Campus News

Baccalaureate address delivered by Paul P. Brountas '54 to Bowdoin's Class of 1997 May 23, 1997

Story posted May 23, 1997

"How Can I Help?"

Forty-three years ago on a warm mid-June day, I stood in this church to deliver my commencement address to the Class of 1954. I was one of four student speakers. The topics ranged from despair that our generation had no heroes to a richly descriptive historical sketch of the Ukraine. The title of my address was "The Modern Inquisition" and the message was that "McCarthyism," unless publicly exposed for the demagoguery that it represented, would lead to a nation in which each citizen would begin to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy and freedom of dissent would succumb to the fear of reckless, unsupported public denunciation.

Those sententious addresses, like the hundreds of thousands of commencement addresses throughout history, sought to challenge and instruct graduating seniors, advise them of their good fortune in having successfully achieved the status of educated citizen and ponderously remind them of their obligation to apply their newfound wisdom to solve the problems of the future.

I don't intend to subject you to that kind of address. I don't want to be remembered as the speaker of whom it was said: "Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom." I have been instructed by my children not to preach, not to whine and not to fill you with didactic forebodings. Nor is there any reason to do so. You don't need me to tell you what to do. After four years of a quintessential Bowdoin education, you have the historical perspective to understand the mistakes of the past and the tools to make the future better.

However, I do have some observations that I believe may be helpful as you commence what has to be the most exciting and challenging period of your life. But first let me share with you the story of how I came to Bowdoin.

I was the youngest of six children. In the early 1900s, my parents left their small Greek villages to come to the United States, seeking opportunity and a better life.

When I was fifteen, my father died suddenly. Three years later I arrived at Bowdoin on a full tuition scholarship, thanks to the guidance and support of my high school teachers. Near the end of my freshman year, I was told by the Dean of the College that I would not receive a scholarship for my sophomore year. Scholarships were, I was told, based on need measured by a student's total family income, which in my case included the income of my mother, who ran the kitchen in our small family restaurant in Bangor, and the income of two of my brothers then living at home, one of whom was about to be married. I was distraught. I told the Dean that I could not ask my mother or brothers to finance my Bowdoin education; they barely had enough to meet their own needs. I began to make plans to transfer to the University of Maine. A few weeks later, a wonderful letter arrived from the Dean notifying me that he had contacted a Boston charitable foundation on my behalf and that I no longer needed to worry about tuition payments. The foundation had awarded me a full tuition scholarship for each of my remaining three years at Bowdoin.

I relate this story because I want you to know that the Dean's initiative on my behalf and the generosity and compassion of the person who funded that foundation changed my life. Over time, I came to realize how important Bowdoin was, not only to my education during those wonderfully formative undergraduate years, but to my personal development and hopes for the future. This engendered a deep and abiding love for Bowdoin and a promise that someday I might be able, in some small way, to pay back Bowdoin and society for giving me opportunities that in my boldest dreams I could never have imagined possible. This was the provenance of my commitment to future public service.

Some events in history are so suffused with emotion and experience as to be nearly impossible to transmit by factual description. The early 1950s when McCarthyism reigned is an example. Others are the Vietnam War and the year 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were struck down by assassins' bullets. You simply had to live through those events to know what they were like.

Less than a year ago, in the summer of 1996, the Democratic Party held its presidential convention in the City of Chicago. It was the first Democratic convention in that city since the ill-fated Chicago convention of 1968.

As our involvement in the Vietnam War escalated in the late 60s, many Americans, and particularly America's youth - who were forced to fight that war - expressed their disapproval of any large-scale American military involvement and urged first caution and then resistance. That resistance led to televised protests in the streets and parks of Chicago; protests that were seen by millions of viewers throughout the world; protests that were designed to pierce the walls of Chicago's convention hall and to reach the hearts and minds of the Democratic delegates assembled within; protests that ultimately awakened Americans from their ignorance and apathy.

I watched those protests on television in a state of shock and sadness - young Americans being beaten, gassed and dragged through the streets by police and army reserves ordered by their superiors to end the protest - with force if necessary. The battle that raged in the streets of Chicago did not end with the arrest of the protectors. It was the beginning of a long journey which culminated in the realization that the Vietnam War did not have to happen.

