Casey Sills' life, part II
Casey Sills entered Bowdoin during President Hyde's twelfth year along with 59 other students. The College itself was still rather small, having a total of less than 250 students, over ninety percent of which were Mainers.
The curriculum revolved around Greek, Latin, more modern languages such as German, French, Spanish, and mathematics. Sills took many of these courses along with elocution-a course which served him well. Casey connected with many in his school years but probably became closest to one of his professors, Henry Johnson, a man who taught Sills to love Dante and comparative literature. The feeling, evidently, was mutual.
"If he were my own son, I could not love him more," Johnson said referring to his pupil.
Sills also contributed to the College's publications, played tennis, became a member of the History Club and watched from afar as the United States went to war with Spain. His Bowdoin education seems to have lacked only those courses pertaining to the sciences-a fact that Sills would later regret.
As Kenneth Sills grew in mind, body, and spirit, he also grew to love Bowdoin College. A large part of that was probably because of William Dewitt Hyde, who, despite his already busy schedule as the president of a college-this job at the time included interviewing potential students, as well as entertaining crowds all over the state-still found time to lecture on philosophy and ethics. Sills would emulate his mentor in the years of his own presidency. For the time being, he sat in awe, listening and pondering the questions which Hyde hammered out of his brilliant mind. Issues of the day were discussed with the conversations raging even beyond the classroom. As a master of his craft Hyde inspired Sills and showed him how the magic of the classroom could really work.
So inspired and so taught, Kenneth Sills graduated in 1901 summa cum laude. Hyde praised him as not only the first student in his class, but of generations of other classes as well. Called on, by his classmates, to give a parting speech, Sills thought for a moment and simply remarked:
Today we are the lords of the campus; tomorrow these very trees, those very halls will look down on us with gentle indifference. For the college belongs to the student body rather than to the trustees; to the undergraduates rather than to the alumni.
From Bowdoin, Kenneth Sills went to Harvard, where he taught and continued to take classes, trying to earn his Ph.D. In 1903, Hyde summoned his former student and invited him back to help teach a few courses at Bowdoin. Sills gladly accepted the opportunity to serve his college. Not long afterwards he was also invited to join Columbia University's staff. Accepting this invitation, Sills worked hard but also dedicated hours to his thesis, which dealt with Dante and his influence on English literature. This thesis, Sills would not get to complete. Offered a position as adjunct professor of Latin at Bowdoin, Sills was uncertain as to what he ought to do. It seemed as if he was juggling too many things at once as it was. Uncertain of his future and obviously worried about the progress of his Ph.D., Casey Sills consulted his friends and family about what to do. In the end, the gentle-faced scholar with the short-parted brown hair did what he thought was right, and on a late summer day in 1906 Kenneth Sills returned home to Bowdoin College.
Perhaps taking the example of his college president and mentor, Kenneth Sills attempted to liven up the classroom. Knowing how daunting Latin must be to the average student, Sills attempted to use the skills he had picked up from various other professors of his own undergraduate days. Sills also found his teaching job rewarding in one other way-it presented him with some humorous moments. In a certain exam on Biblical characters administered to students, Sills received various responses; one identified Jacob's ladder as "one of the seven wonders of the world"; another wrote that "Herod was the Egyptian king who plunged the Hebrews into the fiery furnace from which they emerged unscathed," while yet another noted that Cain was none other than the son of Noah. As Casey Sills slowly developed the techniques that would one day make him a revered teacher, he was also given further responsibilities. Elected as the new secretary of the College, Sills did not particularly welcome the idea, as he believed it might interfere with his academic job. Despite his reservations, he was pursuaded to take on the new role. A part of the secretary's mandate-the "secretary" of the College actually functioned as more of a "dean" but Sills would not be given that official title until 1910 and besides, he disliked being called "Dean Sills"-was to take care of chapel attendance among the students and also to handle excuses from class and absences. The dean also dealt with career planning for seniors, admitting new students and handling the complex issue of financial aid.
