Story posted April 23, 2010
Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations
In these sunny – but not quite warm – days, students and faculty feel the acceleration of the academic year, as Commencement shifts from being a distant abstraction to a proximate reality. The transition in perspective is sudden, and for me it is the metaphorical equivalent of the overnight spring rain that brings forth new leaves on the trees of the campus quad. Once the light green of new growth appears, there’s no going back to a winter frame of mind, even with an occasional April snow flurry.
There is little breathing room between Commencement on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and the opening of Reunion headquarters the following Thursday. For much of the College’s history, Commencement and Reunion were celebrated on the same weekend, but it became clear by the 1980s that logistical realities had trumped tradition. The size of the combined events had outgrown the College’s capacity to accommodate the number of visitors and alumni who wanted to attend. Since 1987 Commencement and Reunion have been held on consecutive weekends, a decision that makes it possible for everyone to sample some of the best food prepared by any college or university dining service, enjoy a range of programs and events, and find a place to park on or near the campus.
Alumni still play an important role in the Commencement celebration. The procession of graduating seniors passes through the ranks of the faculty in front of Hubbard Hall, and then receives the welcoming applause and cheers of the assembled alumni along the Class of 1916 Walk below the Chapel. The faculty procession follows the students, and the alumni fall in behind the faculty, passing the Visual Arts Center, Searles, Massachusetts Hall, and moving on towards the Chapel. Near the Chapel the seniors step to the sides of the walkway, and applaud, as first the faculty and then the alumni pass by. The procession ends up in front of the Walker Art Building terrace, where the Commencement exercises will take place (weather permitting). The powerful emotions – of belonging, of tradition, of good will – triggered by this symbolic procession cannot be captured by my description here.
At Bowdoin’s first commencement in September of 1806, Leverett Saltonstall of Salem, Massachusetts, came by stage coach to receive a Bowdoin degree ad eundem (honorary degree standing granted by the College for work done elsewhere). In all, 14 college-educated men (11 from Harvard and one each from Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown) were awarded ad eundem degrees, twice the number of graduating seniors in the Class of 1806. Excerpts from Saltonstall’s journal recount three very rainy days:
Sept. 2. “At 10 A.M. I went to Brunswick in ye stage, where fortunately G. Thorndike had provided a part of a bed for me. Many people slept on the hay mows & many others had no other bed than a blanket & ye floor.”
Sept. 3. “It blew a gale in Brunswick & ye rain poured down in torrents. The Overseers of the College adjourned Commencement to the 4th tomorrow. Notwithstanding ye rain this was unprecedented and improper. Many people came to town ys. morng. completely drenched…”
Sept. 4. “This day the first Commencement at Bowdoin College was celebrated. The weather was very bad; though it rained most of ye day it was a much better day yn. the preceeding…Had it been pleasant, other circumstances were very favorable to have made this first commencement brilliant…This College is very respectable in its infancy & I hope it will grow in advantages & become a very important seminary. All yr. efforts are necessary to civilize ye country around ym.”
Over the years guests and alumni have arrived at Commencement and Reunion on foot, by horseback, stage coach, ships powered by sail or steam, trains, cars, buses, and airplanes. There has been a strong tradition of long-distance bicycle trips as well, beginning with the late Luther Whittier ’13, who rode his bicycle the 70 miles from his farm in Farmington, Maine, to Brunswick each year from 1914 until the late 1960s, missing only the 1917 Commencement because of World War I military service. W. Ward Fearnside ’34 covered the 150 miles from Wellesley Hills to Bowdoin by bicycle on six occasions – to celebrate his 50th, 55th, 60th, and 65th Reunions (with an additional trip in 2000 to see friends from the Class of ’35 for their 65th). In 2007 a dozen members of the Class of 1957 (Bears on Bikes) and their wives completed a bicycle trek from Boston to Bowdoin for their 50th Reunion to raise money for the Charles A. Chapman Scholarship Fund.
However you arrive, and whether it is for a major Reunion on a five-year cycle, to participate in the annual Commencement exercises, or for any other reason, you will be most welcome.
In these sunny – but not quite warm – days, students and faculty feel the acceleration of the academic year, as Commencement shifts from being a distant abstraction to a proximate reality.