Campus News

Baccalaureate 2010: Voices from Bowdoin's Past

Story posted May 28, 2010

"Voices from Bowdoin's Past"
By Timothy W. Foster, Dean of Student Affairs
May 28, 2010

Last September the College opened the new Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness.

Located in the heart of campus, this facility has been wildly popular and tremendously useful as a beacon — literally so, at night — for fitness, health and wellness at the College.

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The Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness. View a slideshow of other Buck Center images.

Since then, nearly 300 people a day — 80 percent of whom are students — have taken advantage of the fitness facilities located in Buck, making it one of the most popular and active spots on campus.

Now, at one time, recreation and athletics were considered unbecoming of an institution dedicated to learning.

In fact, during Bowdoin's first half-century, when the College was an all-male institution, these activities were considered "ungentlemanly and antithetical to academic pursuits." In many cases, they were banned — altogether.

While it was considered okay to collect the firewood necessary to heat the dormitories or to participate in the annual "Rope Pull," athletics or physical fitness as we know them today were pretty much non-existent.

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Dean of Student Affairs Timothy W. Foster

That all began to change in 1870 with the arrival at Bowdoin of a young man from Belfast, Maine — a circus performer who would one day be known as the person who largely invented the modern idea of collegiate physical education.

As a young man, Dudley Sargent developed a keen interest in what we would call gymnastics and acrobatics. He built his own equipment and created a gymnasium in his uncle's barn where he and his friends would entertain the public.

He joined a travelling circus but soon tired of that life. He wanted a college education and was able to convince then Bowdoin President Samuel Harris and the Board to hire him to teach gymnastics.

A year later, he decided to pursue a Bowdoin degree. It was a dual role that didn't always sit well with faculty or fellow students. "The idea of a freshman director did not answer too well for success in the gymnasium," Sargent observed in his autobiography.

President Harris suggested that he gain some training in boxing in order to command the respect of his fellow students. President Mills has yet to share this advice with me.

Sargent entered a Bowdoin College where he said, "athletics were in a scrub condition."

The gymnasium was a little low-studded, ramshackle building formerly a dining-hall, about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide. The floor space was quite inadequate for anything but the most constrained exercise.

The bathing facilities were no less advanced:

The bathroom boasted a pump, a wooden sink, and six tin wash basins ... Each man was entitled to a dip in the tin basin.

Sargent began outfitting the gym, often at his own expense. He ordered weights, rings, bars and apparatus adapted from his circus days. Many of the pieces were of his own design.

When the new gym equipment arrived, so did the sheriff, who was prepared to arrest Sargent, thinking the weights were bludgeons that might, "encourage the strife that already existed between the town boys and the students."

Sargent instituted a program of exercises designed to train specific muscles. These began with dumbbells for freshmen, progressed to boxing for sophomores and broadswords for juniors, and concluded with foils for seniors.

For Sargent, it was as much about character as anything else, and I quote him here:

The good effects of the exercise has made itself manifest in raising the average health of the students...and — in elevating the tone of college morals.
The moral standing of the students at Bowdoin has been in the ascendency for the last five years and it is at present equal if not superior to that of any other college in the country."

Back in those days, of course, one couldn't just show up, flip on the lights and get to work.

There was much to do — mostly by Sargent who, remember, was also a student at the time. He knew the routine well, and I quote him here:

There are four fires to be made, 25 lamps to be lighted and trimmed, water to be brought, rooms to be swept and many other little things incidental to running the department.

Today, regardless of the weather, Bowdoin students, faculty, and staff have access to state of the art fitness equipment in climate-controlled spaces. A far cry from Dudley Sargent's day.

From December to March, the thermometer never rose above freezing, and generally it ranged around zero.
With hands so cold and fingers so numb that they could not hold the Indian clubs, we valiantly exercised.
The dumb-bells were so cold that there was frequent difficulty in dropping them as the skin peeled — from — our hands.
Notwithstanding these actual hardships, I never saw better spirit, or obtained a better response from my classes than in that winter.

Coaches who are present today — peeling skin is not necessary!

By all measures, Dudley Sargent's program of exercise and fitness was a success at Bowdoin. As he wrote:

In spite of every opposition, I have succeeded in making the gymnasium a popular institution and I now modestly though firmly declare that the system of physical culture pursued at Bowdoin today is second to none in the country.

Not everyone was impressed, however. When Bowdoin's Governing Boards refused Sargent's request for a modest salary increase, he left the College.

He would go on to study at the Yale Medical School and then, upon earning his medical degree in the fall of 1878, he would be recruited by Harvard to run the new Hemenway Gymnasium.

Today, two buildings stand at Bowdoin in Sargent's memory. One is the building we now use as the College heating plant. Built around 1890, this was the first Sargent Gymnasium at Bowdoin, the facility originally outfitted with equipment provided by Dudley Sargent himself.

The second building is, of course, the current Sargent Gymnasium — a space through which most of our campus community passes on a daily basis, on their way to and from the Smith Union and to and from a space that can be rightly traced to the legacy of Dudley Sargent — the Peter Buck Center.

To the Class of 2010, as you prepare to move on from Bowdoin, rest assured that this College will continue to evolve in dramatic ways.

I hope you, like Dudley Sargent, will advance a culture of personal responsibility for wellness. Here's to your continued health, fitness, and happiness!

Thank you for listening.

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