Location: Bowdoin / Magazine / Features / 2010 / Life Lessons

Life Lessons

Story posted May 06, 2010

Author: Lisa Wesel
Photography: Eric Poggenpohl

Sitting in his Masschusetts home, surrouned by thousands of books and 93 years of memories, Carl Barron '38 reflects on a life well lived. He founded not only a business but an industry, working inseparably with his wife of 61 years. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are thriving, and he continues to work 28 years beyond the gage when many people retire. He is propelled by a simple belief: “When my children and grandchildren went to college, I told them 50 percent of what you learn is the knowledge you acquire from books, and 50 percent is the knowledge you acquire from people; one without the other creates misfits,” said Barron, who wears a T-shirt declaring him “dangerously overeducated.”

“I learned that most people are very decent,” he said. “You don’t talk too much about the good ones; you only talk about the tiny minority of bad ones, which often leads to misapprehension. That’s part of my philosophy.”

Camille Sarrouf ’55 shares that philosophy. “If there’s anything I got out of Bowdoin, it’s the knowledge that I can learn anywhere from anyone...We are all human beings. There’s goodness everywhere and we just have to keep searching for it.”

Their feelings are shared by many Bowdoin alumni who graduated in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, who watched their families and communities struggle through the Great Depression, who fought in World War II and mourned the friends who never returned. They experienced institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, even at Bowdoin; watched as Americans marched to war again in Korea, and the Cold War and McCarthyism gripped the country in paranoia. One could excuse a certain bitterness or pessimism, but each is instead imbued with optimism and peace.

Decades of life experience have given these men what even the most promising college student lacks: perspective. When they were young and looking ahead at their lives, they too plotted their future in terms of jobs to be won or lost, stature to be attained, and families to be expanded in the concrete terms of spouses and children.

“When I graduated, my greatest desire was to be able to return alive from the War,” said Robert Sperry ’44. “Beyond that, to get a steady job.”

When they look back, however, they see that life is marked less by tangible accomplishments than by relationships forged over years.

“What ended up mattering is the opportunity to get to know lots and lots of people, to tap into what they think is important, and learn from their experience doing a job they think is meaningful,” Sperry said.

Their advice for a full life is simple: Follow your passion, surround yourself with people you love and respect, and find some way to give back.

The Great Depression
Barron was 13 and living in Arlington, Mass., when the stock market crashed in 1929. His mother managed and rehabilitated old apartment buildings, and his father had retired from owning a grocery store and meat market.

“I will never forget it,” he said. “In 30 days they were completely wiped out financially. My father opened up another store, and my brother and I helped out in my father’s market. Because of (my parents), I know how to handle an apartment complex with 500 or more units, and I know how to select cuts of meat. I can even clean poultry—I hate it, but I can do it."

Timothy Warren ’45 was born in New Canaan, Conn., in 1923. Every summer his family vacationed on Kezar Lake in Lovell. His mother, foreseeing how difficult things would become after the crash, decided to ride out the Depression with her three children in Lovell. Warren’s father moved his struggling publishing company from New York to Boston and stayed behind to keep it afloat, visiting his family only on weekends.

“I arrived in Maine on the cusp of the Depression,” Warren said. “I was 7 years old, and I remember everything about it. I attended a one-room schoolhouse for all of my elementary years, and then Fryeburg Academy and then I got a scholarship to come to Bowdoin.”

“My life in Lovell Village did not have that feeling of a national disaster, because the economy in Maine had never been booming,” Warren said. “The people in Lovell weren’t feeling the drastic effects of the Depression the way they would in Boston or New York or Chicago. They were sort of inoculated to lousy times. It was part of their life.”

Harold Dondis ’43 was fortunate that his father owned one of the few businesses that thrived during the Depression, the Strand Theater in Rockland.

“The theater was the center of culture for a long, long time,” Dondis said. “There wasn’t much entertainment in those days, and moving pictures were very big. People would come in looking for work, and stragglers would come in asking for money. My father never let me work in the theater because someone else always needed the job more.”

“Food was the issue I most remember about the Depression,” said Sperry, who grew up in New Haven, Conn. “My family tried to conserve food; my two grandfathers had large gardens to help feed their families. We gathered vegetables and potatoes from the garden, and in the fall and winter, my grandmothers were busy canning. At the time, pork and chicken were the lowest in cost, so we had roast chicken on Sunday, and pork ribs the next Sunday … for a long, long time.”

