We Lose John Wellington

1964 06 Balt7s ChampsJohn “Duke” Wellington, co-founder of the Columbia College RFC and of the Old Blue RFC, aged 81years, passed away on Tuesday, September 29, 2015, after a protracted period of convalescence from a series of debilitating strokes.

John was introduced to rugby in 1959 by classmate Bill Smith, both Columbia College Class of 1957. Billy, fresh out of the US Army and a writer at the NY Times, had learned of the game from a coworker and he and John bean to play this exciting game with the Westchester RFC. These two alumni soon discussed their intention to start a club at their alma mater.


In 1960, John, now at the Columbia University Placement Office and subsequently College Dean of Admissions, interviewed Patrick Moran (CC’63), a young Irish student over from County Mayo ,and the subject turned to rugby. They recruited incoming football captain Bill Campbell and these four became the founders of the CURFC.    All who know even the basics of the history of our OBRFC are aware that the club evolved directly in the Fall of 1963 from the great successes of this young Ivy League club on Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side. John and his three co-founders were joined by famed sportswriter Paul Zimmerman (CC’55) and Dick Donelli (CC’59), both of whom also joined the CURFC, to become the six co-founders of Old Blue.In short, but for the serendipitous confluence of these conversations and events – and the dreams and vision of John Wellington and his classmate Smith - no Old Blue RFC. He played wing for Columbia in their famed first rugby match in 7s  (February 25, 1961) at the old 94th Street Armory on Madison Avenue: they defeated overwhelming favorite Yale 3-0 (Yale had been the first undefeated Ivy football team in 37 years and were the last Ivy team to be ranked – AP#14).  John was the first President of the CCRFC, OB Captain (1965-66) and a member of the OB Hall of Fame (2003). 

He, from the outset, represented OB with distinction as a signatory incorporator of the Eastern Rugby Union (March 1, 1966) and served as Director of the ERU and Vice President of the ERU Mid- Atlantic region. He also was an OB delegate at the 1967 founding of the Metropolitan Rugby Union. John was also one of the three for life incorporators of the OB Rugby Foundation, and listed as its initial President in its application to the IRS for 501 (c)3 non-profit status. For all of his efforts for and devotion to Columbia rugby for over 50 years, the John ‘Duke’ Wellington Award is presented to that CURFC player ‘who most exemplifies the spirit of Columbia rugby’. He was a dominant force on the pitch of the legendary first generation of OBs of the ‘60s, including the famed 60s OB 7s sides who were undefeated in three NY 7s in four years (14 shutouts in 15 matches), the same original generation of OBs who established the tradition and style of play that defined the Old Blue RFC. He was a member of the OBRFC historic tour of the British Isles in 1966, where he received great acclaim from the British press for his fitness and ferocious defense and pursuit at flanker. 

There were no US Eagles in his era, and consensus is that he would undoubtedly have been capped had there been a national team then. John, at age 37, played flanker, as one of eight OBs on a NY Met Union LAU side against the New Zealand All Blacks at the old Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island (October 21, 1972), a 9-41 loss that remains to this day as the closest result by any American side ever assembled.    As to his influence on the lives of so many of the rugby family that is Columbia and Old Blue, words cannot adequately express the depth of his undiminished enthusiasm, belief in, support, dedication and love. There is a much overworked definition of character as ‘what one does when nobody is looking’. But in John Wellington’s case he utterly honest to a fault. If anything, this assessment is an understatement. His sincerity was without question. One famed anecdote of the ’66 British tour when after a particularly vicious tackle, John was called to task by the referee. His teammates said, “don’t give him your right name, John!”’  But John dismissed the advice and replied icily to the official, “Wellington, sir, as in ‘Duke of’’.”

To me, he was a teammate, friend, confidante, and mentor; but so much more than that in truth. My memory of John is inextricably bound up with my Columbia experience. I believed completely that he cared about me, and that his concern was genuine.  Such was his authenticity. Authenticity. Another word that is grotesquely overused, to the point that the very word itself, in common usage is inauthentic on its face. But not when one spoke of John Wellington. And I assure you that there is a very long line of people generally, and in the OB family specifically, who will say the same thing and attest personally of stories that prove that fact.

I looked up to him in so many ways, for so many reasons. In my eyes as a young undergraduate he took on heroic proportions. And I have a ton of stories as to why he made such an impression upon me. All I can say is that I deeply admired John. And I loved the man. Another hole in the heart. - Rich Coppo October 1, 2015.