As I watched the concluding sessions of that convention and listened to Maine Senator Edmund Muskie's acceptance of his nomination as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, I made an impulsive decision to volunteer my services to Senator Muskie. The next day I wrote to the Senator believing that my offer would never see the light of day; but the act of offering would help assuage my conscience. The timing could not have been worse -- I had just become a partner in my law firm and my wife was pregnant with our third child. But I have learned that if you wait for the right time, the convenient time, the opportunities of the moment may never reoccur.

To my great surprise, a few days later my Bowdoin classmate, George Mitchell, who was already in Washington helping organize Senator Muskie's campaign, called to invite me to meet with Senator Muskie and discuss my role in the campaign. A week later I joined Senator Muskie's staff and traveled with him for the remaining three months of the campaign.

Those three months saw the Humphrey-Muskie Presidential campaign move from what appeared to be a certain, humiliating defeat to a narrow loss that most pundits agree would have been a victory had the campaign continued for another week. My participation in that 1968 campaign reawakened my commitment to be involved - in my community, to make it better and, as I had learned at Bowdoin, to serve the common good. I began to believe that I could make a difference, just as I believe that each of you can make a difference.

After the campaign, I returned to my law practice in Boston, but within the year, I chaired the Greater Boston Citizens' Coalition for Clean Air, commenced five years of service on my town's planning board, continued my efforts as an amateur politician to reform the Massachusetts legislature and commenced a nearly 20-year effort on behalf of my law school classmate, Michael Dukakis, a three-term Governor of Massachusetts and the 1988 Democratic Party Presidential candidate.

The joy, excitement and sense of fulfillment derived from those activities and involvements have prompted me to talk to you today about commitment, community and serving the common good.

All of us are familiar with the inspirational charge that John Kennedy made in his 1961 Presidential inaugural address - "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." It now appears that this memorable message was not original, for in 1936 Bowdoin's eighth President, Kenneth C. M. Sills, told Bowdoin students, in connection with the emergency that accompanied the devastating New England flood of 1936:

[L]et me give you this advice that should make everything easier. Before you ask the natural question, 'How can I be helped in my particular situation,' remember that the gentleman's first question is, 'How can I help?'
You will most likely forget who delivered the address at this Baccalaureate, as so many speakers throughout the ages join the ranks of forgotten men and women, but I hope you will remember the words of President Sills, which reflect so appropriately the culture and the spirit of Maine and of Bowdoin - "How can I help?"

My answer is - there are no bounds restricting the ways in which you can help. The only limits are those imposed by desire and will: To accept things as they are and settle for less, or to work to make things better; to allow healthy public skepticism rise to the level of cynical disdain, or to convert skepticism into a positive agenda for the future; to yield to the simple-minded quest for wealth and artificial accoutrements of power, or to make helping others a priority and not a sacrifice.

And in helping others, often the person you help the most is yourself. Through the joy and satisfaction that comes from the effort; through the new friendships that come with community involvement; through the creation of new opportunities not only for those that you help, but for yourself - opportunities to build your own skills, to become a decision maker and to assume leadership responsibilities; and through the enriching diversity and expanded knowledge that come from reaching out beyond the geographic limits of your home and place of work.

The challenge is enormous; the needs are profound.

Less than a month ago, General Colin Powell, President Clinton and several of this country's former Presidents and their wives convened the Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia, which brought together community and business leaders from across the country to discuss how to "spark a renewed national sense of obligation, a new sense of duty and a new season of service;" how to make institutional community service a corporate and personal imperative; and how to make volunteerism the challenge for the next century. But while bolstered by the prestige of former Presidents and many of this country's leaders, volunteerism is not a new phenomenon. The desire and will to help others are as old as this young country.

History records with pride the rural community barn railings that helped build this country; and shelters and soup kitchens that have helped the jobless and homeless survive.

