Story posted March 07, 2011
Author: Richard W. Moll
"The Blacks of Bowdoin in the ’70s" was written by Bowdoin’s former director of admissions Richard Moll in 2007 and appears online now in connection with the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Africana Studies program. Moll has spent most of his professional life in college admissions and has written extensively and lectured widely on the subject. His books include Playing the Selective College Admissions Game and The Public Ivys.
We all hope for freedom in the workplace. But the college admissions director is particularly hopeful, knowing that aside from the president and the collective Board, no member of the college community has a greater opportunity to put a stamp or signature on the institution than the one who ultimately decides the nature of each incoming class. During my tenure at Bowdoin from 1967-75, I was fortunate in this regard. Presidents Stacy "Spike" Coles and Roger Howell and Dean of the College Roy Greason allowed a lot of space, even strong encouragement for change and experimentation in the Admissions Office. So it was an era when our staff could joyfully run with imagination, energy, and even daring (with the faculty Admissions Committee's, the President's and the Board of Trustee's ultimate approval, of course). Thus came the SAT Option, a pressing boost toward coeducation, and perhaps most important, a determination to create a "Classful of Differences" each and every year. Bowdoin already had a laudable commitment to young men from Maine and a tradition of well-rounded adrnittees, with perhaps a tilt toward the athlete and the legacy. Girls were soon to diversify each class, and more students from outside New England. But the rush to Affirmative Action, to locate and admit a strong group of minority students, particularly Blacks, was perhaps our most dramatic push. Since Bowdoin had historically been "imaginative," when necessary, with the academic credentials of strong athletes and legacies, it was not difficult to add one more special category to each class. Assigning financial aid to a new group, however, without diminishing resources for our traditional categories, required a significant commitment from the Board and the President.
They generously provided the resources, and the ambitious program began. Clearly, we took considerable "risks" in admitting the minority applicants if one judges by traditional indices, particularly SATs. But the Blacks of Bowdoin who graduated in the '70s came in with unparalleled determination, knowing often that this was their chance of a lifetime. That determination lasted well beyond college days-our Black alumni are scattered throughout the nation in extraordinarily responsible and visible jobs. This article features a sampling of those graduates, a couple from middle-class backgrounds, but most from quite disadvantaged communities and schools. Nearly all of those profiled are the first-to-college of their families.
This article is a tribute to their resolve, courage, vision, and often their patience. It is also a tribute to the College for successfully preparing, challenging and nurturing the Blacks of Bowdoin of the '70s.
* * * * *
"Bowdoin was so happy with John Brown Russwurm that 80 years later we decided to admit another Black student," said Randolph Stakeman, an African-American historian who led the Africana Studies program for years and who retired after 28 years at the College. At retirement, he was Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History and was Director of the Africana Studies Program (Now, still living in Brunswick, he has been doing research on Maine's "Visible Black History" and designs on-line teaching and study aids). Randy, of course, was referring to the long-standing belief that Bowdoin’s first black graduate, John Brown Russwurm in 1826, had been the first black graduate from a liberal arts college in the country. Further study (with controversy) among Bowdoin's league of colleges has disproved that—Bowdoin was most likely the third to graduate a Black student, after Amherst and Middlebury.
The College and the town of Brunswick were the sites of further early involvement with African-Americans. William Smyth, Class of 1822 at Bowdoin, was a professor of mathematics and an adjunct professor of natural philosophy until his death in 1868. (One of Smyth's sons also taught at Bowdoin-rhetoric and "natural and revealed religion"). A strong abolitionist, William Smyth and his family lived in the home that now houses the John Brown Russwurm African-American Center. Smyth was a good friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe. They were part of a group that would often have dinner together, and she would read aloud segments from her "new novel." In Stowe's writing, at least one mention is made of the Smyth family accommodating a black runaway slave at their home. Also, there is record of William Smyth's being jeered and threatened by protestors at a local abolitionist rally in Bath.
It was a long time between the Smyth/Stowe era and Bowdoin’s re-kindled interest in African-Americans in the mid-1960s. "Because Bowdoin was early in recruiting Black students in the new civil rights movement, we weren't competing for these kids, as we are now. We entered a golden era of African-American representation on campus in the late sixties, but didn't seem to realize it at the time," Stakeman said. "Recruiting Black students now is like recruiting football players then."
An excerpt from the Director of Admission's four-year report to the President in 1972:
"During the past several years, Bowdoin..has attempted to include a 'representative' number of Blacks in each new class. Although the College community has enthusiastically assisted the cause, Bowdoin's goal has not been reached easily. To convince Blacks that a small college in Maine is a good place to reside during the formative college years and to provide the financial aid necessary to accommodate this group without displacing other traditional elements of the entering class has been a complex task. But with the considerable help of black undergraduates, and by concentrating on the areas of the nation where other eastern colleges are not recruiting intensively, Bowdoin has evolved a sizeable Black applicant pool. And funding has been provided to include a sharply increased number of Black students in the last few classes."
It was recorded that 11 Black students had matriculated with the Class of 1972, 22 with the Class of 1973, 32 with the Class of 1974, and 29 with the Class of 1975. The report continues: "Those who accuse Bowdoin of a 'double standard' in the admission of Blacks have some justification in terms of rank-in-class charts and standardized test scores. (One must not overlook, however, the corresponding charts for other segments of the class-legacies and highly rated athletes, for example.) But Bowdoin has declared its admissions policy to be one of judging a student on the basis of...'where he has been and at what pace he is going...' On these terms, the Blacks represent one of the most promising elements in the College. They are admitted largely on 'the hunger quotient,' and the College is justifiably proud of their record to date in the classroom and of their participation in the College community."
In 1975, a Commission on Admissions was appointed by President Howell. The charge read "... At a time when admissions candidates are declining in number at many colleges, our candidates continue to increase. We cannot be unmindful, though, of what is happening nationally, and it is in view of that concern that a review of our program seems in order." The Commission was composed of fourteen members of the faculty and the Board. One of its strongest recommendations was an increase in the admissions staff and a new, larger admissions office. But the report looked carefully (with appropriate appendices of data) at the college performance and the community impact of "categories of admission" (Maine, women, men, athletes, Blacks, and financial aid students).
Regarding Blacks, the Commission reported: "We are not attracting as many Blacks as we need to keep the ratio of Blacks to Whites in the student body near the ratio of Blacks to Whites in the population as a whole...The pool of Black applicants interested in Bowdoin is relatively small due, among other things, to the pressure of living in an essentially White and predominantly rural environment...The inferior quality of education available in many high schools in Black areas unfortunately limits the number of Blacks able to handle the rigors of a Bowdoin education... The scholastic records of Blacks in the last few years are below those of their classes as a whole. It is encouraging, however, that as the Blacks in each class go through College, their scholastic averages improve, often considerably."
Here is a sampling of the many accomplished Blacks of Bowdoin of the ‘70s, their backgrounds, and their reflections on undergraduate life in Brunswick...
ROBERT JOHNSON ‘71
Soft-spoken, resolute Robert Johnson is the Renaissance Man: full professor, political activist and feminist, author of eight books and ten plays, lawyer, Africanist, professional photographer, and a family man who dabbles in real estate and runs a bed and breakfast in Jamaica (the island, that is). Some at Bowdoin say they were part of a "classful of differences"—Robert at Bowdoin was a student full of differences. He was the cofounder and the first president of the Afro-American Society; he was Dean's List as a Government major; he played varsity soccer and ran track; he won the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cup in 1970 as "the member of the three lower classes whose vision, humanity and courage most contribute to making Bowdoin a better college"; he was on the Student Judiciary Committee; he wrote plays produced at Bowdoin; he spent his junior year at Tufts; and at graduation, Robert won a Watson Fellowship to undertake playwriting in Tanzania, Kenya, and England.
