Alumnus Cole Harris, a member of the Class of 1974, has been working to get Patrick Dempsey's character on "Grey's Anatomy" to wear Bowdoin gear. While Harris is not on Bowdoin's payroll, he promotes the College's name in Hollywood out of sheer school pride. But had it not been for Harris's perseverance in gaining admission to Bowdoin as a student, Dempsey might have been asked to sport the name of another alma mater.
"I was rejected at Bowdoin twice," said Harris.
Harris, who grew up in Boston and Portland, applied to Bowdoin?and only Bowdoin?as a senior in high school.
"It was my dream to go to Bowdoin and swim there," he said, noting that Joshua Chamberlain was a childhood hero of his.
But Harris was flat-out rejected. Not one to give in to a challenge, Harris called the dean of admissions a number of times, without any luck, before driving up to Brunswick. After waiting all day, Harris finally got in to see the dean.
"I just want to tell you, I'm coming to this school," Harris told him. "I just need you to tell me how."
"He laughed, but I think he kind of liked my directness," Harris recalled.
The dean recommended that Harris do a post-graduate year at a prep school. Harris took his advice. He reapplied to Bowdoin from Hebron Academy, along with 21 other students in his class there. He was deferred early decision, but there was a handwritten note attached to the letter: "If you keep this up, I may give you the nod in April."
Harris was the only student from his class to get accepted that spring.
"I felt so determined to prove that I was worthy that I nearly killed myself at Bowdoin," said Harris, who was an economics major and a member of the swim team. He also participated in chemistry research that was later published.
After graduating, Harris began working in the business of school products. In the early 1990s, he proposed an idea to his bosses at Jostens, Inc. If Jostens put its products, which range from yearbooks to class rings, on television and in movies, business would boom. The company told him to go for it.
Harris began working on the project, calling various people who were "low down on the totem pole." Soon enough, a prop master from "Beverly Hills 90210" called him for wardrobe items and yearbooks. After working with the staff on a high school graduation episode, Harris got a call from the executive producer.
"We're going to do four years in college, and I want to know we're doing it right," he told Harris, who stuck with them until the end of the show's run.
During the show's California University commencement, audience members held programs that were copies of Bowdoin's commencement program. The commencement speech was also based off "The Right to Fail," given by Pat Mian '74 at Harris's commencement from Bowdoin.
Jason Priestly, an actor on the show, "wanted it to be ours," Harris said.
"I think Bowdoin ought to be a household name. I don't think there's any place like Bowdoin," notes Harris, whose wife also graduated from Bowdoin.
Harris does not leave out any details in his goal of promoting Bowdoin's brand name, noting that Bowdoin is the only NESCAC school whose name is not in Microsoft Word's spell check.
After "90210," Harris's own name spread throughout Hollywood, and he was able to work on a number of other projects, including "She's All That," "13 Going on 30," "The Benchwarmers," "Gilmore Girls," "Joan of Arcadia," and "Roswell."
Harris's office in Falmouth is covered with memorabilia from his work, everything from pictures of his daughter with the cast of "90210" to signed photos of the cast of "The O.C." But despite his apparent popularity in the Hollywood school niche, Harris is very modest about his work.
"I'm at the property, set design level. I'm not high-level," he says.
But not all of the work Harris does is in Hollywood. He also works with a number of high schools and colleges, including Bowdoin, on their yearbooks. He wants to help students "record the history of the College."
"I really love being the yearbook guy," says Harris. "It allows me to talk with students that were just special."
Along with his work at Jostens, Harris did some work in the beverage business. He says he is "obsessed with cola." So obsessed, in fact, that a few years ago he decided to create his own cola, one that is a little less sweet than others on the market. Although the deal to mass-market the soda fell through, Harris spent a few years developing a cola in various flavors, which was tested in high schools.
"The students were addicted," says Harris. "They couldn't go back to regular cola."
Sitting in his office across from two Bowdoin chairs, sipping a Diet Coke, Harris discussed the possibility of "McDreamy" wearing Bowdoin clothes on "Grey's Anatomy." After having trouble getting to Dempsey through the people at ABC, Harris contacted former Buckfield High School Principal Jim Anastasio.
Both Harris and Amanda Dempsey, Patrick's mother, worked under Anastasio?Harris as the yearbook advisor, Amanda Dempsey as a school employee. This contact allowed him to go directly to Amanda Dempsey, who mailed the petition to the actor.
"I took it to Patrick's momma," jokes Harris.
Ultimately for Harris, who maintains contact with the College through his work with the yearbook and a relationship with President Barry Mills, Bowdoin is just a place worth promoting.
"I've really carried the Bowdoin thing with me," says Harris. "It's been a religion for me."