“I don’t think people who have never been through it really caught the corrosive tremendous impact that the Depression had on people,” Warren said. “A whole generation of businessmen like my father came out of it pulling back and pulling back and not wanting to take a risk, hiding cash in the mattress, never taking chances or moving forward. It had to wait for the next generation – my children – to finally come out of that, like a new generation of tomato plants coming up in soil that is finally better.

The War Years
The country hobbled from the Depression into WWII. As war raged in Europe, the United States was divided between those who supported Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to join the fight, and those who believed that the war was Europe’s problem. On Sept. 14, 1940, Congress for the first time instituted draft registration despite the fact that the United States had not yet entered the war.

In remarks later that month, Bowdoin President Casey Sills promoted the draft over the “helter-skelter style of volunteering,” and urged students to “to be ready to answer cheerfully your country’s call when it comes, and above all to show yourself strong and resolute, ready to face difficulties, and not be soft.”

Any disagreement evaporated on Dec. 7, 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor solidified the country in an unprecedented way.

“The whole country was galvanized overnight,” said Norman Barr ’45, who was a freshman at the time. “There were no political divisions after that. I remember it vividly. We were listening to the New York Philharmonic, and the broadcast was interrupted to tell us about the attack.”

“A group appeared at the Union to listened to Roosevelt’s ‘Infamy’ speech,” Dondis recalled. “It was a very somber group; I never saw a more determined group in my life. American had been attacked, but we didn’t know yet the damage that had been done to Pearl Harbor. That was kept from the public. It wasn’t long before the Marines came by and scooped up all the athletes, and some of them were killed in the war.”

Life at Bowdoin immediately changed. Classes were held year round to accommodate students leaving for the armed services.

“They knew all the students would be involved, and they wanted to give us the opportunity to complete as much school as possible before we were drafted or enlisted,” said Barr, who served as a marine pilot for four years before returning to Bowdoin.

“The campus became very difficult at times,” Sperry said. “You’d wake up in the morning and say, ‘Where’s Joe?’ and someone would say, ‘Joe got called; he left last night.’ It happened just like that.”

Sperry volunteered to take shifts standing at Mere Point in Brunswick watching for enemy planes. Hundreds of non-Bowdoin students flooded campus to be trained as pilots under the Civil Aeronautics Authority, Army Corps meteorologists and engineers and Navy advanced radio engineers.

“Before they could graduate, they had to know how to swim,” Sperry said. “Some of them were from Iowa and Nebraska, and Curtis Pool was the biggest puddle of water they’d ever seen.”

Sperry, a trained swimming instructor, was pressed into service and told he had to teach the men how to swim through water covered in burning oil, a skill the soldiers would need if their ship or plane were ever attacked. They poured oil into Curtis Pool and lit it on fire.

“We were the guinea pigs,” Sperry said. “We had several days to learn the technique. By doing a glorified breaststroke, we could swim through the oil quite well by pushing the water ahead of us, and that would open up a flame-free path through the water. It was scary, to put it mildly.”

“We knew this might save their lives,” he said. “But I was much more interested in teaching them to just stay afloat and not to panic than I was interested in jumping into flaming oil.”

Look For the Best In People
Bowdoin during the early and mid-1900s bore little resemblance to the College today. Enrollment stood at 500-600—all men, mostly white. Fraternities were at the center of almost every social interaction outside the classroom, and they were closed to African Americans, Jews and most other minorities.

Barron helped ease the isolation for generations of future minority students at Bowdoin following a run-in with a fraternity. Several weeks into his freshman year, he was invited to pledge Alpha Tau Omega. A friend who commuted from Freeport to Bowdoin later asked Barron if he would sponsor him as a pledge. When Barron asked the ATO president and several senior members if they would consider his friend, the president told him they’d be happy to have him as long as he wasn’t black or Jewish. Barron told the president that the fraternity had made a mistake; Barron is Jewish.

“The two of them took one arm each, rushed me over to the fraternity house and spent hours trying to convince me that I was an atheist, Christian Scientist, anything but Jewish,” Barron said. “Once I pledged, they couldn’t take the pledge button away from me, and they didn’t want me in there.

“I took off my pledge button, put it on the table, walked out and never went back,” he said. “In my junior year, I was asked to rejoin. By that time I was in the honor society, on varsity fencing team, had founded the camera club and a whole bunch of other activities. I was suddenly desirable.”

Barron was so angered by the invitation that he asked President Sills for permission to form a separate club for the few dozen students who were not allowed admission to fraternities. That was the beginning of the Thorndike Club. Dondis, who came to Bowdoin five years later, would become president of the club. In 1946, returning veterans transformed the Thorndike Club into an unaffiliated fraternity, Alpha Rho Upsilon – ARU also stood for All Races United – which remained active until 1990.