Getting to Bowdoin was not easy. Robert's Air Force father died when he was four, so he was raised by his mother, a beautician and a strong Pentecostal Christian. Raised in "the projects" of Roxbury, next door to Boston, Robert was fortunate to meet Mel King, a political fixture in Boston’s Black community, who guided him into the inaugural group of "A Better Chance" program as a transfer from the poor local high school. Robert landed at The Commonwealth School, a progressive, demanding private day school on swell Commonwealth Avenue (near the Boston Garden), founded in 1958 by Charles Merrill, Jr., the son of the founder of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce.
Headmaster Merrill wrote in Robert’s application to Bowdoin: "Bob has three strengths that will sustain him: first of all, he believes in himself no matter what the discouragement he receives at home...in his community and from too many of his results at Commonwealth. He is tough. Second, he finds genuine pleasure in what he does. He likes to write, has found the study of poetry interesting, and likes to paint. Third, he has a coherent, solid, workable body of ethics...In summary, Bob wants to feel that the world makes sense and that violence and cynicism and corrosive bitterness are not the answer. He is an academic gamble but a young man worth a lot of respect."
Robert’s Teacher’s Reports, a required part of the application, struck similar notes: "He stays in the library on Friday when other kids high-tail it out...He is one of the few members of the class who can never be swayed by arguments of expediency." "Robert is a quiet, deliberate boy with deep moral and religious convictions. I can't remember having known another youngster so genuinely, even painfully, sincere."
Although Robert was not highly ranked in his graduating class, and had average CEEB scores, Bowdoin, after an impressive interview, took him in what proved to be a winning stroke—for both parties, it would seem.
Robert worked hard to win his college leadership and academic honors. He became a working force in propelling Bowdoin's diversity by launching an Afro-Am "silent strike" in 1969—with all wearing leather jackets and berets—to prompt the College to enroll 85 Black students by 1970. The group remained silent in class, all about campus, even at the dining room tables. The campus was frustrated in how to respond. Ultimately, the tactic worked. The goal was met. Also in 1969, Robert's play, "Coffee and Sour Cream" was produced at Harvard, MIT, and finally at Bowdoin. Another play of Johnson's, "The Freedom’s Journeyman," helped Bowdoin understand its own history a little better. The rumor had circulated for years that Bowdoin was the first college in America to award an undergraduate degree to a black student, John Brown Russwurm, in 1826. Robert and his (now) wife, Amy Merrill, did extensive research on Russwurm before producing the play, clarifying that Bowdoin graduated the third Black in America, following Middlebury and Amherst.
Robert tried a fraternity at Bowdoin for one year, then dropped out. He credits Virgil Logan '69 as a role model for many Black students of his era. "Virgil was influential at Afro-Am, but also in his fraternity, Psi U, and all over campus. He taught us at Afro-Am that this was a friendly environment-that it didn't take seizing buildings to make social progress at Bowdoin. And Virgil was right. Presidents Coles and Howell were quite open to our concerns, as was Dean Nyhus. Paul Nyhus also helped me get to Tufts for my junior year in an unorthodox exchange. John Rensenbrink introduced me to Africa (Robert wrote his Honors Thesis on "Tribalism and Political Stability in Kenya"); Dan Levine introduced me to African-American history; Bill Geoghegan added a necessary dimension and brought sense to my spiritual life. Bowdoin, in short, was the perfect place for me at that time when there was such upheaval everywhere, some of it quite violent."
Johnson left Bowdoin with two primary interests: 1) becoming a lawyer, as it was through that profession that he thought greatest social change could be initiated, and 2) learning more of African-American, African and Caribbean history and the transition Blacks made within and among these cultures. After playwriting on the Watson fellowship for a year, he earned a Masters in Professional Studies, concentrating on African-American Studies, and then earned the Doctor of Laws degree—both at Cornell.
He has taught Business and Africana Studies at Vanderbilt University, Bentley College, Wellesley College, Ithaca College and Northeastern University, but settled into the University of Massachusetts where he has served as Director of Affirmative Action, has taught Africana Studies, and is now Chair of the department. Along the way, Robert served with two Boston law firms until he started his own firm. His consulting has been extensive, including serving on The Governor's Task Force on the Status of Women in Boston, the United South End Settlements in Boston, the Editorial Board of WNEV-TV in Boston, among others. His seven published books range from Why Blacks Left America for Africa (1999, Praeger) to Race, Law and Public Policy (Black Class Press, 2003) to Nantucket’s People of Color (2006, University Press of America).
But Robert Johnson's passion seems to have been playwriting. His plays, often in collaboration with Amy Merrill (who teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music), have been produced by the Kenya National Theater, the Ehrlich Theater in Boston, the American Theater of Actors in New York City, the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina, the Plaza Black Box Theater of Boston Center for the Arts, plus several colleges, including Bowdoin. His lectures and papers require three pages of listings, not to mention a page of board memberships in community organizations.
Robert, through a prior marriage, has two children, one with a serious bipolar disability. "My toughest challenges have come with this child, and also the greatest rewards." Amy and Robert shift residence among homes in Boston, Vermont, and Montreal. They run a guesthouse in Jamaica. "I love to develop small properties. And when there is a little extra time, I like to restore old cars too," Robert Johnson says.
A little extra time for real estate and car repair? Doubtful. Robert is currently working on a novel set in Nairobi in 1971 about a love affair between a Black American draft evader and a Kikuyu woman, a short story about a poor black preacher's last two hours of life in Tennessee, a play about personal tragedies of two college girls during September 11th; and a short story about a couple who get lost in the wilderness of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
ALVlN HALL '74
Alvin Hall lives in a swell building directly across Madison Avenue from the Morgan Library in New York City. It's the kind of place that always has a huge bouquet of fresh flowers in the lobby. On the fourteenth floor, Alvin's co-op has sweeping views, a tiny outdoor patio, 1,400 square feet, earth-colored over-stuffed chairs, Mission oak furniture and piles of contemporary art—he rotates what is on the walls, stacks excess on the floor, under the beds and into the closets, and has a warehouse space for whatever is not going to auction.
A bright white neon art/sign on his living room wall says in script "Negro Sunshine." And so it is with Alvin: everything seems to turn to gold—but not without endless deliberation, planning (if not plotting), research, and polling everyone within reach who can advise on a specific topic requiring an imminent, often profit-related decision.
I remember Alvin's college application. He was valedictorian of a tiny all-Black high school in the panhandle of Florida who had heard about Bowdoin during his two "bridge program" summers at Yale. What is most memorable about that application is the large oval letters of his essay, writing typical of students in elementary school. But the substance was there. We sent the essay over to Professor Frank Burroughs to appraise, since Alvin said he wanted to concentrate on creative writing. Burroughs called back and said there was obvious talent here—take him! (Hall says Professor Burroughs is probably disappointed in him, in that all of his published books—10 at this writing—are nonfiction).
"Imagination was the key—we had no TV, but I knew something else was out there," Alvin says. "Imagination can deliver unexpected wonders to your life. The problem is that most poor kids don't know how to muster it. For me, the old Viewmasters (remember the old Viewmasters?) did the trick. I saved allowance quarters from my grandmother to buy the Viewmaster photos of Constantinople and London, but my favorite was Paris. I'd climb the tree at home with my Viewmaster, point it to the sky and look at the Paris pictures over and over again." Suddenly he was misty-eyed when he said one of life's great moments was not just visiting Paris, but rounding a comer near the Champs-Élysées and stumbling upon the very scene of his favorite Viewmaster photo. He says he sat down on the pavement and wept.
