Convocation 2008: Voices from Bowdoin's Past

Story posted September 03, 2008

Voices from Bowdoin's Past
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster

Bowdoin College's 207th Convocation was held Wednesday, September 3, 2008, in Memorial Hall, Pickard Theater. Following is the text of "Voices from Bowdoin's Past," delivered by Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster.

Tim Foster100.jpg
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster

A century ago on this very day, the S.S. Roosevelt was in the Arctic, more than 3,000 nautical miles from home and just hours from her destination.

The 184-foot vessel — built in Bucksport, Maine — had embarked from lower Manhattan in early July. In charge of the expedition was 52-year-old Robert E. Peary of the Bowdoin Class of 1877.

Early on the morning of September 5, Peary and his crew of 22, accompanied by 49 Inuit men, women and children, and 246 sled dogs, arrived at Cape Sheridan on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island.

Peary greeting.jpg
Robert E. Peary greeting crowds in Sydney, Nova Scotia, upon his return from the North Pole.

Here, they would intentionally freeze the Roosevelt into the ice and prepare, over the next 25 weeks, for an over-the-ice journey to the North Pole, a place no one had ever been.

Peary's 23-year ambition was finally realized on April 6, 1909, when he and his African American associate, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit planted the American flag at the Pole.

Today Bowdoin is in the midst of a two-year celebration of the life and accomplishments of Admiral Peary, and of the courage, diligence, tenacity and spirit of exploration embodied by him and by those who helped him reach his goal.

In many ways, the characteristics that propelled Peary in his quest were nurtured on this campus, and the attitudes and skills he acquired remain important components of a Bowdoin education.

A graduate of Portland High School, Robert Peary enrolled at Bowdoin in the late summer of 1873.

And — believe it or not — this future intrepid explorer did not come to college alone.

No! his mother, Mary, not only brought him to Brunswick, she moved here with him, declaring — "I am going to college."

Imagine that, Class of 2012, helicopter parenting to an extreme!

Initially, Peary would show little of the independent and optimistic spirit that would later define his life as an explorer.

His transition to Bowdoin and Brunswick was a difficult one.

"It is so lonesome, oh so lonesome here that I don't know what to do with myself," he wrote in his diary. "All the faces are strange and I seem to be in a distant country."

Downtown Brunswick in those days didn't seem to help his spirits.

"The dullest hole that ever was," lamented the future Arctic explorer.

Peary eventually came to appreciate Bowdoin and Brunswick. The opportunities for outdoor activities were a perfect match and there were plenty of specimens to feed his passion for taxidermy.

Special note for students: Preservation materials and embalming fluids of any kind are no longer allowed in the residence halls!

Roosevelt530.jpg
The SS Roosevelt reflected in the water as the ice at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, breaks up in the spring of 1909.

Like generations of Bowdoin students before and since, Peary found an academic passion — engineering — and a faculty mentor who took a keen interest in him — the straight-talking, native New Englander, George Leonard Vose.

Vose was a hard-driving, energetic professor.

He had no sympathy for lazy students, but great fondness for those, like Peary, who were engaged, worked hard and stuck with a problem or project.

Vose set the bar high, and Peary rose to the occasion.

Peary wrote to a friend:

Tuesday afternoon, Professor Vose gave us a problem...It was something new which he himself had not worked out...

I went back to the drawing board a little before dark and found the boys had been working at it all afternoon and could make nothing of it... I reached the same result.

The next day the rest of the boys worked on it till noon then left it, disgusted. The professor and I worked on it all day with no result.

This went on for two more days, with Peary and his professor working together toward a solution.

By Friday night — at this point working by himself — Peary had the "ah-ha" moment.

Peary wrote to a friend:

At night, I got it, obtaining the most perfect result. I tried all the tests and checks possible and then showed it to [Professor Vose].

He took it home to look over and brought it back the next morning saying it was the best piece of work that had been done in the department since it was founded. I was completely rewarded for my labor.


Another time, Professor Vose asked Peary to take a look at a nearby railroad bridge -— a bridge Vose suspected might be unsafe.

Peary took three days to study the bridge, eventually confirming Vose's fears.

Vose warned the railroad, but to no avail. Later the bridge collapsed exactly how Peary had described it would.

Service learning in 1875!

Peary's career at Bowdoin — and his life in general — is the story of hard work, failure followed by re-evaluation, perseverance, discovery and adaptation.

His attitude, associated with him throughout his life, was, and I quote: "I shall find a way or make one!"

Flag:Sledges cropped200.jpg
American flag and sledges at the North Pole in April 1909

Peary's life would change immeasurably from the shy young man whose mother accompanied him to College, to a pioneer who would design the ship, stove, sledge and many of the other tools necessary to accomplish his dreams.

But for all the change that happened over a lifetime, Peary himself saw perhaps the greatest change right here at Bowdoin.

"I am thinking lately that I am getting to be almost a man," he wrote ten days after his 19th birthday.

"I have got beyond the days of boyhood when there is no care...and all you have to do is enjoy yourself and indulge in a pleasant dream of the future.

"As long as I was eighteen I didn't think about this — eighteen sounds so young, but nineteen — there seems to be a long distance between the two."

The words of Robert E. Peary, Bowdoin Class of 1877.

Thank you for listening.

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email