Campus News

Baccalaureate 2009: Voices from Bowdoin's Past

Story posted May 22, 2009

"Voices from Bowdoin’s Past"
By Timothy W. Foster, Dean of Student Affairs
May 22, 2009

Throughout this year, Bowdoin has recognized and celebrated the achievements of an intrepid group of Arctic explorers, led by our graduate: Admiral Robert E. Peary of the Class of 1877.

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Dean of Student Affairs Timothy W. Foster

Just over 100 years ago, on April 6, 1909, Peary, his associate, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit — Egingwah, Ootah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah — became the first people to stand at the North Pole.

On this very day in 1909, Peary was back safely on the ship he had designed for the expedition, the S.S. Roosevelt, built on Verona Island near Bucksport, Maine.

The Roosevelt was still locked in the sea ice off Ellesmere Island. As he waited for the spring thaw to cause the ice to release its grip on the ship so he could sail home, Peary was thinking about his wife, Josephine, for May 22 was her birthday and he missed her terribly. But he was also thinking hard about a new set of goals ... his next challenge.

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

Peary spent the day working out designs for the Roosevelt II — a new ship that would take him and some of his current crew far south — a ship that would carry them to the shores of the continent of Antarctica.

The first person to reach the top of the earth was working on a plan for an expedition to the South Pole, even before he had announced his North Pole accomplishment to the world.

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

Peary never realized that particular dream, but the very act of planning it tells us a lot about the person.

A pioneer with unrelenting drive and determination, Peary was also a restless spirit and dreamer, not at all content to live in the moment.

Those closest to Peary some 30 years earlier probably had a sense of what was to come.

As he approached his own Bowdoin Commencement in 1877, a young Robert Peary wrote the following to his mother:

I have thought more of the future this spring than I ever did before ... I have asked myself a thousand questions, which only time can answer. Where shall I be in ten years, in twenty years? Shall I be alive or dead, fortunate or unfortunate, shall I be trudging along in the narrow tracks many men make for themselves or shall I be known outside the circle of my acquaintances? All these [thoughts] and many more present themselves to me whenever I have a chance to think.

Like many of us, Peary had big dreams and grand ideas for himself as he turned 21. But he also had some doubts as he prepared to leave Bowdoin.

The only way in which I have celebrated has been by indulging in vague wonderings whether the contest with the world will be harder than the contest with the College. Will it prove too much for me?

Take comfort, members of the Class of 2009. Peary's letters home show that he had no idea where life would take him after graduation. All he knew is that he wanted to do something different with his life. And when he left Bowdoin, he didn't have a job or a clear idea of how to get one!

Interestingly, while sometimes fretting about his future, Peary was quite optimistic about what lay ahead.

Today, as I think of what the world is and that I have my life before me, nothing seems impossible.

As he prepared to leave Bowdoin and many of his friends, this man who would become known the world over for fortitude, courage, ingenuity and bold action revealed a sentimental side of his personality, and expressed an emotion possibly shared by many of you graduating seniors at this very time. Listen carefully.

If I am to say good-bye to someone for a long time, I never want to say it in the daytime. It is too real. It is much better said under the enchantment which night always breathes upon everything, when the dusk may help a tell-tale face to hide too great emotion, when the shadow of a dream is over all, half persuading you that you are merely saying 'Goodnight' and not 'Good-by,' keeping from you all the meaning of good-by until time and sleep and the light of another day enable you to face the fact.

The words of Admiral Robert E. Peary of the Class of 1877.

Thank you for listening.

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