Barron is quick to point out that his fraternity experience was the glaring exception at Bowdoin, and that he has overwhelmingly fond memories of his time there. It did, however, foster a lifelong desire to bring people together, a skill he has been honing ever since.

Every summer for the past 20 years, Barron has invited 100 people to his Cape Cod vacation home in what could be described as a modern-day salon. He calls it “Cambridge Day,” a chance for business, community and religious leaders from diverse ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds to exchange ideas.

“The relationships that have been established like that are quite something,” he said. “I have been hearing for years about the wonders of diversity, a word I despise. I like the word unity, what we have in common. We have 85 percent in common with each other, regardless of race or ethnicity. The other 15 percent is not really worth fighting over.”

Sarrouf has spent his life working as an attorney, an inherently confrontational field. Yet he shares Barron’s faith in people’s basic goodness and the need to bring people together as individuals, business colleagues and nations.

“Even in the most trying of relationships, if you look for the goodness in someone and temper your reactions, you can accomplish more than with total and unmitigated opposition,” he said.

“The first thing the really outstanding trial attorneys do is analyze the opposition, to find their strength – or their goodness – as well as their weaknesses,” he said. “It isn’t always good to seek annihilation of your opponent. You’re trying to arrive at resolution that is the least harmful to the other side and to your side, because even in winning, sometimes you destroy some things in your own interest. I think that applies everywhere.”

Follow Your Passion
Most of person’s life is focused on work: Getting an education to prepare for a career, finding a job, struggling to succeed. Make it count.

“Find something that moves you, that really motivates you and makes you happy, then do it with everything you’ve got,” Warren said. “Do what you’re passionate about; do what you love; don’t do what you’re expected to do because it fits into the norms of society.”

Warren feels so strongly about it in part because he was unable to follow that advice himself. Unsure of what to do after graduating from Bowdoin, he joined his father at Warren Publishing Corp., publisher of Banker & Tradesman, which his grandfather had founded. With his father in poor health, Warren gradually assumed more and more responsibility for the business until he found it impossible to leave.

“My father counted on me to take over and run the show, so I stayed.” Warren said. “Had that not been the case, I probably would have moved on and done something else. I wanted to teach.”

Warren never resented his decision, because the life he had working alongside his father was full of camaraderie and love, as it had been between his father and grandfather. But he wanted to make sure that if his children joined the family business, it was a choice they made willingly after first striking out on their own. His son Tim followed that path and now serves as the CEO of the company, the fourth generation at Warren Publishing.

Paul Brountas ’54 got his professional inspiration from the lawyers who confronted Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. He recalls racing across campus during his senior year to watch the Army-McCarthy hearing on the only TV set at Bowdoin. He was mesmerized by the image of Joe Welch excoriating McCarthy for having “lost all sense of dignity,” a speech he can still recite verbatim.

“It got me fired up,” he said. He wanted to be that kind of litigator, but when he went to Harvard after Bowdoin, he found that he hated law school. After graduating, he sought out Welch’s law firm, Hale and Dorr in Boston, and remained there for his entire career. He did not end up being a litigator, but forged a successful practice advising small start-up companies. That turned out to be his true passion.

Pay It Forward
A year after graduating from Bowdoin, Barron borrowed $1,500, added $8 of his own and founded Putnam Furniture in Massachusetts, the first furniture leasing company in the United States. He grew it into a multi-million-dollar business and launched a nationwide industry. After 62 years in business, he sold the company in 2002, a year after his wife died. But he can’t quite retire; he started teaching marketing at Cambridge College when he was 89 years old.

Barron, like many of his peers, has given much of his wealth away. He founded the Barron Center for Men’s Health at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge after he was successfully treated for prostate cancer at the age of 74. He also established the Carl F. Barron Fund for Business and Finance at Bowdoin.

Why do that? Why work so hard for so long, and then give your money away? When asked what ended up mattering little in his life, Barron said, “A dull prosaic word: money. To some people, it’s the root of all evil. To others, it’s a question of what it can do for others.”

Sperry never made a fortune working as a school guidance counselor, but he gave back in other ways. His experience teaching young officers to swim was just the beginning of a lifelong mission to teach swimming, inspired by a tragic event when he was a young man. He was working at a boatyard in East Boothbay, 60 feet up in a mast, when he witnessed his boss’s young daughter fall off the dock and drown because he could not get down to save her. He found out later that few people at the yard even knew how to swim. By the end of that summer he was teaching swimming lessons to children and adults.