Nearly half of the adult United States population already volunteers in some capacity, some sporadically, some frequently and some regularly. Most people engage in short-term commitments - a fund-raising walk for Project Bread; a road race for a local charity; coaching a teen-age soccer team; or cleaning an inner-city neighborhood. Others have engaged in longer-term commitments that have led to many of the most important social changes in America's history - the civil rights movement, the fight for women's rights and the battle to preserve the quality of our air and water.

At Bowdoin, the will to help others and the desire to serve the common good are embedded in the institution's culture and spirit. Since the early 1970's, over a dozen student volunteer programs, entirely student run and entirely student funded, have helped local and neighboring community organizations by tutoring and monitoring children at risk, assisting those in need of short-term emergency shelter and helping the elderly and disabled.

Now, as we plan to celebrate the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is an ever increasing need for community and volunteer involvement. Cutbacks in governmental assistance programs and the inadequacy of funds needed to operate our schools, libraries, community centers, environmental programs and youth programs require our support. And even if more govemmental funds were available, there are just some things government cannot and should not do -- things that can only be accomplished through a citizenry with a disposition and a will to promote the common good.

Americans are generous, caring and compassionate. This was recognized early in our nation's history when De Toqueville, after visiting the United States in the 1830's noted: "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." You are leaving Bowdoin at an exciting time in America's history - a time of promise, but also a time of challenge; a time of optimism, but also a time of genuine concern for the future in a rapidly changing world.

When the British army surrendered at Yorktown some 215 years ago, their band played: "The World Turned Upside Down." For many Americans that might well be the theme song as we approach the end of one millennium and begin another.

Within the last decade, the Cold War ended; the Berlin Wall disappeared; Eastem European cities have become new centers of capitalism; a month ago an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut took the first U.S.-Russian walk together in outer space; and the China of today, while hardly acceptable to democratic freedom-loving societies, bears little resemblance to the China of the Vietnam era.

At the same time, there is carnage in Africa; Israel and its neighbors remain enemies; and America continues to wage a losing war against the devastating flow of drugs across our borders.

So my generation has had its share of successes, but there is much for your generation still to do.

You, like us, will make mistakes, but don't repeat our mistakes.

You, like us, will want to protect what you have and enjoy a little bit more. But remember those who don't have ... need and want.

Only a few years ago, commencement addresses were filled with despair and pessimism. Where are the jobs? How can I ever own the type of house my parents enjoy. How will I educate my children? These questions are still heard, but the number asking them has declined. You are graduating at a time when the gap between promise and reality is closing. For the first time in decades over 50% of those polled expect their children's generation to enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents. During the first quarter of 1997, the United States economy grew at an annual rate of 5.6%, the best quarter in nearly ten years. Inflation appears to be under control despite strong economic growth. The labor force is expanding and attractive job opportunities exist. Public confidence is rising. And our technological successes are unprecedented.

But as technology has made radical changes in our society, opportunities for those who are unskilled and less trained have declined. At last report, one in 10 African- Americans is still not employed. Wages for unskilled workers are not keeping up with inflation. And the Census Bureau reports that one of four children under the age of six lives in poverty.

So we've left some work for you to do.

You probably realize by now that I have a very positive view of the future. I am, in fact, an unabashed optimist. At this time in your life, I expect that you too see a future in which there is opportunity and an environment in which your hopes and dreams can be realized. Tomorrow you will receive your degree. You will celebrate an exceptional milestone in your life. Be proud of what you have accomplished. Your family is, your friends are, and so is Bowdoin.

Many of you will go on to become leaders of your communities and of this nation - just as two Bowdoin graduates who until recently represented Maine in the United States Senate, George Mitchell and William Cohen, have brought both political and moral leadership to this country - by their ability to listen, by their willingness to tell people what they didn't want to hear, and by their public service and dedication to the common good.

In closing, as you leave this campus tomorrow with your degree in hand, I want you first to remember why you came to Bowdoin, second to understand that the best is yet to come and third to see your future as a great American poet, Carl Sandburg, saw America when he wrote: "I see America not in the setting sun and a black night of despair ahead of us. I see America in the crimson light of a rising sun, fresh from the burning creative hand of God. I see great days ahead, great days possible to men and women of will and vision..."

Thank you, congratulations and good luck.

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