew or striving to produce a sound resembling music out of a bagpipe, Denning exudes the attitude that what he gives back is also what keeps him going—and rowing.