While teaching remained Kenneth Sills' top priority, he was soon in need of help. The administration-President Hyde-hired for him the bright classics scholar of Princeton and Dartmouth fame, Paul Nixon. Tall, thin, balding, with sharp eyes and an easy manner, Paul Nixon came to Bowdoin at the age of 27. For decades following his appointment he would remain Casey Sills' right hand man. Nixon would, during the Second World War, have the job that was now occupied by Sills-the office of the Dean. That office was officially created in 1910, and to go along with the title, Sills was invited to work hand in hand with President Hyde. They shared the same office on the first floor of Massachusetts Hall. Sills made his presence known, not only in the academic world, but also in other areas of the community. In his social life, Sills worked with the church, the American Red Cross and continued to be an ardent supporter of the Democratic Party.
Between the classroom and his responsibilities as dean, Sills got even busier as the 20th century progressed into its second decade. The once energetic and upbeat Hyde was slowly losing his health. The result of this was that Kenneth Sills received more to do. But the young scholar, who was gaining prestige and reputation as an administrator and a scholar shouldered it well. Dean Casey even found time to run for the United States Senate on the Democratic ballot. This attempt, however, ended in failure. Whether or not he had any misgivings about his foray into politics, Casey Sills returned to his job at Bowdoin.
That job, however, had gotten increasingly complex as war in Europe threatened to reach across the Atlantic and take Americans by storm. The challenges and the lessons that Kenneth Sills learned from that first world catastrophe would serve him well when the guns flared again in the 1940s. More and more, William DeWitt Hyde became unable to perform his normal functions. Sills found himself stepping in and even presided over an especially bleak and dark commencement in 1917. As he watched his students and friends march off to trenches and bullets in Europe, Sills was struck by the death of his mentor at home. On June 29, 1917, after a long life of serving and rejuvenating Bowdoin College, William DeWitt Hyde passed away.
Before Hyde passed away, Sills had been named as the acting president of the College by the Trustees and Overseers. This promotion must have seemed petty and inconsequential to the man who mourned the loss of his friend and mentor. Sills would continue Hyde's policies and honor his memory until his own dying day. But Casey found that his new title was just that. He was still doing the things he had been doing for years under Hyde's guiding hand. He had been groomed for this job and many of his colleagues knew it. As part of his official responsibilities now, Sills presided over commencement. In 1918, with the Great War still unfinished and with dozens of Bowdoin men in the ranks of the newly formed American armies under "Black Jack" Pershing, Sills reminded the remaining graduates:
It is with unusual tenderness that the College this year dismisses you with her blessing. The small group present here today represents the seven times larger number that entered four years ago; and in your number there is already one who has rendered the ultimate sacrifice, and there may be many more. But no man need act through the drama of life to win approval; it is only necessary that he play well the lines to him assigned. The war has changed our ideas of life and is fast ridding us of our fear of death. Wherever you go amid the changes and chances of this mortal life, may you not forget some of the lessons which from your Christian education here has taught. May you fight in war and in peace for the forces of righteousness and justice. As employer or as workman may you keep faith with others; and whenever your influence may avail for a liberal cause, may you always co-operate, never obstruct. Keep yourselves clear of prejudice and of cant. Realize that it is a new world into which we are all marching. Keep burning brightly on the hearths of your homes and your hearts an abiding faith in Christian democracy. And so may you serve, until your latest breath, your college, your country and your God.
The Great War, however, did not last much longer. Within months Germany surrendered and peace returned. For Kenneth Sills, the clock belonging to William DeWitt Hyde did not stop ticking. It continued and as the years went by and as the students came and went amidst the problems of the era, both foreign and domestic, there came upon the Bowdoin College campus a sense of calm, efficiency, and routine. Kenneth Charles Morton Sills was the president and that was one of the reasons that Bowdoin College was so special.
To be continued...