Campus News

Remarks by Ernst C. Helmreich, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of History and Political Science, delivered at the Thorndike Oak DedicationJune 1, 1996

Story posted June 01, 1996

I came to Bowdoin in 1931, and several years later, Dean Nixon asked me to be an advisor to non-fraternity men. We had no professional advisors at that time, and we got along all right. Perhaps it was because of the awful thought at Bowdoin and at any other college, that advising was part of your teaching job. I was assigned a group of non-fraternity men. Then in 1937, a couple of those men came, under the leadership of Carl Barron '38, and asked to form a club which all non-fraternity men could join. I of course went to President Sills and talked it over with him, and he was pleased with the idea, and then suggested that we name the organization The Thorndike Club.

Well, I didn't know anything much about Thorndike, and neither did the students, but we accepted his suggestion happily. The Thorndike Club remained on the campus until 1946, when it was transferred into the Alpha Rho Upsilon fraternity.

One time when we were talking, my wife suggested--as they often do--how come that George Thorndike was in St. Petersburg [Russia] when he died in 1807? I said blithely, that I would look it up. I soon found, looking in the archives, a clipping that said, "Little is known about George Thorndike." And I soon discovered that was right. We have a biography of his father. His father's papers are deposited in the library at Harvard, and then there are other things. We have a story of how the Thorndike Oak was planted, and there are records, good records, that of all the punishments meted out to students. George's name was not among them. He must have been a pretty good student.

We, for years, had no by-laws of the College. A few years back the original by-laws were found (they ought to be printed), and in those original by-laws when they came to describe the first Commencement program (or the thing you get when you graduate--your [diploma]. There they had as an example, George Thorndike, so he's back in the by-laws of 1802. (I wrote that down, so I won't forget anything.

At the time George Thorndike graduated, all graduates gave an oration. It has been whittled down now to two given. George gave a paper and he spoke on "The Influence of Commerce on Public Manners." George continued after graduation to be interested in academic affairs, and he applied to Harvard for an A.B. degree under the [inaudible] program that they had in those days, he was awarded an A. B. at Harvard, and the Harvard Catalogue gives his name. But in 1809, George took passage on one of his father's brigs, loaded with $20,000 worth of tobacco, to Europe. It was captured by Danish privateers and taken to a Norwegian Admiralty Court. Norway was under Denmark at that time. They used George's Commencement address as part of the reason for confiscating the boat. (I always liked that.) In it George had spoken disapprovingly of Napoleon.

George came back and was granted a master's degree from Bowdoin, and then apparently, we don't know, we don't have a good reference, he took a boat again to Europe, and relations between France and Russia were going bad; war was imminent; business was going to be done, and George was there. We don't know what he died of, or where he is buried. He died onDec.23,1811.

Now there were two other Thorndikes that might be mentioned on this occasion. . One was Israel, the father. He was a very wealthy man, who had been in the Massachusetts Legislature and that. He and some other associates had over 100,000 acres of land in Maine. Israel was a great benefactor of Harvard. I was not able to find that he ever gave a substantial gift to Bowdoin. And maybe this had something to do with that: He enrolled another son, Andrew, at Bowdoin. Andrew, unfortunately, in October of his freshman year, stole a goose. The faculty got very righteous about that. I wanted to read a summary as to why they dealt with that, but it was pretty direct. Andrew never married, became quite wealthy, lived practically constantly in France and Germany and died in Frankfurt am Main in 1854.

There are some other reasons that I might talk about.

There is one other incident that Helen Chase, wife of [Professor] Stanley Chase, was a good gardener, particularly with shrubs and trees, and she gathered acorns from the Thorndike tree and raised a number of trees. I don't know where she planted them, probably most in the back of the yard of the Chase House. One day she came over (she always borrowed water to water the trees from my spigot). and she gave me this Thorndike Oak. So, I have in front of 6 Boody Street, a genuine Thorndike oak. The lineage in its blood lines is correct. If you ever want to know if it was a white oak, a red oak, or a pin oak, or whatever else it was, you can come over and examine that tree.

Now there are a lot of traditions at Bowdoin--some deserve to be kept; some deserve perhaps to be forgotten. Think of what it would be to have drop night, when you have a coed fraternity--a coed college. So there are good traditions to be kept, good traditions and those among the Thorndike Oak are to be remembered.

I am very glad that the Class of 1946 has taken steps to have a new oak planted, and I hope that the Thorndike Oak will be long remembered.

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