There were seven kids in the Hall family. Alvin, being the oldest, was expected to eventually take over the small farm. His father died when he was eleven, and his mother remarried. Alvin remains the only one of the family to attend college. His step-grandmother, living in the house, was his best friend. "She is the only person through whom I have experienced absolute love. It was Grandma who gave me vision and pushed me toward it. The family didn't dislike me, really—they just thought I was strange." No family member attended the Bowdoin commencement where Alvin won the Goodwin Prize for best speaker. (That was celebrated by Professor and Mary Chittim having him over for his favorite dessert after the ceremony.)
Alvin was his own man at Bowdoin—but never alone, he recalls. "There was not a single day I wasn't cared for at Bowdoin, if not loved. The Chittims, Harry Warren, Frank Burroughs, Dana and Jeanne Mayo all come to mind when I say that. President and Marcia Howell let me live at their house for two summers and for several weeks after I graduated. But the regular campus life was not my style—the fraternities seemed OK on the outside, but not on the inside. I never attended a single athletic event. I did attend some Afro-American Society meetings. Actually, there were some jarring moments at the Am. I remember one fellow student saying quietly and deliberately, 'You know, Alvin, if we were niggers on a plantation, I would be the house nigger and you would be one of the field niggers.' I'll never forget that. My best friends were white roommates—and one, Ed Fleur, my senior roommate, remains one of my best friends today. Ed has helped me professionally and helped me personally. Here was a Jewish kid from Far Rockaway and a Black kid from Florida who, oddly, just had everything in common."
After getting a master's degree at the University of North Carolina, Alvin stumbled through a number of jobs, keeping none for more than two and-a-half years. "After a while on each job, my hunger to move up would just make me implode. Someone sat me down one day and said I just wasn’t a team worker-that I was way out on the limb of eccentricity—and that realization became my epiphany. Since 1990, I've been the real Alvin, not answering to the team. I generate my own business, I market myself, and I push myself to my own comfort level. No longer can they say 'You’re too hungry'—I'm now the judge of that on my own terms. One of my students once told me 'You are your greatest asset, and you don't know it—you teach with excitement!' And I decided to continue doing that, on my own."
Ed Fleur '74 and his father helped Alvin get established on Wall Street. And there he has flourished. He first worked with the Fleurs in test-prep for the National Securities exams that all must pass to become licensed brokers. "Ed found a new platform for me to use my skills." But soon he was on his own, and didn't stay with test prepping. He chose another niche in the same milieu: Alvin D. Hall Associates, designing and conducting training seminars for new employees in investment firms. To get started, he found a promoter, because someone told him, "Don't waste time on marketing—just find a P.R. person to make you sound sexy." After writing a flurry of articles, he solicited the Chase Manhattans and the Dean Whitters with a 70% acceptance rate. The training seminars snowballed for a few years until he was called a "...veteran trainer—a term I hate, because I'm always re-inventing myself and my approach to a given subject. I'm forever a student and forever a teacher. Doing seminars on Wall Street is perfect. I customize training to a specific firm, a specific need. Today I taught a six-hour course to summer associates of the Skadden Arps law firm on the legislative history of the professional securities industry. Six hours teaching meant twenty-four hours preparation. Everything changes so fast in this field that I can never use old notes—that's good—that keeps the student in me alive, and I love it. Sometimes I stay up all night to transfer what my student-self has just learned to what my teacher-self will say."
But Alvin Hall's day doesn't end with seminars. He writes prolifically, either giving advice on investing or how to manage one's money without getting into trouble. His Getting Started in Stocks (John Wiley and Sons) has sold over 250,000 copies. And in England he found a broad television audience for managing one's personal finances. His show, "Your Money or You Life," ran weekly for five seasons on BBC2. "There are 500,000 copies of my books now in circulation in England, and I just won their version of the Peabody Award—actually called the Wincott Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism—for a CD I did called 'Jay-Z from Brooklyn to the Board Room.' So how do I do all this stuff? Well, I'm a complete outsider—once I realized that, and was freed from corporate behavior or which paths were supposed to be correct for me, I just took off. Do I worry about money? —Well, I'll always feel a little scared, and that causes me to be even more motivated, more disciplined.
"Do I give back? Through the NYSE, I've given lectures for the 100 Black Men's Mentoring Group. But my favorite volunteer work was at the Providence-St.Mel School in Chicago from 1995-2000. For a couple of days each semester, I taught classes on the basics of investing and then took the students on a tour of the Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Stock Exchange, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange—the purpose was to open the eyes of the students to the wonder of the investment markets and the possibility of their own future employment there. I liked doing volunteer work in Chicago because, like me, many of the students still had strong connections to their Southern roots. Some of them spent summers and vacations with relatives in the rural South in areas similar to the one in which I was born and raised. In the art world, I've served on the Whitney Museum of American Art's Photography Committee and am currently a member of the Studio Museum in Harlem's Acquisitions Committee. I'd do more if my travel schedule left me in one place more often."
SADDlE SMITH '75
"Saddie, you'll have to stay after school to take that test again. No one has ever scored 100 on this English exam, so something is wrong here," said her sixth grade teacher in Ossining, N.Y. Saddie had moved from a tiny town in North Carolina to New York in the fifth grade. "They took one look at me—a black kid from the south—and automatically put me in the lowest track. But I got 100 on that test again, and suddenly I found myself in the highest track from then on."
Saddie's mom and dad did not finish high school. She was the only child of her mother's first husband and lived with her father and grandmother for the first ten years. After a career of playing baseball in the Negro League, her father died at 42. She then moved north to live with her mother, her gardener stepfather, and their five boys—Saddie was nine years older than the youngest. "It wasn't long before I became the mother of the house—I set the standard. Mom worked two jobs—as a domestic and a nurse's aid-to keep things afloat. She valued education so much that she said she had taken two jobs so we kids would never have to work after school. (Mom implied several times that she would have finished high school and gone to college if she had not become pregnant with me. From that time on, I vowed to get to college on her behalf.)"
People often tell Saddie Smith that she resembles Condoleezza Rice. She is constantly approached due to the likeness and rather enjoys it, but “the resemblance stops there. I’m not her political twin, that’s for sure.” But Saddie talks freely, seems a bit feisty, and has a relaxing, fun manner.
"Nate Dane was my end-all at Bowdoin. I applied only to Bowdoin due to my guidance counselor's suggestion and then in reading that James Brown Russwurm went there as America's first Black college graduate. (We've all since learned that wasn't so, but graduating third in America wasn't so bad either!) During Sub-Freshman Weekend I attended my first hockey game ever and was hooked—I never missed a game in four years at the College. Because I learned in high school that I had a knack for Latin, I approached Nate Dane to take the entry course to satisfy my foreign language requirement. But he, after hearing of my high school courses, stuck me in Latin V. I was scared to death, particularly when I found I was the only girl in the class and most of the guys were jocks to boot. But you know, I grew up with five brothers and was accustomed to their 'know it all' attitude, so I plowed forth. Nate was very encouraging always. Do I think he might have given the jocks a break on grading translations? Well, probably yes. But I didn't care. He was so encouraging to me while being simultaneously so demanding, that I decided to major in Classics, although I found Greek really tough. I even pictured going on to Yale or Harvard for a Master's to teach Latin, But Nate said to me in early senior year: 'Now Sadie, do you want a family? Do you really want to teach? Do you want a choice of professions? Then don't go to graduate school in Classics. Go to Law School. You can do anything with a law degree.' Since it was Nate saying it, I did it (even though I had only taken one Government course at Bowdoin and hated it.)
