As a student in the early 1960’s, I sometimes saw old Bowdoin alumni doddering around campus, fossils who couldn’t possibly know about my Bowdoin. I had the quaint notion that Bowdoin started when I entered in September 1960 and closed down upon my graduation in June 1964. Well, 50 years later I’m one of those old fossils. While preparing for my 50th reunion in June, I’ve had ample opportunity to compare the Bowdoin of yesterday with the Bowdoin of today. 

Here are some words penned by a long-dead Bowdoin graduate:

“Ah me, the 50 years since last we met
Seem to me 50 folios bound and set
By Time, the great transcriber, on his shelves,
Wherein are written the histories of ourselves.
What tragedies and comedies, are there;
What joy and grief, what rapture and despair!”  
(From “Morituri Salutamus,” Poem for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin Colllege, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)

Oops, the poem puts to rest my Bowdoin-started-when-I-arrived premise, because the same sentiments apply to my own 50th Reunion.

Let’s briefly tour “my” Bowdoin back then. There’s Appleton Hall, site of rowdy water fights with Hyde. And Moulton Union where the students unaffiliated with the Greek system (only two percent of the student body) ate their meals, and where the entire campus converged in January, 1964, to celebrate the final victory of the Bowdoin College Bowl team.  And there’s the Chapel, where I went to religion class right after learning of JFK’s assassination and where the one-person “Placement Office” was located. And there’s Smith Hall, where my freshman English professor handed out D’s and F’s with a sneer and no written comments and Searles Hall, where my first-year physics class met Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (not a misprint) at 8 a.m.  Oh, and Pickard Theater where President James Stacey Coles assured our class, at opening Convocation, that we were destined to be future leaders. 

We soon launched our future leadership journeys by marauding down Maine Street determined to parade across the stage of the Cumberland Movie Theater, a prank which amused neither the Brunswick gendarmes nor scolding upperclass Orient reporters.

And there was the Zeta Psi house (now Ladd House) where orientation involved wearing a beanie and a sign kneeling to recite the Zete prayer before entering the house and lying in a coffin while getting branded on the arm at the official induction ceremony, an event instilling great pride.

Bowdoin was a “traditional” college back then, but we students weren’t passive. We succeeded in efforts to eliminate required chapel restriction and loosen social ones. We worked to have national fraternities change restrictive clauses, and some chapters chose to go local rather than discriminate. We did not prevent the building of the Senior Center (now Coles Tower), which we saw as a threat to fraternities. Rather, we stood around and cheered one snowy night in January, 1964, when the scaffolding of the Center (then Maine’s tallest building) went up in flames.

Okay, enough nostalgia! How has Bowdoin changed?

In the early 1960s, Bowdoin had no women students and no women faculty. As to “diversity,” our class of 223 included only two African-Americans, two Asian-Americans and no international students. Gays? Not an issue; no one dared come out. Our class enrolled more students from my high school in Delaware (3) than from the states of Florida, Georgia, California, Oregon, Washington and Texas combined (1). Study abroad? Didn’t happen. Summer research opportunities? Ditto. “Technology” consisted of a typewriter and a telephone. Condoms—seldom needed sad to say—were called “safes.” No one used drugs beyond booze. The food quality depended upon the talent and mood of the fraternity chef, and Brunswick offered just two decent restaurants. Tuition was $2,500 a year and the average GPA was 2.3 (C+).

That scenario may sound horrible. Well, I haven’t noted the terrific teachers, the long chats with good friends, the close ties with teammates or fellow club members, bridge games and boisterous hockey nights when the chants “Colby sucks!” or “Safety school” rocked the Dayton Arena. (Some things don’t change).

Bowdoin is a far better place today. Consider the tremendous diversity of the student body, enhanced immeasurably by the presence of women; the transformation into a truly national liberal arts college; the exciting educational opportunities which span the globe; the extraordinary physical facilities; and yes, the food. 

Somehow, despite bumps and bruises along the way, good things happened to our class after Bowdoin. As 50th Reunion Yearbook editor, I’ve reveled in reading about my classmates’ significant achievements, proud that they’ve heeded the Offer of the College: “To make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life, to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms.”

But what does the Class of 1964 have to do with Bowdoin today? Well, have you ever been to the Farley Field House (Bill Farley ’64) or played on the Howard F. Ryan Field (Al Ryan ’64)? Have you taken a course from Kristen Ghodsee, John Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women Studies (endowed by John Osterweis ’64) or Stephen Perkinson, Peter M. Small Associate Professor of Art History (endowed by Peter Small ’64)? Have you done research on campus in the summer, thanks to the Gibbons Summer Research Program (endowed by John Gibbons ’64)? Do you know someone who’s won the Dr. Samuel and Rose A. Bernstein Prize for Excellence in the Study of European History (endowed by Roger Berle ’64)? Were you one of the Bowdoin students who received a scholarship to spend the summer in Zambia working with Community Without Borders (a program launched by Dick Bail ’64). Other class members serve in countless ways: establishing scholarships, giving mock interviews, being host parents, attending concerts or cheering on the Polar Bears. 

Two events highlight the year for many Bowdoin alumni and, I daresay, for students: (1) The annual Scholarship Luncheon in May when students and donors celebrate the long legacy of financial aid at Bowdoin; and (2) Commencement when seniors first march between two lines of alumni and then alumni march between two lines of seniors.

The Class of 1964 is connected to generations of Bowdoin students from Longfellow’s days right up to the present. While the College has changed, some elements hold true. Just as in the past, today’s students engage with professors who prize teaching. They enjoy a collegial learning environment. They appreciate the character, if not always the climate, of Maine and they feel a genuine commitment to the Common Good. 

So Bowdoin students, look kindly on the old fogies walking around the campus at Reunion or any other time. We Polar Bears have much in common. It has always been so.

-David Treadwell, Class of 1964.