President's Speeches and Remarks

January 15, 2010

Good evening, and welcome to this long-awaited official dedication of the new Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness.

I want to extend a special welcome to several present and past members of our Board of Trustees—including Peter Small—who are with us this evening:

Joan Benoit Samuelson
Shelley Cyr
Jane Morrell; and
Dick Morrell

I also want to acknowledge the team that took this project so well from concept to conclusion:

Our architect, Tim Mansfield, from Cambridge Seven;
Steve Hughes and Tom Barr of Barr & Barr construction;
Members of our Planning Committee led by Tim Foster
And of course, the two people who were on this project day in and day out for nearly two years: Don Borkowski and Greg Hogan.

You all have in your program a bit of information on Dr. Buck and his extraordinary career, so I won't repeat those details. Let me just say that we are delighted to have Dr. Buck back on campus along with members of his family and other guests, and that his generosity to his alma mater has allowed us to do truly wonderful things.

As we look at the typical college campus today—including our own—it is difficult to imagine a time when health and fitness were not a central part of college life. But at the very beginning—when colleges like Bowdoin admitted only men—not only were these activities considered "ungentlemanly and antithetical to academic pursuits," in many cases, they were actually prohibited.

That all began to change—very slowly—during the nineteenth century with an emphasis on gymnastics, and even gardening. Then, in the 1870s, the first gymnasiums began to be built. Harvard's Hemenway Gymnasium was considered state-of-the-art, but even as it opened its doors, it was unclear how best to put it to use. One of the problems was that no one was in charge and—believe it or not—students didn't think the college knew what it was doing.

This is from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 13, 1879:

Harvard has now the most costly building for a Gymnasium in this country; she has students enough who are willing, even anxious, to use it, but no one to wisely assume the direction of fitting it with the apparatus, nor to take charge of it when complete. If it may be permitted us to breathe a wish in this matter, it would be that a Professor of Hygiene might be appointed, - a man of courage as well as sound learning, - who should lecture to the students and be their adviser; a man who could advise the crews in training, and watch that no man overstepped the limits of his physical powers; a man who could tell the round-shouldered, hollow-chested, crooked-legged, weak-backed, how to remedy their defects, …[so that] in five years the physique of Harvard students will show a marked change for the better.

Of course here at Bowdoin, fitness was already assumed, especially since our students had been engaging since the 1830s in the annual "Rope Pull" between freshmen and sophomores—a contest in which members of the rival classes tried to drag the opposing side clear across campus!

As it turned out, the person Harvard ended up hiring to run things at Hemenway was none other than our own Dudley Sargent—a member of the Class of 1875 from Belfast, Maine, and the namesake for Sargent Gymnasium—who had been performing with a circus when he was hired as Bowdoin's first director of gymnastics in 1870.

So at Bowdoin, we have always been in the forefront of health and fitness, and with our new facility, we remain there today. And just as the student writers at the Harvard Crimson dared to "breathe a wish" in the matter of fitness there, our students have never been shy about telling us what they need and want to remain healthy and fit.

We first started to hear some rumblings soon after we opened the Watson Fitness Center in the mid-1990s. It was a terrific and long overdue facility for our community, and it was very, very popular. So popular, in fact, that at certain times of day, there wasn't a weight machine, a bicycle, or a treadmill to be had. It wasn't long before we knew we would have to take the next step.

Meanwhile, just across the way, our health center was showing its age. Opened as the Dudley Coe Memorial Infirmary in 1917 when Bowdoin had an enrollment of 435 men (and when "Dudley" was apparently a more common name!), the Coe Health Center served Bowdoin well for a long, long time, even as we became a coed institution with four times that many students. Coe has been a place where generations of Bowdoin students were treated for everything from infectious diseases and appendicitis to the mid-semester blues that Dr. Dan Hanley used to diagnose as a serious case of "Bowdoinitis."

I am confident that we squeezed every bit of usefulness out of that grand old place! This year, we began the fall semester with a bout of swine flu, and by the time the health center staff moved into their new quarters on the top floor of the Buck Center on September 24, they had already seen and treated more than 130 students. With students on cots in Coe's hallways or out on the porch, let's just say there was a whole lot of appreciation that day for the new Buck Center—appreciation that continues unabated today.

We normally dedicate new facilities at the College as they open. We cut ribbons and tour shiny new space together before anyone gets a chance to put it to use. In the case of the Buck Center—thanks to our housekeeping and facilities crews—we have still been able to appreciate the newness of the building, its design, and its environmental efficiency more than four months after we opened the doors. But today, we also have the advantage of knowing how the space is being put to use, how it has changed daily life at the College, and how much this extraordinary facility is appreciated by students, faculty, and staff.

Here's what people are saying about the Buck Center. First, the Health Center:

"Beautiful space."
"Bright and light."
"More of a welcoming environment."
"Feels like a REAL doctor's office!"

For our coaches—who are finally together under one roof—the new quarters for Athletics on the second floor have made significant positive changes in how they collaborate and how they interact with students and parents. Their comments:

"Much more of a hub of activity on campus"
"Tells everyone loud and clear that Bowdoin values health and fitness."
"A much more professional space all around."

Finally, on the ground floor and one level below, our new fitness center has truly been transformative. From some of the students who seem to be in the place from dawn until well after dusk:

"Wow! I was abroad and just got back. It's all brand new and three times the space we used to have!"
"I think it's wonderful. [It] allows more people to use the facility at the same time [and you] develop a rapport with…people who are not necessarily your friends."
"I came here [for the first time] and thought I wouldn't get a treadmill because [Watson] was always so packed, but I got one right away."

And finally from a first-year student now serving as an instructor at the rock climbing wall:

"I've never seen a climbing wall like this before! The wall is all about endurance and calculation and careful placement of feet and hands. It's meditative but its also surprising how many people [say] after working out, ‘Wow that climb was hard!' A whole cross section of the Bowdoin campus has been coming by to give it a try."

So it's clear that the Buck Center for Health and Fitness is a huge success at Bowdoin, and that we've come a very long way from the annual "Freshman / Sophomore Rope Pull!"

The Center and the programs that take place within its unique glass frame truly highlight for all to see Bowdoin's ongoing commitment to developing a culture of personal responsibility for physical health and fitness, as well as our understanding that a facility like this is central to student life and the overall well-being of our entire community.

We are deeply indebted to Dr. Buck for the generosity he has shown to Bowdoin and for giving us the ability to open this magnificent new facility in the center of our campus.

Please join me in expressing our enthusiastic appreciation as I ask Dr. Buck to say a few words…