"Do you want to hear how personal Bowdoin can be? Nate Dane gave me as a gift his own tattered college Latin-to-English dictionary—it is one of my treasured possessions. Also, he told me he might be able to swing a little weight because his son was dean of admissions at a good midwestern law school. But I didn't want to go to the Midwest for graduate school. So I applied to Suffolk in Boston as a safety, and to Columbia, NYU, Cornell and Harvard. Suffolk—my safety! —was the first to respond with a rejection. I thought it was all over. Then Cornell, NYU and Columbia sent admission letters. Harvard put me on the wait list. I ecstatically grabbed Columbia. And you know what? Bowdoin was much tougher to get through than Columbia Law.
"Beyond Nate Dane, my earliest mentors at Bowdoin were Ken Chenault '73 and Greg McQuater '72. They were upperclassmen, took their studies very seriously, were high achievers as a result, and seemed to get about campus very well. I'm so lucky to have had them both as close friends. In my class, there were eight Black women and half of them did not graduate—for example, my roommate, Tawana Cook, transferred to historically black Spelman College for social reasons; I don’t know what happened to the others. But we black women were tight, and we all used Afro-Am as a security blanket. At the time, there were around 100 blacks on campus. Probably the Afro-Am of earlier years had been more boisterous in the political arena—we, as a group, worked hard and quietly and felt we were saying, 'Folks, we’re here and notice we can do well.'
"Going to Bowdoin was the best decision I ever made. All doors open when I say I went to Bowdoin. As a result, some of my friends say I'm a touch condescending when someone asks where I went to college, I say 'Bowdoin' with such emphasis and force that no one would dare ask 'What? Where's that? How do you spell it?' I imply that if they don't know about it, they owe it to themselves to find out."
Law firms responded well to Saddie and her preparation. Following Columbia, she was an associate with a white glove firm in New York until she met a high school teacher on "my first vacation ever—in the Bahamas." He was a graduate of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. They married and moved to Chicago, where he was teaching.
She found another associate job there in a prominent, large law firm. "After the birth of our first child, we learned that an associate in a major law firm coupled with a committed high school teacher adds up to a home scene that doesn't work due to time constraints. So I sought a job in law as counsel to a corporation, something that had a more consistent, normal workday. Until I settled into this new role, Lowery was wonderful in running the household and hustling the kids about."
Saddie has worked in various positions of counsel at Con Edison in the New York City area since 1982. She has worked up to Corporate Secretary, a huge job in which she is responsible for corporate compliance and oversight on fiscal and business matters, board and shareholder relationships, documentation and reporting, and development of the company's corporate structure. Her success has not gone unnoticed: in 2004 the Network Journal recognized Smith as one of the "25 Influential Black Women in Business." Earlier, she had been inducted into the YWCA's "Academy of Women Achievers." And Saddie served on the Bowdoin Comprehensive Strategic Planning Committee.
Saddie, her husband and two children have long lived on Long Island, in Cortlandt Manor. Her son chose Morehouse College in Atlanta after deciding that Bowdoin was not diverse enough. "It broke my heart," says Saddie. (A postscript regarding college attendance: while Saddie was at Bowdoin, she stayed on the phone with all her brothers as "mother counselor"; as a result, all five attended college, three of them graduating from Morehouse in Atlanta. "I did set the standard, and they were proud of me.")
"You ask if there was something in the water at Bowdoin that made our group rush out to become high achievers. I don't think so, although Bowdoin set us on the right path with determination. And everyone was encouraging to us there-not just the faculty and staff, but all the white students, many of whom had probably never had a chance to know Black students before. I think the main impetus to our achieving so well was simply the timing. We came to college immediately after the most important cluster of civil rights landmarks became law. We knew many of our forbearers had struggled and sacrificed so, and without reward. We knew that it was up to us to make the most of our new opportunities. That, coupled together with the right college to encourage us, explains the phenomenon. Thank goodness I was part of it. My personal mantra has always been, and remains, a T.S. Eliot line: 'Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.'"
Dr. GREGORY E. KERR '79
Gregory Kerr quietly struggled with identity during his early months at Bowdoin. The source was Deke versus Afro-Am. When he joined a fraternity, two of the officers of Afro-Am came to his dorm room and angrily told him he was selling out, compromising his Black identity. He stayed with Deke until he graduated—"Quite frankly, that's where I felt most comfortable"—but in his junior year, Greg spent more time with Afro-Am "because I felt it was the right thing to do. And Afro-Am was less loud and bombastic when I left Bowdoin than when I came. For example, in my senior year, there was a white girl from Maine who wanted to get involved with Afro-Am, and I helped her. There was a big hullabaloo, but ultimately the group was OK with it."
The early angst over where he belonged was not surprising, given Kerr's background. "More 'white?'" asked the interviewer. Restrained but terse, Gregory responded, "Look, If you're Black, you're Black, and wherever you are as a Black you are discriminated against—let's not forget that—but yes, my preparation for Bowdoin was more like most of the white kids there. I grew up in Waltham, outside Boston, as a twin in a high school where we were the only non-Caribbean Blacks. My folks were actually concerned that there wasn't greater diversity where we lived, so they joined the Jack and Jill organization—my brother, sister and I were trotted around to Boston social events to meet other 'sheltered' upper-middle-class Blacks from places like Wellesley and Concord. Looking back, that was interesting.
"My parents both went to college—West Virginia State, a historically Black college. Dad was a physicist for the Air Force and had a hand in satellite science. Mom was a high school biology teacher—she considered being a doctor, but her father discouraged that. In high school I worked hard and did well—was president of National Honor Society and made Eagle Scout. My twin brother and I were track stars. We both initially wanted Dartmouth, but decided we should split up for college. My parents wanted me at Harvard, and my principal wanted me at Princeton. But my track coach offered to drive me up to Bowdoin to meet Frank Sabasteanski, Bowdoin's track coach. That weekend was an absolute epiphany: I stayed at a congenial fraternity; the leaves were at their fall peak; and as I went to bed that night, I heard a choir or glee club performing across the quad. Then, I really liked what I heard about the school at a big Boston meeting sponsored by the alumni. It was all just too good to be true, so I applied Early Decision and got in. As it worked out, Bowdoin was great, but in retrospect, I probably should have gone to a school with greater diversity, or even to a historically Black college. I just didn't know the intrinsic value of diversity and understanding different cultures. Now, here at the hospital and medical school, with Boards that are not diverse, I can see what the consequences are."
Bowdoin thrust Greg onto the stage of mixed signals regarding ethnicity. "Once, in calculus class, a white student chewed me out for getting such a good grade and elevating the curve. Granted, I had taken calculus in high school, and he knew that—but I wanted to take it again to really master the discipline (even though I find I haven't used it since). Looking back, I found the Bowdoin faculty rather distant—no one really made me feel that I could or should know him beyond class. But I certainly didn't suffer because of that. I had good friends on campus—was cross-country captain and even became vice president of the senior class. One of the saddest moments of my life was the morning after I graduated from Bowdoin. I packed my car and drove away with tears in my eyes."
Kerr became a doctor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, did his internship and residency at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, then a residency in anesthesiology at Columbia-Presbyterian in New York City, and won a fellowship for further training in the Department of Anesthesiology at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. Soon after, with his eye on hospital administration, he earned an MBA at Columbia's Graduate School of Business.
Now, Gregory is Chief of Cardiac Anesthesia at the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell Medical in New York City. His lectures on anesthesiology have taken him from Orlando to Salzburg. He teaches—and has won the Teacher of the Year Award for the Department of Anesthesiology at Cornell Medical College. He has prolifically written abstracts and chapters, and his research continues in areas beyond comprehension (to at least this layman): currently he is the primary investigator in "Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo Controlled Study to Evaluate the Safety and Efficacy of Ketorolac in the Management of Postoperative Pain after Heart Surgery." Somehow he finds time to be a member of hospital committees, from chairing the "Remote Wireless Telemetry Implementation Task Force," to the hospital's Ethics Committee, to co-chairing the "Formulary Subcommittee on Critical Care Therapeutics."
