President's Speeches and Remarks

Muskie Access to Justice Dinner
May 2006

It is a pleasure to join all of you in honoring a favorite son of Bowdoin College, Mert Henry, and to have Mert at our table this evening, along with Dick and Smokey Morrell, Sam and Nancy Ladd, Sandy and Mary Sistare, and Bill Torrey – all members of the Bowdoin family and people who have long admired Mert and Harriet Henry.

Others this evening will talk about Mert’s many contributions to his profession and to his community. I wanted to say a few words about Mert’s service to his college and to higher education because I believe he epitomizes the ideals of Bowdoin College, especially the principle – stated by our first president, Joseph McKeen, that “…literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”

It was McKeen who reminded those in attendance at his inauguration in 1802 that a Bowdoin education was not intended to permit students to “…pass through life in an easy or reputable manner,” but rather that their “mental powers” were to be “…cultivated and improved for the benefit of society.”

Generations of Bowdoin students have taken this conviction to heart – from those who graduated on Saturday to the several alumni in this room tonight. But none with more sincerity and passion than Mert Henry.

When it comes to serving the common good, Mert has been at it a long, long time.

As many of you know, Mert Henry is old enough to have headed an organization called “Youth for Margaret Chase Smith.”

And Mert is also young enough to be a member of the “Peter Mills for Governor” inner circle.

(No relation, by the way, although “Governor Mills” certainly has a nice ring to it.)

Throughout all these years, according to Bowdoin’s government professor extraordinaire, Chris Potholm, there has never been a significant gathering of Republicans in Maine where Mert wasn’t actively involved or a guiding spirit in the room.

Of course, as we honor Mert tonight, we do so in the name of a giant of Maine’s Democratic Party – Senator and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie. All the more evidence that Mert Henry’s contributions transcend party politics and ideological differences.

In fact, time and time again, Bowdoin College has called upon Mert Henry to bridge differences, to help shape policy, and to find solutions to vexing problems. He has offered his skill, dedication, enthusiasm, and sound judgment to eight presidents of the College – including this one – and has had a hand in nearly every major reform at Bowdoin during the last half-century.

It has been said that Bowdoin “robbed the cradle” when it appointed Mert to its Board of Overseers in 1962.

Back then, the average age on the Board was 70.

Mert was 36.

I can only imagine what those meetings would have been like, but Mert must have enjoyed them, because he ended up serving as an overseer and then as a trustee at Bowdoin for a quarter century, including a term as trustee chairman. And what a quarter century it was!

During this time, Bowdoin became the first selective college to make the SAT optional for admission. The College admitted women for the first time and ushered in sweeping changes of its curriculum. The governing structure was reorganized and a group of students – including a future Bowdoin president from Rhode Island – managed to actually close the College in protest to the shootings at Kent State and the war in Vietnam. Later, Mert would lead major reform efforts at the College dealing with the complicated and emotionally-charged issues of the role of athletics and fraternity life.

Realizing what we had, and not wanting him to get away, Bowdoin turned once again to Mert to chair our bicentennial celebration in 1994. And we’ve been turning to him ever since.

All of this is to say that Mert has been extraordinarily generous to Bowdoin College with his time and devotion – so much so that it’s actually hard to believe that he had any time left over for all of his other volunteer activities, and civic duties, let alone for his “day job,” his beloved wife, Harriett, and his three children, Donald, Douglas, and Martha.

In 1984 – on the day that their daughter, Martha, received her degree – the College awarded Mert an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his tireless service to Bowdoin and to higher education. Harriett was honored with her own Doctor of Laws degree at the same ceremony for her extraordinary contributions to the legal profession, to civic affairs, and to higher education. Mert and Harriett were an inspirational pair, and so it was a terribly sad day for us all  – September 11, 2004 – when Harriett passed away.

At Bowdoin, we think of ourselves as a family. That’s exactly how Mert has always felt about his College and we of him. We couldn’t be more proud of all that he has accomplished, nor more grateful for what he has done, and continues to do to advance higher education in Maine and in America.

In a newspaper interview in a few years back, Mert described himself as a “country boy” when he arrived at Bowdoin in the fall of 1946. He said that Bowdoin served to show him “the real world.” That “real world” has changed in ways unimaginable when Mert was a student, and Bowdoin – like every other successful organization – has had to adapt, change, and improve. It is not an overstatement to say that we would not have been nearly as successful in doing so without the leadership and support of Mert Henry.

Mert, on behalf of a grateful college: thank you for the example you set for us all, and particularly for young people. McKeen’s words of two centuries ago urge those fortunate to gain an education to put their knowledge, energy, and talents to work in their communities for the betterment of society. Your life and career are the inspiring modern embodiment of this philosophy of service to the common good and of principled leadership.

Congratulations on this well-deserved honor.