“That woke me up to the fact that I had the skill to teach these people to swim and save their own lives,” he said. “I gained tremendous interest in the welfare of other people. I don’t have [wealth] in great abundance, but I do have skills and time. That’s what I mean by going out and serving.”

Sperry also is active in Heifer International, raising goats and donating the kids to families in Latin America.

Brountas and Sarrouf are motivated by the desire to repay a debt of gratitude. Both grew up poor, the children of immigrants. Sarrouf’s Lebanese parents, unable to read or write in any language, owned a small store in North Adams, Mass. Brountas’s parents were Greek; his father died when he was junior in high school and his mother raised six children alone on what she could earn from their small Greek restaurant in Bangor.

Brountas excelled as a student, but could not afford Bowdoin’s $350 tuition. His teacher’s helped him win a State of Maine scholarship that paid for his freshman year, where he earned straight A’s. At the end of the year, the dean told him that he would not get the scholarship the following year because there were students with greater need. Brountas was crushed, but was willing to accept the decision and transfer to a state school. The dean felt so badly that he secured a Travelli Foundation scholarship to cover his last three years at Bowdoin.

“That was tremendous,” Brountas said. “Just the idea that they cared enough to go out and help me through this difficult time certainly endeared me to Bowdoin. It’s amazing when you look back on it. It would have changed my life if I had left.”

Brountas went on to Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship, and then to Harvard Law School, where he became friends with Michael Dukakis. He served as treasurer of Dukakis’s Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign in 1974, chaired his subsequent campaigns in 1978 and 1982, and served as chairman of his presidential campaign committee in 1988.

In the meantime, he built a lucrative law practice assisting and sometimes investing in start-up technology companies. One proved particularly profitable, with a $10,000 investment yielding $2 million. He turned around and gave $1 million to Bowdoin to establish the Brountas Scholarship. Brountas gave of his time, as well, serving for 23 years as a Bowdoin overseer and trustee.

Sarrouf has also been a successful lawyer, first as a special assistant attorney general of Massachusetts and then as a special prosecutor for Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. In private practice, he became known as one of the state’s most prominent trial lawyers, perhaps most notably as a founding stockholder of the New England Patriots who won a 14-year lawsuit against the owner.

He split his winnings among his family members, and gave his 100 shares of Patriots stock to Bowdoin to establish the Saurrof Family Scholarship Fund, which gives preference to Christian Arab students from Lebanon or Syria or of Lebanese or Syrian heritage.

“There has to be a diversity in religious background and non-religious background,” he said of the Bowdoin student body. “If there is ever to be peace in this world, you need the understanding of differences, and I think Bowdoin does that as well as any institution.

“I kept adding to the fund whenever I had a good case,” he said. “I realized I hadn’t been giving back to the places and the people who paved the roadway to my success. I really was indebted to what was given to me at Bowdoin those four years.”

Sarrouf also has served on the board of the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital for more than 25 years.

“As we think globally, we have to be concerned about the have-nots, because it will rise to a level where the only resolution will be unbelievable conflict,” Sarrouf said. “No matter how much I just want to curl up and say, ‘I’m tired and I deserve a rest,’ you still have the capacity to be of benefit, to advance goodness in the world. Do it. Just go out and do it.”

“I don’t have to learn anything new, I just have to remember what I discovered as I went along.” – Carl Barron ’38

enlarge this imageClick image to enlarge…

Carl Barron '38, Robert Sperry '44, Timothy Warren '45, Paul Brountas '54, Camille Sarrouf '55,
Words of Wisdom

On Getting Old…
“I don’t have to learn anything new, I just have to remember what I discovered as I went along.” – Carl Barron '38

On What Doesn't Matter In Life...
“A working knowledge of calculus. I didn’t understand it then, I don’t understand it now, and I never needed it. – Robert Sperry '44

On Kids Today…
“I had to split 18 cords of wood every fall and never got paid for it. I had to do these things my mother and father needed to have done. My grandson, if he’s really badgered by his dad, might mow the lawn, and he’ll get paid $20 for it. That’s the sort of thing that makes people in my generation say, ‘My God!’” – Timothy Warren '45

On Living a Long Life…
“There are only three ways of keeping eager to live, keeping alert, extending life as long as possible: Read, talk to people, do. I’m not a great talker, or a great reader, for that matter. But I do keep busy.” – Robert Sperry '44