May 8, 2004
Good afternoon, and welcome back to Bowdoin. This has been a very sad couple of weeks for the entire Bowdoin community – for people on campus, and really across the country – as each of us has had to come to our own private peace with the sudden loss of Sid Watson. Today, there is a void in this two hundred year-old institution, because we have lost a man who is, and always will be, a legend here. To Henrietta and the entire Watson family, we offer our deepest sympathies, and we want you to know that this college considers you to be part of our family, and we are here for you forever.
Now, it’s fair to say that when I was a Bowdoin student, Sid Watson had no idea who I was. While I don’t think I ever missed a home hockey game – and even traveled to watch the team – I was only a recreational athlete here. My only vivid memory of the Bowdoin coaching staff was when Phil Soule – probably trying to make a skinny kid feel like he was really going to accomplish something here – guaranteed me I would have an 18-inch neck by the time I graduated in 1972. Fortunately for me, while a swim test was required for graduation, there was no neck size requirement.
Nearly 30 years later, when I returned to Bowdoin as president, I knew that it would be important to get to know as many people as I could, and to earn the acceptance of the college community. By then, I also knew something about the devotion, respect and admiration that many alumni, faculty and staff had for Sid, and I worried, frankly, that Sid might be a bit skeptical of this guy who never wore a Bowdoin team uniform. Well, two stories:
Shortly after I arrived at Bowdoin as president, I was working out in the Watson Fitness Center. I looked over and there was Sid. He walked over to say hello and I could tell he was happy to see me there. We chatted a bit and discussed how important it is to stay fit in order to relieve the stress of our day jobs. I think he was more than a little surprised when he saw me there the very next day, and he started coaching me on technique and giving me suggestions for my workout. You can bet I paid close attention!
Then, I would go jogging around Bowdoin a few times a week on a route that took me down Longfellow Avenue. One day, as I was running along, a car pulled up next to me. It was Sid, cheering me on. A few weeks later, Sid came to see me and let me know that he had been observing my jogging for some time. Telling me about his own troubles with his knees, Sid encouraged me to keep it up, but warned me that two to three miles three times a week was enough at my age – that I didn’t want to wear myself out.
It was at that point I knew that we had bonded, and that I was beginning a relationship with this fabulous man – a relationship that would ultimately be way too short.
This past winter I was sitting in Dayton Arena before the start of the Bowdoin/Norwich men’s hockey game – a game that would end up as a great victory for Bowdoin – and Sid sat down next to me to watch the game. Maybe I’m a romantic, but it was always a thrill for me to watch one of those games with Sid Watson. But it wasn’t just about fun from Sid’s perspective. It was a Saturday afternoon, and as far as he was concerned, we were also working. Sid told me about a potential donor I just had to meet and bounded out of the stands to find him. I followed along behind, climbing up and down the stands in search of this guy who Sid felt wanted to help Bowdoin. In retrospect, I believe this was the last Bowdoin hockey game Sid ever saw – of course, something none of us would have known at the time. In typical fashion, despite his love for watching hockey, it was always about Bowdoin and what he could do to help this college.
These last two weeks have been a remarkable time at Bowdoin, as alumni have called simply to reconnect and ground themselves. I know many of you have sought out each other after many years to share your memories of Sid. He was a friend and mentor to so many of us.
I had the opportunity to speak with Henrietta this week about Sid. One of the things we discussed was how Sid seemed forever young to so many of us. All of us can probably still see pictures in our minds of Sid as a young man leading Bowdoin athletes on the playing fields and on the ice. It seemed like he would never grow old, and maybe if Sid didn’t, we wouldn’t either. Like the Greek gods, Sid represented to us that eternal quest to remain young and vigorous.
But in addition to youth and vigor, Sid Watson also exemplified the values and principles held most dear by this College: A commitment to serving the common good, a commitment to excellence, a commitment to community. These are things Sid stood for and the characteristics he modeled for generations of Bowdoin men and women. Homer writes in the Iliad of Achilles – that great warrior who led his troops into battle after battle of epic proportion. Sid Watson led generations of Bowdoin students on the athletic fields and on the ice in the spirit of these Greek heroes – with honor. Sid certainly had the capacity and passion to win – over 300 victories. But Sid led his teams of Bowdoin students in the best spirit of competition – honesty, hard work, commitment, fairness and compassion for your team and your opponents.
Bowdoin is a member of the New England Small College Athletic Association which was formed in the early 70’s. Bowdoin and the other members of NESCAC believe that “students on all intercollegiate teams are to be representative of the overall student body and...admitted with the expectation of their full participation in the life of the College.” As Bowdoin’s hockey coach and athletic director, Sid was dedicated to Bowdoin’s educational mission and led our commitment to this principle.
I’m not fond of the term “student-athlete” that permeates the NCAA lexicon. At Bowdoin, students come here to learn and to grow as people. They come to learn in the classroom. Of course, many of our students are athletes, and we are so proud of them, as they learn from their coaches and their teammates. Sid recognized and supported this important point. He insisted that his athletes be full participants in the life of the College in the classroom and as class presidents, actors, painters, dancers, debaters and on and on. If you knew Sid, you were inspired by his spirit and his drive for excellence, and you worked to apply what he taught you not just in athletics, but also in the classroom and in the rest of your activities. Sid’s gift was not only what he taught you about sports, but what he taught you about life. Still, Sid’s athletic legacy at Bowdoin is vast and we are forever in his debt. He built a program that today includes 31 varsity teams and 5 club teams. Over 40% of our students participate in varsity athletics, countless more in intramural activity. Our coaches and athletic staff are professional and inspirational in Sid’s tradition, and they lead an athletic program that has earned national respect and is and always will be a vital part of Bowdoin College.
Finally, as I was going to the airport the other day, a member of the staff who was driving me asked me how Bowdoin was going to honor Sid. A bit later I ran into people who have worked at Bowdoin for years, some of whom couldn’t keep their emotions in check when they spoke of Sid. And then I walked through the Smith Union where everyone was talking about Sid. It think it’s fair to say that Sid Watson represents to all of these people the best of Bowdoin, a community of decent, honest, straightforward Maine folk who care deeply about each other. We will all miss Sid deeply. We already do.
A lot of work went into this event by people across the College – a true labor of love by our facilities staff, dining service staff, folks in our events office and communications. To these devoted people of Bowdoin, I offer my personal thanks. And to the many of you – the Bowdoin alumni and friends of Sid who have traveled from all of the United States to be here today – thank you for coming back. We know that Sid had a profound effect on all of you and we are so pleased that you are here to share your memories, to celebrate Sid, and to support each other and Bowdoin College as this sad time for us all.