Campus News

Bowdoin Awards 432 Bachelor of Arts Degrees at 196th Commencement

Story posted May 26, 2001

Bowdoin College awarded 432 bachelor of arts degrees when Maine's oldest college held its 196th commencement exercises at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 26.

Among the graduates were 61 Mainers, 108 students from Massachusetts, 37 New Yorkers, 26 from Connecticut, and 18 from California. Graduates also hail from such countries as Jordan, South Korea, Thailand, the Czech Republic, Pakistan, Kenya, Peru, and the People's Republic of China.

President Robert H. Edwards presided over his last commencement ceremony as Bowdoin president; he retires June 30. He was among those awarded an honorary Bowdoin degree.

Since 1806, Bowdoin has given the honor of speaking at commencement to graduating seniors, rather than celebrities. Students compete to determine who will speak. This year's speakers were Christine DeTroy, 72, of Brunswick, Maine, and Nathaniel Chase Vinton of Salt Lake City, Utah. (Complete transcripts of students' speeches are available on the the SUN Online under "News.")

DeTroy, a German major with a minor in Africana Studies, first became familiar with Bowdoin when her husband was a student on the GI Bill after World War II. She graduates from Bowdoin 51 years after her husband did (and 31 years after her son). She spoke about how her childhood in Germany under the Third Reich and her early experiences in America have led her to work for civil rights and peace causes throughout her life.

"What did I learn at Bowdoin while my husband worked toward his degree? I believe I matured and learned to have self-confidence to express myself, self-confidence to go against the grain of set behavior and traditions if they were contrary to my principles. Having grown up under the dictatorship of the Third Reich during World War II, my life had been based on survival, which included quiet obedience to public commands....Now, living in a new world, I was not willing to live in silence ever again....We marched for Civil Rights and for peace and human rights in Washington and Chicago....After a sojourn of forty-eight years, years spent in tending to our family and the public and private causes which moved my spirit,...I embarked on a course of study which has brought me to this point....I am not embarking on another career, but I shall return to community activism with a deeper understanding of the issues that face all of us."

Vinton, an English major, gave a speech titled "Maine's Absent Presence." He spoke about how Bowdoin's location in Maine informs the education of all who come here.

"Artists are familiar with a concept that I think might help our class to understand the tradition of which we are about to become a small part. There is an artistic principle known as an 'absent presence,' easy enough to understand intuitively, this is the theory that all works of art make implicit references. The absent presence is the idea that hides just beyond the margins of the canvas, of the tale, or of the symphony....I want to say that there is something in the very air in Maine--a Maine sensibility--that functions as an absent presence in the lives of Bowdoin graduates. There is something unassuming but extraordinary about this state, and it has indirectly shaped all of the people receiving degrees today.

"All the women in my family come from Maine," Vinton continued. "They would never allow me to forget that some of the people living in those remote trailers alongside Maine's coastal marshes are my distant relatives. I grew up far from here, but Maine was always an absent presence for me. I was raised with the conceit that most of humanity's noblest achievements found their origin in the mud and the atmosphere of this place. My grandmother in particular will make the case that the prominence of Bowdoin's name in history has everything to do with the location of Bowdoin's campus in Maine. My grandmother told me, four years ago, that this was a sensible place that produced sensible people. She reminded me that the school colors were black and white."

Bowdoin awarded honorary degrees to Mamphela Ramphele, South African national now in Washington D.C., doctor, activist, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and managing director of the World Bank; Maxine Kumin of Warner, New Hampshire, Pulitzer prize-winning poet and former poet laureate of New Hampshire; Paul Simon, of Carbondale, Ill., former United States senator; Theodore Stebbins of Brookline, Mass., authority on American art and well-known curator; and Robert H. Edwards of Brunswick, Maine, retiring president of Bowdoin College, lawyer, administrator, and zealous supporter of liberal arts education.

Ramphele said, "Since arriving near midnight on Thursday in the house of Bob and Blythe [Edwards], I've been reflecting on what it means to connect, what it means to feel that you belong. I've never been to this part of the world before, but I felt at home the moment I got out of the car....I have come to the conclusion that what makes us feel like we belong is the recognition of the I in You and the You in I."

Simon remarked, "You have created an improved Bowdoin, and now comes the much greater test. Can you create an improved world?...You will be leaders....Leaders can appeal to the greed, the selfishness, the beast in us, or they can appeal to the noble in us. I urge you to appeal to the noble in us.

"I will in about six weeks be going to the Middle East for a meeting....Though the present news is dismal, I am optimistic....The future is bumpy, but let me tell you one small thing, and again, it is the small things you will do that will become so important...." Simon spoke of the moderate stance of Tunisia in the Israeli-Arab conflict, as compared to many other nations in that part of the world. While traveling to a meeting in Tunisia, he paid a courtesy visit on the president of Tunisia. He asked the president why he was following such a moderate course. The president of Tunisia said it was because, during World War II while his family was having trouble, a Jewish family took him in.

"One Jewish family took in a small Muslim, Arab boy, and changed history," Simon said. "We all change history, either positively or negatively or through indifference by turning it over to others. I want you graduates here to change history positively."

Stebbins said, "Anne Tyler's wonderful new novel, 'Back When We Were Grown-ups' begins with the words, 'Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.' All of us need to try to prevent that from happening....If you will let them, works of art can teach you more about the human condition than all the prose in the world....Collections are not luxuries. They represent the human need to gather and preserve knowledge."

Robert H. Edwards remarked, "A couple of things I've learned in this curious life. First, life is fresher and more brilliant on the edge....This college by its nature pushes the edge of knowledge and human growth, or it betrays its purpose....Finally, our job is ultimately the tending of our soul not our bank balance....The common good is an abstraction that really means other human beings....Seek the edge, and seek out--and if necessary wait for--love."

In tribute to the important part Maine plays in a Bowdoin education, Michael V. Saxl '89, speaker of Maine's house of representative, presented greetings from the state of Maine. Rabbi Ruth Smith of Beth Israel Congregation, Bath, gave the invocation. Music was provided by senior members of Bowdoin's a cappella groups The Indecisions, Miscellania, and The Meddiebempsters, as well as Chandler's Band.

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