Campus News

Remarks by John Francis Magee '47, Doctor of Laws, delivered at Bowdoin's CommencementMay 25, 1996

Story posted May 25, 1996

Members of the Class of 1996, parents and friends, Governor King, and members of the Bowdoin community,

I am delighted to be here today and honored with this distinction from my colleagues. I'm also especially pleased that joining me here today is my wife, Dottie, and two of my children and their spouses. For us, too, this is a family day; we're enjoying ourselves immensely.

As I was reflecting on today and what it means to me, I realized that it was almost 53 years ago, exactly, that I first walked across this path in front of the Walker gallery. I was a young boy of 16 from Bangor, Maine, who had never visited the Bowdoin campus before and didn't have the faintest idea of what to expect. My father, who was my best friend and mentor, had tutored me well in writing the English language, so while my prose will never be considered lyrical or poetic, that capacity and courage to write has always served me well. It is one of the reasons that I have been very much interested in the program at Bowdoin of Writing Across the Curriculum. One of my high school teachers, Brother Gregory, introduced me to the fascination of solving problems using mathematical analysis, and this also has given me a lifelong interest in applied mathematics.

But my experience at Bowdoin was somewhat different. At Bowdoin, I took every introductory course I could find, and was introduced to concepts, language and ideas and the fields of art, music, social studies, history, government, economics. I was immersed in the continued challenge of learning new ideas, and being forced to learn how to learn. This capacity also has served me well throughout my life. A few years after leaving Bowdoin and having some graduate work, my wife and I were living in New Jersey when I was invited to join my present company, Arthur D. Little, to help establish an entirely new field of professional work, a field that did not even exist when I was here at Bowdoin. That, in turn, has led me into different enterprises in different parts of the world and cultures where I have been required to learn and learn constantly. So, the process of learning is, I think, one of the most valuable gifts that Bowdoin gave to me, and I hope the members of the Class of 1996 have also gained that capacity.

What you have learned here in terms of substance and technique may be interesting and indeed useful, but your capacity and your courage and your ability to learn, continue to learn, in the future is the most valuable gift that the College, I believe, can give you.

As I was thinking, also about my times at Bowdoin, I realized that I've spent far more time at Bowdoin since I graduated than when I was here as an undergraduate. I've learned more from Bowdoin, made more good friends, acquaintances, and have had more good times during those years after graduation. I've seen a lot of change; the College is a very different college in many respects from the one I knew as an undergraduate. But despite those changes, I'm happy that Bowdoin has held to its core values as a liberal education institution. Bowdoin will continue to change, and it must continue to change as it seeks ways to be a more effective institution of learning. Change is difficult; it will be resisted by faculty who don't like to give up their established ways, or alumni who are nostalgic about the College they knew. But you and I must encourage, even press Bowdoin, to change so that it will continue to remain relevant and useful and helpful in the future.

One final point: During your years here, you have heard a lot about the Common Good. Some of you having heard that phrase repeated so often may take something of a skeptical or even cynical view that it's simply a cliche, but please don't take that point of view. Some of you, I am sure, will devote yourselves, selflessly, to serving your fellows in one way or another, but I would like to speak to the ones who are going to go into business, or a profession, or government. You, too, must continue to focus on the Common Good, and you will find ways to do that, and if you do, your careers will be that much more rewarding to you and useful to your fellows in the world. The opportunity to serve the Common Good, both directly and in our professional lives and through the other activities that we may have an occasion to participate in, to search out, will be very important, not only to your own development but to the world around you, because you and I, seeking the Common Good, can make a difference, and we must try to do that.

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