Gregory Kerr is tall with an athletic build, and he often flashes an engaging smile. He has been with his partner, a landscape architect, for eleven years. They live in Harlem and have a second home in the Berkshires. Both give after-hours time to Building with Books, an organization supported largely with General Electric money, building schools in desperately poor countries including Nepal, Mali and Malawi. Greg is also the immediate past chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the largest New York organization working toward equal-everything for the GLBT community. He was president of the Bowdoin Alumni Council and is currently serving his second term on the College's Board of Trustees.
What of the future? "Well, I'd like to be a Director of Medical Affairs or the Chief Medical Officer of a hospital in New York or possibly southern California. But does that come with being Black and gay? I'm not sure. Another goal for the future is doing something about the plight of young, urban African-American males. Why are they doing so poorly? For some reason, the schools and churches and society at large just aren’t getting to this group sufficiently. This is very, very important to me."
GEOFFREY CANADA '74
Geoffrey Canada is the Mother Theresa of Bowdoin alumni. As CEO and President of the Harlem Children's Zone, his good works, determination, energy and selfless commitment have not only enhanced thousands of lives, but also brought honorary degrees from Harvard, Bowdoin and Williams, a 60 Minutes segment, and a visit of tribute from Prince Phillip and Camilla. His extraordinarily effective project targets a 100-block area of Harlem. The $48 million program, which is mostly privately funded, "...combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood. The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can’t slip through...It is one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time," said the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The program has resolved to serve over 10,000 children by 2009.
Canada grew up in a neighborhood similar to the ones his program has targeted. In a 1995 NY Times Op-Ed piece entitled "Cherries for My Grandma," Geoff says, "I grew up poor in the Bronx. My mother raised my three brothers and me by herself. When she couldn't find work, we went on welfare. When she could find work, it was in jobs that paid women—especially black women—so little money that we couldn't tell the difference between welfare and work except that our mother wasn't home when she was working...She used to make all her own clothes, and she used to make our clothes, cut our hair, and make toys for us out of cereal boxes...We hated being poor...And while there was much love in our family, being poor strained our loving bonds. We had to blame someone, and our mother was the only target...She would come home to four boys with their hands out, angry because we wanted something, needed something she could not give...Poverty is tough on families in many ways. It's not quite as simple to get out of as people make out. We must be careful to make sure we build ladders so children and their families can climb out of poverty. It's not an easy climb. You can climb all your life and never make it out."
Geoff Canada is giving his life to help people "climb out" through seamless tutelage and encouragement from pre-kindergarten through college entry. The program has made such strides that there are now 1,500 employees in a tidy and orderly new building on 125th St. in Harlem, two blocks from former President Clinton's headquarters. The Bowdoin family has been critical to the fundraising success of HCZ, or Harlem Children's Zone. As important, two more of Geoff's Bowdoin friends hold top jobs at HCZ: George Khaldun '73 (known as George Alston at Bowdoin) is Chief Operating Officer, and Gerald Lewis '73 (better known as "Rasuli") is Director of the Practitioner's Institute which is designed to share the HCZ model with other practitioners, funders and policy makers.
GEORGE KAHLDUN '73
"Every spring, when classes let out at Bowdoin, I'd rush home to Harlem and swear that was it—I'd not go back to college. And every late summer, refreshed, I'd convince myself to give it one more year. It was another world up there and I felt estranged in a foreign culture. Also, I was always intellectually exhausted at Bowdoin, and spent most of my time in the library. But looking back, it was the right place for me—it secluded me long enough to develop myself. The philosophical and political tugs-of-war between, say, Chris Potholm on the right and John Rensenbrink on the left stimulated me, not to mention the amazing variety of brothers and sisters who were involved back home in SNCC and the NAACP—there were even Marxists and Trotskyites in Afro-Am. George X, as he became known in the first of two name changes (the second being swapping "Alston" for "Kahldun," which means "forever" in Arabic) is thin, balding, tidily dressed with a tie in a perfect knot, and gives a buttoned-up impression. He speaks directly, softly and succinctly, not wasting words. He grew up in the Flushing, N.Y., area where his mother worked at the Post Office and his father at the Pennsylvania RR. He was the first of his family to go to college—but that came later. After high school where he was tracked early to a vocational program, and during the period he was a member of The Nation of Islam, George X held a series of jobs for several years—in silks, in shipping, and in computers. While working in the computer industry, he spent most lunch hours in the library of the Center for Urban Education studying political science and sociology. "I was always interested in how people think—I read Plato to Marcuse. One day Reggie Lewis, who worked at the Center and had noticed me as a 'regular' there at lunchtime, asked if I had been to college. I said 'no,' and he told me all about Bowdoin, where he had just signed a contract to teach. At the time, leaving the fumes of New York and going to the country sounded appealing, and soon I was off to Brunswick, sight unseen.
"At Bowdoin, I plugged in a little—not into the fraternity scene, but I was on the Student Council. Actually, I spent most of my time studying." On leaving Bowdoin, George won both a Revson and a Watson Fellowship. He used the Watson to study the Muslim Mahdist Movement in Khartoum, Sudan. Soon after, he taught political science at Bermuda College and at the College of New Rochelle. Several years later he was working on a master's degree in educational psychology at Teacher's College, Columbia University, when, in a second coincidental encounter with Bowdoin people that changed his life, George ran into his friend Geoffrey Canada. As they caught up, Geoff learned that George had been a professor in the New York area, and enthusiastically asked him to consider being his Educational Director at HCZ, first starting a school for troubled black boys. Seventeen years later, he remains at the Harlem Children's Zone as the Chief Operating Officer in a large gleaming new building on gritty l25th St., two blocks from Bill Clinton's new office. Under Kahldun, HCZ has more than tripled its number of employees and programs offered. There are now 17 programs, scattered mostly around Harlem.
Asked what George's role is at the Harlem Children's Zone, a colleague said pointedly, "He creates the culture." Toward the end of our interview, George had to abruptly leave—a blackout had just hit the East Side and he had to decide if it was time to close down the building and send the employees home. An hour later he returned—"Crisis over," he said with the calm of the self-confident, experienced executive.
George X now lives in Queens and has four children, including a two-year-old. His three oldest now hold degrees from Morehouse, Barnard and the University of Amsterdam, Hampton Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. "When I left Bowdoin I had mixed feelings about the place. No longer—now I'm gung-ho. Mark my words, the baby is going to Bowdoin, no questions asked.
GERALD "RASULI" LEWIS ‘73
"Rasuli" (meaning "messenger" in Sanskrit) admits to living most of his young life with a chip on his shoulder. His parents with nine kids lived in Chillicothe (southern) Ohio, a conservative bastion. His father died when he was 13, and his mother held the family together by working as a domestic. His father did not finish high school but his mother did, and ultimately took a few college courses.
"When Dad died, and I realized how the cards were stacked against us, I really got angry." Angry or not, A Better Chance Program (ABC) picked Rasuli up and placed him at Western Reserve Academy outside Cleveland, a demanding prep school not known for liberal stripes. Reflecting on the secondary school experience, Rasuli says: "Although my comprehension had always been good in school, suddenly I felt inferior in vocabulary, in using words. I started literally sleeping with my dictionary, learning a few new words before going to sleep, and then a few more when I woke up." He captained the basketball team in prep school, but got into trouble his senior year when he reacted strongly to a fellow student who called a slight black classmate a racial epithet. His reputation sullied with the school administration, Rasuli was nonetheless endorsed for Bowdoin by the school counselor, who thought the rural Maine setting would be good for him.
