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‘Multitalented and so humble’: Friends remember Zietlow ’22

January 25, 2019

In his first semester at Bowdoin, Henry Zietlow ’22 took in the lobster bake, studied plant ecophysiology and multivariable calculus and played violin in the chamber orchestra. He joined the rowing team, where he quickly became known for his contagious smile and his distinctive headbands. He insisted the accessory brought a competitive advantage out on the water.

This week, as Zietlow’s friends and classmates returned to Bowdoin, they remembered not just his idiosyncratic fashion choices, but his work ethic, humility and kindness. Zietlow died in a car accident in Wisconsin on January 14.

Coaches, teammates and friends say the first year excelled in many disciplines, though he rarely spoke of his own accomplishments and consistently put others before himself. Raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Zietlow was an intrepid outdoorsmen and a particularly talented rower.

Doug Welling, head coach of the rowing team, recalled watching Zietlow, at the time a senior in high school, perform at the Head of the Charles. In one of the sport’s biggest events, the Minnesotan competed as a single rower.

“It’s a feat that many never accomplish,” Welling said. “To steer that course … requires a tremendous level of bravery, a little bit of craziness and an incredible amount of skill.”

Zietlow quickly became involved with the rowing team at Bowdoin. The night before his first regatta, he and first-year teammate Ben Ross slept in the common room of a third teammate, Matt Donnelly ’22. The trio had to get up very early, but Zietlow didn’t mind.

“We took a selfie at 3 a.m.,” Matt Donnelly said. “Ben and I are kind of tired, scratching our heads, and Henry is just beaming ear to ear with his characteristic smile because he was so looking forward to starting his Bowdoin rowing career.”

Those who knew Henry knew his smile—the often-present grin that seemed to light up a room, or the docks for early-morning rowing practice.

“People will say someone was a light, but Henry wasn’t a light, he was a lighthouse,” said Stephen Boe ’22, who joined the team at Zietlow’s urging. “It could be stormy, two feet of visibility and 25 miles in the distance and you could see the Henry light spinning around, smiling ear to ear, hair flopping around with the headband.”

The distinctive headband gave Zietlow “free speed,” his teammates joked. The style caught on—the first year knighted teammates with their own hair accessories before a regatta. To Welling and his teammates, moments like that one exemplified Zietlow’s ability to match discipline and intensity with laughter and fun.

“He was on the crew team for a semester, and he changed it so much,” said Jake Readinger ’20.

Courtesy of Mike Donnelly
Zietlow was a talented rower whose teammates cherished him for his positive energy and contagious spirit.

Though his rowing accomplishments were immense—he qualified for junior nationals as a senior in high school and rowed a marathon on a rowing machine over Winter Break—Zietlow’s talents extended well beyond the sport.

“One day I saw him across the quad, carrying like a case … and then I learned that he was in the orchestra, and he never would have told me that,” Matt Donnelly said. “And then we were talking about courses … and he mentioned the names of his courses and it was things that I haven’t even taken the prereqs of the prereqs of. So now I know he’s athletic, nice, humble, musically inclined and a genius. He’s just so multi-talented and so humble about every single one of them.”

Prithvi Gunturu ’22 met Zietlow in Gibson Hall, where both were auditioning for the Bowdoin Orchestra. Both violinists made it, and Gunturu was impressed with Zietlow’s skill.

“I could always hear him from behind me,” Gunturu said. “He was really good. He rarely ever missed a note.”

In the classroom, Zietlow had a variety of interests, taking classes in art history, mathematics, history and biology. As a junior in high school, he had won the Seagate Emerging Scientist Award at the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair, according to his high school newspaper.

“Look at someone who is just as excited about Brazil as they are about calculus,” said Elise Hocking ’22. “He was just extremely brilliant.”

Beyond his academic, athletic or musical achievement, those who knew Zietlow focused on his selfless nature. Though many of his friends described him as initially quiet, he was quick to open up and to help out a friend.

Mike Donnelly ’20 recalled asking Zietlow’s help in organizing a surprise birthday party for two other members of the rowing team. Zietlow gladly obliged—and neglected to mention that the party date happened to fall on his own eighteenth birthday.

“He was so humble, it never came up to him to tell my brother, ‘hey, just so you know, it’s also my birthday,’” said Matt Donnelly. “He was planning a surprise party for two other people and never said anything about it being his own birthday.”

His teammates, however, eventually caught onto the special day, and planned a surprise for Zietlow, too.

“Everyone said ‘surprise’ when he walked in and it caught him so off guard,” Mike Donnelly said. “I was shocked, because I thought he would expect it. But he just smiled the whole time.”

While Zietlow won’t be in the boathouse or the recital hall, friends and teammates will find ways to remember him.

“I hope more people start wearing headbands. I think you’re going to a see a lot more of them,” Boe said.

Ry Hills, assistant coach of the rowing team, noted that she, like many others, was lucky to have met Zietlow in the first place.

“I feel grateful when I say, we got him for a month, we got him for a semester.”

A memorial service for Zietlow will be held on Saturday, February 2 at 11 a.m. in Kanbar Auditorium, Studzinski Recital Hall, with a reception to follow in Main Lounge, Moulton Union.


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  1. Jane Clay says:

    Thank you for the lovely tribute to Henry Zietlow. He was a renaissance man in the truest sense of the word, and his family and friends are searching for ways to make his brief time on our planet have meaning. Headbands for all!

  2. Sue Polsgrove says:

    It is impossible to understand why the life of this special young man was taken at such an early age. But it is wonderful that he made such an impact on those who knew him at Bowdoin. Thank you for remembering him with this tribute.

  3. Bowdoin parent says:

    Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

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