On January 13, Madison Whitley ’13, Orient co-business manager, spotted a hat in SeaWorld’s San Diego store that featured a polar bear with a striking resemblance to the College’s mascot. She tweeted a photo to @bowdoincollege, and by January 18 the College had started investigating SeaWorld for possible violations of trademark and copyright law.
If SeaWorld did indeed steal the image of the Bowdoin Polar Bear, it also stole a part of Bowdoin’s soul. The College relies heavily on polar bear symbolism and metaphor. Any ensuing legal battle will be a struggle to reclaim the College’s primary means of representing itself, and a key component of its institutional identity.
All this happened just as the Bowdoin Polar Bear geared up for its 100th birthday extravaganza in New York City.
The Polar Bear became the College’s official mascot on January 18, 1913, at a meeting of the Alumni Association in New York City. To celebrate its centennial, the Polar Bear returned to its birthplace over Winter Break.
In the self-absorbed spirit of the digital age, the Polar Bear documented its fun-filled trip on Facebook and Twitter, posting photos of a shopping excursion to Brooks Brothers and ice skating at Bryant Park.
It also participated in another attention-seeking pastime, rising at dawn and grappling with the crowd outside the Today Show’s studio, hoping for even two seconds of face time on national television.
Only the day before, I had watched from my couch as the Polar Bear appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, awkwardly interacting with the show’s hosts. While on the air, the College’s mascot reminded me of Barney—America’s favorite purple dinosaur—who teaches toddlers about family, friendship and love. Fittingly, the segment bore the title “What Have We Learned Today?”
Perhaps for those reasons, the show left me with the impression that Bowdoin was one of New York City’s elite preschools, not one of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher education.
That’s why I won’t be particularly outraged if it turns out that SeaWorld stole our mascot’s image. We have a richer history to draw from.
The Polar Bear has a paw in nearly every pun at the College: eBear, Bearings, Polaris, Polar Points. We may be an intelligent bunch, but we aren’t very creative.
Few students know it, but the College does have a motto: Ut Aquila Versus Coelum, Latin for “As an eagle to the sky.” It is an idiosyncratic and obscure motto, but we pay it no heed. Unfortunately, this motto isn’t the only piece of Bowdoin history we ignore.
We can boast that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow studied in Massachusetts Hall and strolled beneath Bowdoin’s famous pines before claiming their places in American history. We don’t, though. For the most part, these figures exist outside of our consciousness.
Hawthorne and Longfellow—both of the Class of 1825—are among the greatest literary figures in American history. Not once have I heard their words invoked at Bowdoin. Yes, the library is named after these great men, but we refer to it as H-L, reducing their legacies to an acronym bereft of meaning.
Chamberlain demonstrated courage during the moments for which history remembers him—his defense of the Union at Little Round Top in 1863—and the moments which history has largely forgotten. This includes his valiant efforts to protect the rule of law after Maine’s gubernatorial election in 1880. Chamberlain is now so marginal a figure at Bowdoin that I’ve heard students wonder if his statue, which stands at the intersection of Maine Street and Bath Road, is a bronze cast of Senator Angus King.
There are many other stories the College has forgotten—stories I had never heard of until I stumbled upon “Under the Bowdoin Pines,” a collection of tales written by Bowdoin alumni, published in 1907 by John Clair Minot.
One of these short tales, “The Thorndike Oak” by Thaddeus Roberts Simonton, might resonate with those who lack the genius of Chamberlain, Hawthorne and Longfellow. Simonton writes of George Thorndike, a member of Bowdoin’s first class, who did something quite simple. He planted an acorn. It grew into an oak tree.
Thorndike planted the acorn in hopes that he would be remembered, and for well over a century, he was. Simonton wrote that Thorndike’s memory would live on through the oak, even “when all who graduated at Bowdoin have passed from earth, and the fame of her sweet poet, Longfellow, of her delightful romanticist, Hawthorne, shall have been dimmed by the lapse of time.”
Each year, Bowdoin’s graduating seniors have a reception beneath a new Thorndike Oak. They enjoy the tree’s shade, but have little appreciation for the tree’s place in Bowdoin history.
So let SeaWorld take our Polar Bear. It will force us to rediscover even older traditions, symbols and tales from Bowdoin’s past.