Rasuli didn't expect Bowdoin to be much different from Western Reserve, and he found that to be true. He played football and basketball. "Once I started seeing race riots on television with all those water cannons, I knew I was probably in the right place. If I had gone to college in an urban environment, I would have been an activist from the start. I couldn't be that at Bowdoin, and my mind turned to what was offered there. As a major in Government and a minor in African-American Studies, I encountered some great professors: Daniel Rossides (who made outrageous proclamations just to initiate a well considered retort), Robert Smalls (a Black who gave no breaks whatsoever to Black students), Reggie Lewis (who helped me become a delegate in 1972 to the huge National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana), Charles Young (who put me on a team of 10 to hypothetically found a Black Federal Reserve Bank), Marion Brown in music, and Gus Adair (who was at Bowdoin only briefly, and was a good friend of Maynard Jackson). I also remember Dean Paul Nyhus gratefully—he found money to send me home to Ohio for my grandfather's funeral. I can't tell you how much that meant to me.
"I was turned off by the fraternity scene, but one of my lingering student life stories at Bowdoin involves Deke. We were having a big social gathering at Afro-Am, and were all on the second floor; when we returned to the first floor, we found some of the food missing. We knew who had probably done it. The good side of this story is that in walking next door and confronting Deke, they called the culprit onto the carpet and we could leave smiling, missing food in hand. One other story: when the Afro-Am felt the Administration was not following through on promised new numbers of freshman minority students, we chose not to emulate our brothers at Cornell who brought guns to campus under similar circumstances; instead, we had a 'silent strike'—for two weeks none of us spoke in class or to anyone on campus, including to each other over meals in the dining hall. It drove everyone nuts, including the President. We certainly got our point across—it worked!"
Rasuli left Bowdoin in 1972, before graduating, to get married in Newark and sample a number of vocational areas. He worked with The Congress of African People (and changed his name) to plan national conferences. He explored medicine by working in the emergency room of New York's Metropolitan Hospital. He took courses at Columbia's General Studies Program. In 1982, he moved to Atlanta and worked at an aerosol company just to survive, then helped to found the African Development Project which worked with the United Nations in West Africa. This job took him to Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal.
But Rasuli still had not graduated from college. In 1989, John Rensenbrink and Paul Nyhus helped him return to Bowdoin for one semester to finish. "I'll be forever grateful to them for letting me return—but I'll always identify with the Class of '73."
After working with Mayor Andrew Young in Atlanta for several years, Rasuli joined the HCZ project. He glows with enthusiasm for this program as though he has found his life mission. As Director of the Practitioners Institute, he trains groups from other cities to emulate the program. He drives in very early from New Jersey and actually extends his commuter time by avoiding the Lincoln Tunnel due to nervousness emanating from 9/11. And he always stays late at the office.
"Bowdoin promoted my process of thinking. The College widened my horizons to what Professor Rensenbrink called the Universal Thought Process. I get it now—and I no longer have to sleep with my dictionary."
GWENDOLYN STRETCH '75 and WILLIAM HOLMES '77
William Holmes says his wife, Gwen Stretch, never talked to him as an undergraduate.
"She was two years ahead of me and there were a lot of black men in her own class. Then, later in life, she moved to New York and asked an old Bowdoin friend, Sammie Robinson '75 (now an Associate Dean at Colby), who she might call to help her get acquainted with the City, as she didn't know a soul. Sammie suggested me—we met and have been together ever since."
"Yeah," says Gwen over dinner. "I called him, and we went out, but I'm still waiting for the tour of New York."
Gwen Stretch wins the Persistence Award for undergraduate grit and determination. She went to a dreary inner-city high school in Washington, D.C., but made the most of it: she graduated as valedictorian and won the Bryn Mawr Book Prize. Gwen was wooed to Bowdoin by two high school friends who were now at the College and came back home to sell it at her school. She also had a counselor, Marion Flagg, who had become a Bowdoin fan through admissions officer Dick Boyden. Gwen was flown up (her first plane ride ever) for a sub-freshman weekend and was impressed by not just the academic atmosphere, but also the social life, "But it didn't register that a lot of the girls that weekend had been imported from Simmons and Smith."
Gwen's family had moved to Washington from South Carolina to find work. Her father left school after the sixth grade, her mother after the eleventh; they separated when Gwen was 9. Gwen was the only college graduate of her family until quite recently, when her sister obtained her BA from the University of Maryland at age 55. Gwen wanted to go as far away from home as possible for college so she wouldn't be distracted by family and the tempting social life in her home area. "I needed to focus on school. Bowdoin fit the bill.
"Because of my very poor preparation, I had to work three times as hard as most students to make it, but I wasn't to be deterred from the pre-med program even though most of my friends dropped it. The Afro-Am gave the necessary emotional support, but many tears were shed in Professor Jim Moulton's office until he arranged a student tutor for me—that really helped. Professor Chittim suggested a tutor also, and that pushed me from an F to an H in Calculus. But no one along the way tried to discourage me from pre-med, even though I had entered Bowdoin with no SAT or Achievement score above 500. Sam Butcher came close, though, when he gave me a D in Chemistry and said he didn't flunk me because he thought there was a ray of hope in my making it through. And he was right—I made it through; I even made the Dean's List."
Reed Winston '68, a black student at Bowdoin who went on to earn both a PhD and MD, was assisting in pre-med teaching and advising when Gwen attended the College. He encouraged her to try for medical school immediately rather than taking time off to work, as she had planned. At Professor Moulton's suggestion, she tried for Georgetown and George Washington Medical Schools. At the time she left Bowdoin, she was on both their waiting lists—but by the end of the summer, she was admitted to both and attended GW. "The happy ending of this story is that medical school was so much easier than Bowdoin!"
Dr. Stretch's accomplishments in the medical field are significant. She is now Medical Director of the Elsie Owens Brookhaven Medical Center, Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island where she is also an Attending Physician. She has taught at the medical school, has lectured on the Central Nervous System and The Gastrointestinal System, plus "The Challenges and Rewards for Clinicians Treating People of Color," "Update on Hepatitis B," and "Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Adolescence," among other topics. Gwen serves on the Committee of Academic Standing at the medical school, and has been a member of the Admissions Committee. Her honors are many, and her community service related to medicine is extensive. One of her "significant accomplishments" with her husband, she says, is parenting a son who recently graduated from the University of Virginia, is now in his second term of Teach for America (with second graders in Houston), and will soon be applying to law schools.
William got lucky in high school, and had an easier start at Bowdoin as a result. But his childhood was challenging. He was one of eight kids brought up in South Bronx by a mother who was a domestic and a truck-driver father who left the family early on. Because of his mother's erratic health, the family was often on welfare. Although his public schooling was just adequate, the counseling was excellent—he was recommended in the ninth grade for A Better Chance program, and was placed the next year at Collegiate School, one of the premier prep schools of New York City. The Collegiate counselor later suggested Bowdoin to William, and off he went, the first and only member of his family to attend college. At Bowdoin he found the academics a natural extension of prep school, but the social life was "a shock" (although Gwen Stretch eventually began to speak to him "a little"). Although he too had entered Bowdoin with no single College Board score above 500, and was forced to return to New York periodically to care for his ailing mother, he was soon pulling H's and HH's while majoring in Government and Sociology, and was Dean's List sophomore through senior years. Holmes fondly remembers Professor Dan Rossides, John Donovan and Craig McEwen, Alice Early and Carol Ramsey in the Dean's Office, and Larry Pinette in the kitchen where William "bussed." One day, Pinette took William from table to table at an alumni event to meet all the lawyers since this was William's probable field.
