Story posted November 19, 2009
Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations
The beginning of a new academic year – Bowdoin’s 208th – triggers in each of us a personal emotional response, as images, sounds, and memories crowd into our consciousness. Saying good-bye to family members, meeting classmates for the first time, and adjusting expectations to the realities of college-level classrooms leave vivid impressions on memory. Recollections may be jogged by the feel and smell of walking through a pine grove after a rain, or by the audible differences in pitch between shuffling through piles of oak leaves and maple leaves.
Autumn also is the season when many oral traditions about the College’s history (both wildly fictional and factually accurate) are passed along to first-year students. What follows are a few favorite myths that I have heard repeated over the years.
Myth 1: Ivies Weekend celebrates the College’s decision to decline an invitation to join the Ivy League. In fact, the term “ivy league”was first used informally by sportswriters for The Christian Science Monitor on February 7, 1935. The Ivy League was formed for athletic competition in 1954. Ivies Weekend at Bowdoin began as a spring celebration in the nineteenth century, with athletic competitions, awards, speeches, poems, and the planting of the class ivy. Marble markers still identify where ivy once flourished by the Chapel (1876, 1877, and 1881) and Memorial Hall (1894). Ivies Weekend has become one of the major social weekends at the College, and it taps into the excitement for the end of the academic year.
Myth 2: The walkway through the Visual Arts Center was required by the deed of gift of the Class of 1895, which stipulated that the walk from the granite Class of 1875 Gateway to the Chapel could never be obstructed. The walkway itself was rebuilt in 1945, and it replaced an earlier path that connected the gate and the Chapel. There is no evidence that there was a restriction on blocking the walkway, nor is there any proof that the architect for the VAC, the late Edward Larrabee Barnes, was limited in his design for the building.
Myth 3: The Senior Center (Coles Tower) was targeted by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. With the Bath Iron Works shipyard, a North American Aerospace Defense Command radar installation in Topsham, and the Brunswick Naval Air Station nearby, it seems unlikely that a tower filled with undergraduates would be a high-priority target for a military attack. If the tower had been on such a list, then who was the intrepid spy who retrieved the information from the Kremlin’s files?
Myth 4: A regular October tradition is the appearance of stories in local newspapers (including The Orient) about ghosts at Bowdoin, often drawing on information from Internet sites on haunted New England. For those in search of a spellbinding narrative, the Bowdoin stories are disappointing, mostly consisting of disembodied bumps, cold breezes, and voices in the night.While there is a “great hook” at the top of the stairwell in Adams Hall for block-and-tackle hauling of cadavers to the fourth floor for dissection, it is a mechanical device, not a supernatural object. However, there is no question about the
use of cadavers; an 1835 letter written to Professor Parker Cleaveland from a Baltimore physician suggests obtaining bodies from Maryland, where laws about grave-robbing were lax. Despite an abundance of raw material for ghost stories – the proximity of Pine Grove Cemetery, a long history of fraternities and secret societies, the Medical School of Maine, and a great literary tradition – there are few, if any, such stories about the College.
While there may be scant evidence for ghosts, there is a presence here – a spirit – of those who have gone before. In his speech at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument at Gettysburg in 1889, Major General-Maine Governor-Bowdoin President Joshua Chamberlain  spoke words that continue to inspire:“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” The same may be said about the cumulative and collective contributions and sacrifices of the Bowdoin community to make the College what it is today – and what it will be tomorrow.
While there may be scant evidence for ghosts, there is a presence here – a spirit – of those who have gone before.