Although William encountered "tension" with the basketball program and dropped out, he was the student representative on the Faculty Committee on Athletics, the Governing Boards' Committee on Athletics, served on the Student Judiciary Committee, and was Minister of Public Relations of Afro-Am. "I really tuned into First Parish, the United Church of Christ adjacent to the campus. I'd always gone to church, and First Parish just took me in. I worked with the youth groups there." In fact, the church is still William's primary interest. Although he has taught and has been involved in many good causes as Director of the Substance Abuse and AIDS Referral in the Bronx, as Chair of BNE Food Distribution in Georgia, the Prep for Prep Program, the Collegiate School Trustees, A Better Chance, and the Bowdoin Alumni Council, among others—and although he and Gwen live far away in Deer Park on Long Island, he has always returned to assist at his old home church in South Bronx, the Grace Gospel Church. Involvement there through the years as Deacon and Executive Director of Youth Education interfered with law school plans. So has his multi-dimensioned current involvement with DABOO, where as Executive Director he manages singers, actors and models, with 5 Linx Enterprises, which sells technology products, and with Trump Expo, where he sells booths for Donald Trump Real Estate expositions. Gwen says that William cannot say "no." And despite all his other commitments, without a pastor at Grace Gospel Church (which Gwen also attends despite an hour and a half commute each way from home), William has become the "spiritual leader." Now he is seriously considering, at age 52, applying to divinity school instead of law school. Gwen seemed to imply, with a large smile, her approval. Recognized by the NAACP, the New York City Council, and the Bronx President's Office for his extraordinary community service, William also won Bowdoin's Common Good Award in 1994.
KENNETH CHENAULT '73
For a visitor to reach the New York City office of Ken Chenault, CEO and Chairman of American Express, one jumps the combined hurdles of the DMV and boarding a plane: your picture is taken for a name badge, you pass through a metal detector (but can keep your shoes on), and you are checked at a final lobby reception desk by computer before passing through a golden gate to the elevators. Once in the swell executive quarters on the 51st floor, with sweeping 360-degree views of Manhattan, one immediately forgets the hassle of entry. Every high-ceilinged wall is of bird's-eye mahogany; there are a number of spacious lounges with an Asian twist to the decor, antique books and museum-level art. And it is quiet, quiet, quiet. One of the Vice Presidents enthusiastically received me, and I was led to the inner-sanctum of the CEO's library.
The CEO himself has a high corporate look, but a down-home, warm manner. Like the Queen is said to do, the Chairman puts his caller immediately at ease. He got right down to business describing his pre-Bowdoin life. "Early on, I learned to straddle the two worlds of black and white. Hempstead, on Long Island-a working class town—was majority black with a strong white presence. Dad was a dentist who went to Morehouse College as an undergraduate followed by Howard University, and Mom was a dental hygienist who graduated from Brooklyn College and then Howard. They taught me to be proud of my heritage and gave me a strong understanding of it, but always encouraged me to participate in the mainstream to bring about change. Most important, they made reading a priority of our household.
"From age 5 through high school, I attended the private Waldorf School, which was almost all white. Was that awkward as viewed by some of my Black friends who were attending the local public schools? Sometimes, yes. But being good in sports always protected and helped me. One of my friends was Julius Irving who attended Roosevelt High School before going to the University of Massachusetts (and the rest is history). I used to play pick-up basketball with Julius, and we have kept in touch.
"I guess you could call us upper middle class and yes, my family was part of the Jack and Jill organization which allowed me exposure to similar Black kids around the city. At Waldorf, my headmaster was Peter Curran, a Bowdoin alumnus (Class of 1946). He said to me repeatedly, "Ken, if you will just apply yourself, you're going to go a long way." But at that age I clearly prioritized athletics, particularly basketball and soccer. That actually paid off because I was recruited by colleges for sports and applied to Providence, the University of Vermont, and Springfield. Springfield was my choice. Luckily, an Anthropology professor there inspired me to get moving academically. I finished the first year with all A's, and my Waldorf School headmaster encouraged me to try Bowdoin as a transfer. He had remembered how well the Branch brothers had achieved at Bowdoin Black students who were top athletes-and he said he had always pictured me there. Peter Curran drove me up to Brunswick to look around, and I liked it.
"At Bowdoin I got involved in track and soccer. And once again, athletics helped me socially. The fraternity scene didn't look that welcoming to diversity, so I somewhat prided myself in remaining Independent. That wasn't a political stand—I just wanted to be comfortable. And in a way, the Afro-Am was a fraternity, but it was much more than that. Afro-Am was clearly a refuge—but it was more fortifying than an escape. We were of all ideological positions—there were Marxists and strong socialists among us—and most had been more politically active than I was in high school. We had spirited discussions and all opinions seemed to be accommodated. We knew we were in this together. But I was out and about on campus—I kept recalling my parents' advice to participate in the mainstream in order to make a difference.
"My only negative reaction to Bowdoin was the initial feeling of isolation, geographically and socially because there was little life beyond the campus. But I soon learned that I was never alone. Professors Whiteside, Bland, Carl, Levine and Roger Howell—who allowed me to be in his seminar of eight students—were all challenging and welcomed interchange beyond the classroom. President Howell even encouraged me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship, but somehow I felt compelled to get on with other personal priorities."
As an assistant entered the room to announce the next appointment was waiting, the Vice President asked me to "sum up." I didn’t really have to, as Ken Chenault summarized with conviction and finality: "Bowdoin provided great years of self-discovery. I felt challenged, and at times was in philosophical turmoil. But I never felt lonely. I left with a renewed sense of energy, a renewed sense of excitement, and a new sense of purpose."
Dr. MICHAEL H. OWENS '73
"What was it like being at Bowdoin?" I asked Michael Owens long-distance from Brunswick to San Diego. "Look, we were in the Maine woods with no blacks living nearby and no women. Man, for many inner-city kids that is not normal at all. That creates pressure, a lot of pressure. So, for those of us at Afro-Am, there was a cluster mentality for self-preservation that worked. We were a tight organization. But we undoubtedly looked more separate as a group than we really meant to be. As a result, there probably was a bit of ethno-phobia among the white students. And I can understand that—it was the Black Power era, and everyone was frightened. We did have incidents at Bowdoin. One time a couple of Beta hockey players banged heavily on the dorm doors of several of the Black coeds. Soon after, the Afro-Am men stormed the Beta house—the members were unnerved, and quickly took care of the offenders. But we wanted to protest this kind of behavior related to Black women, so we men stood outside several hockey games. As the game finished and the crowd streamed out, we were lined up on either side of the path with our arms crossed—we just stood there, looking fairly menacing in total silence. Not much happened after that—we made our point.
"The positive side of the Bowdoin experience was really positive. Dana Mayo in chemistry became my surrogate father. He helped me become a chem lab TA in my sophomore year. To the other Blacks, I was the Science Guy and tutored accordingly because the bar was high. But there was so much faculty help—from people like Reed Winston, Reggie Small and Marion Brown, the jazz man. However, there was a limited social support system. A couple of the brothers and I tried Deke, but that didn't work for us. Virgil Logan '69* was a role model for so many of us because he was so universally respected at the College. And I'm proud to say that 16 Blacks graduated in my class, the most to date at that time. Looking back, Bowdoin really tried to accommodate us, and did as well as any college could—helping us put together the Black Arts Festival, for example."
Michael Owens prepared for college at a New Jersey high school for two years, and then at Haverhill High School in Massachusetts. He had six siblings, one of whom went to Harvard. Both parents encouraged the children toward college. Michael's father was a career steward, and later a civil rights liaison, in the Coast Guard. "I can remember one day when I was six—it was an epiphany. I was helping my dad with the pots and pans after a meal in the mess hall. He pointed out the window where the officers' kids were playing ball and having a good time. Dad said, 'Son, that's the group you want to join because as you get bigger, these pots are going to get bigger. Get a good education and you can get out of here.' I told him to point me in the right direction, and I'd do the rest. I worked hard in high school—took a tough course load, was in National Honor Society, and was captain of indoor track. One day David Treadwell '64 came to Haverhill representing Bowdoin—I wanted to get out of a dull class, so I went to the meeting. I was impressed by the whole story, particularly the John Brown Russwurm part. I stayed after the session, and the more I heard, the more I liked the idea, particularly of a small, remote place where women would not be a distraction—remember, I had been a military brat and was dragged from one one-horse town to the next. Later, I got my exposure to women spending a year at Vassar on the Twelve College Exchange; that was so cool that I didn't live up to my own standards in the classroom the first semester, but caught up with myself in the second. It was a good experience. Back at Bowdoin I pulled out a cum laude graduation.
"It seems shocking to say, but Yale Medical School was easier than Bowdoin. I even had time to be president of my first-year class and of the Epidemiology and Public Health Student Organization. There was a huge academic load there, but the conceptual change from high school to college was much more difficult than the conceptual change from Bowdoin to medical school." Not only did Michael get an MD degree at Yale, but also a Master’s of Public Health Administration—he was the first student in Yale's history to earn both degrees concurrently. His Hospital Administration residency was at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx; his Internal Medicine Residency was at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Owens is now the President/Chief Executive Officer of iVOW, a corporation devoted to consulting on the full spectrum of disease management tools for obesity and morbid obesity including an online venue, a multidisciplinary medically anchored weight management program, a market-leading vitamin for post-bariatric surgical patients, and outsourced management for hospital and surgical bariatric programs. Googling Michael Owens produces the following summary of his career: "Dr. Owens is a physician executive with over twenty years of executive healthcare, managed care, marketing and strategic planning experience, plus fifteen years of previous experience in clinical practice. Prior to iVOW, he was with Vista Medical, and was President of Imhotep Health Systems. He previously held senior management positions with CIGNA Healthcare, the U.S. Public Health Service, and was Executive Vice President/Chief Health Officer of the Watts Health Foundation (at that time the nation's largest minority centered, non-profit outpatient medical center.) He has published and spoken widely on the subjects of managed care, utilization review, clinical resource management and quality."
Michael's wife is a retired administrative law judge for the State of California and has launched a successful career in acting. Their daughter is a freshman in high school. Along with a strong professional and community involvement, Michael has also been a member of the Bowdoin Board of Trustees. At the end of his second term he was asked if he had been "used effectively," and he said "no." So he was made Chair of the Multi-Cultural Affairs Committee for his remaining term. He was instrumental in prioritizing awareness of ethnic diversity in the student body.
After the Chamberlain Scholarships were funded generously to enhance the effort, but growth in diversity was still slow, the Board decided to lay down the law. With Bob Edwards's and Barry Mills's energy and enthusiasm and a reignited Admissions effort, we now seem to be back on the right path."
The writer’s telephone interviews with Michael Owens were interrupted by his quick trip to Korea. "I went over to celebrate the retirement of my Master's Master in Tae Kwon Do—I need his consent to test for Master myself. One nice part of this is that my high school daughter, now involved in Tae Kwon Do for ten years, is already a second degree Black Belt. And she has been wearing Bowdoin Polar Bears since she was a baby."
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Bowdoin has hired, through the years, minority admission recruiters to help boost diversity in each class. Sammie Robinson '75 worked in Bowdoin admissions for 12 years. In retrospect, Sammie remembers his undergraduate days quite positively but says "They forgot to show us Maine when we were there!" He made up for that by becoming a Maine resident. Robinson is now Associate Dean of Admissions at Colby College in Waterville. Another extremely effective Bowdoin recruiter was Erby Mitchell, an African-American who worked in Bowdoin admissions from 2000 to 2007. Erby's background is in itself interesting: he attended, he says, "...the worst high school on Coney Island, was a basketball star, and took the SATs four times just to reach a total of 680—not good enough to get into NYU, who said I'd have to hit 1000 to be admitted. But the coach from St. Joseph's College in Maine called. I said to my mother, 'Where's Maine?'—she responded quickly, saying 'Upper New York.' I enrolled there and played a lot of ball. And I fell in love with Maine." Mitchell said Bowdoin is now looking for students with a "capacity to learn" and for places to recruit them where there is relatively little competition like Baltimore, Texas, and the Caribbean. We spoke after the minority sub-freshmen weekend in 2006 when Bowdoin had flown in 132 students of color to look at the College.
Bowdoin's strong recruitment has paid off. The Class of 2011 includes 31% students of color (146 in a class of 475; there are 43 African-Americans, 29 of whom are women). And the College has improved diversity among faculty and staff, although each lags behind the percentage of blacks in the student body. One popular and visible African-American staff member is Wil Smith, Associate Dean of Multi-Cultural Student Programs. Wil accepted his Bowdoin degree in 2000 carrying his daughter in his arms. He is a busy man: studying for the law boards after graduating from the University of Maine Law School in 2006, coaching several different kids' teams in basketball, holding a full-time job at Bowdoin, and still playing single parent to his seventh grade daughter. Wil says, "The students of color we're bringing to Bowdoin are usually at the low end of the economic scale, but they are shining stars in their own communities or countries. Parents often imply or say directly to us: 'Who’s going to take care of my baby?' And Bowdoin does a good job at that, providing a quality, nurturing experience. My job is to help these students navigate Bowdoin while holding on to what they came from. Then, the Bowdoin degree provides them access to the leadership of the nation—to the Geoffrey Canada's who survived and excelled in this same small, demanding community. They learn self-sufficiency here, often the result of mentoring each other. They're well-prepared for the world out there."
The popularity—and legality—of Affirmative Action programs in America has been swinging between low and high tide during the decades since the alumni profiled here graduated from Bowdoin. When an individual as visible as Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas (who attended Holy Cross on a scholarship for African-Americans after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and continued to Yale Law School, which had committed 10% of its seats to minorities) says in 2007 that "Nothing but an interest in classroom aesthetics and a hypersensitivity to elite sensibilities justifies...racial balancing programs," one realizes that the nation is far from unanimity in schools' and colleges' structuring a "Classful of Differences." But Bowdoin has held strong to that mantra, and its diverse graduates seem to be celebrating.
Several of the alumni profiled here have mentioned Virgil Logan '69 as an important role model. A few words on Virgil H. Logan, Jr., who passed away after a long bout with AIDS, in May 1989: Virgil grew up in Dayton with four sibling sisters, one a twin. His neighborhood was very poor, and his mother was a long-time waitress at Howard Johnson's. He graduated as valedictorian of inner-city Dunbar High School and attended Bowdoin on the recommendation of his favorite teacher, "Momma Jesse." He was cofounder, with Robert Johnson, of the Afro-Am Society. On graduation, he received a Watson Fellowship to study African Literature in English and French in East and West Africa. He received a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Harvard University in 1971. After teaching jobs near Boston, he joined the faculty and administration of Bronx Community College, where he held a variety of positions including Director of the Freshman Year, Director of Public and Community Relations, and Special Assistant to the President. He authored two volumes of poetry: How Does a Whisper Catch Fire? and Ballads Bad and Beautiful. Virgil was extensively involved in community affairs in Harlem. Shortly after his death, the Bowdoin Governing Boards voted to establish a scholarship in honor of Virgil Logan for his "devotion to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind."