President's Speeches and Remarks

December 11, 2010

Good Afternoon. This is a gathering that none of us was prepared for except for David, and none of us could have anticipated just a few months ago.

Last spring, our friend, David Becker, stood with me on the stage in Watson Arena to receive the highest award presented by the Bowdoin Alumni Council: the Alumni Service Award. It is presented each year in recognition of an individual's record of volunteer service to the College.

That morning in June, we recognized David’s talents, knowledge and expertise in the field of art, his quiet philanthropy, and his wise leadership. He was clearly thrilled and in David’s fashion- a little embarrassed, while also quietly quite proud.

He was even more delighted when, later in the afternoon, I surprised him at his 40th Reunion celebration with the gift of a Bowdoin rocking chair. Those who know me, or who have visited my office or read the Orient, know how attached I am to my own Bowdoin rocker, and I wanted to share that particular joy with David. And we had heard through the grapevine that much to my surprise given David’s aesthetic—he really wanted a Bowdoin rocker. Of course, neither of us knew then that it would be a parting gift from a grateful College to one of our most loyal and thoughtful graduates.

This afternoon, we celebrate a life well lived and I am honored to welcome each of you to Bowdoin.

Many of you knew David through Bowdoin and understand the profound impact this man has had here—an impact that will continue well into the future. Others of you knew him beyond our campus.

At Bowdoin, David was a student and a teacher. He was a person who appreciated beauty and one who made it possible for others to do the same. He was leader who witnessed injustice, and an organizer who worked throughout his adult life to end prejudice, inequality, and discrimination. He did these things without fanfare, but always with a hint of deep personal satisfaction in his eyes.

I am reminded of a photograph that appeared in local newspapers in 2007 when we reopened our Museum of Art after the extensive renovation for which David was a tireless advocate and generous supporter and persistent muse.

The photograph shows me at the lectern, and to my left, the governor of Maine and other dignitaries. To my right, off in the background—certainly not the focus of the picture—stands David, his back against the glass wall of our new entrance pavilion, looking off to the side with a broad smile, standing there holding, with others, a huge red ribbon that engulfed the structure. Here he was, not out front gathering well-deserved accolades, but rather in the background, quietly supporting our efforts with optimism and good cheer, and doing so with the resolve necessary to actually make something important and lasting happen for our College and our community.

That was David.

David’s interest in and support for art is well known. Art was his professional life and his passion, and you will hear this afternoon from others who can speak with authority about these and other important contributions. My focus—as preface—is to speak briefly about a broader context: the impact David had on Bowdoin and on those of us here who knew him.

The list is familiar: a son of Bowdoin who graduated in 1970 but who never truly left.

David was a generous donor to the College who offered his financial support—often anonymous. He was a patron of the arts for Bowdoin and one our finest benefactor.  David’s knowledge and experience, and his full engagement in the social issues of the day are a model to us all.  An overseer and trustee who was the valued advisor to several presidents, museum directors, and others on campus working to advance programs and causes that would move us forward.

We talk a lot here at Bowdoin about “The Offer of the College,” an iconic description of the liberal arts written over a century ago by William DeWitt Hyde, our seventh president. The “Offer” eloquently describes the aspirations of our form of education:

TO BE AT HOME in all lands and all ages;
To count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
And Art an intimate friend;
To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work
And the criticism of your own;
To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
To make hosts of friends...
Who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
To lose yourself in generous enthusiasms
And cooperate with others for common ends —
This is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.

I don’t know if the period David spent here as a student was—to him—the best four years of his life. I suspect that he had many uncertain and difficult moments, as many students do. But there is no doubt at all that David Becker lived Hyde’s “Offer.”

It wasn’t easy or uncomplicated. David had to push and sometimes endure, but he did so with an obvious love for the College, an understanding of its history and limitations, and with an optimistic and generous spirit that was convinced—and convinced all of us—that Bowdoin could be a better place.

He was, in many ways, a person ahead of his time—an advocate for gay and lesbian rights when taking such a stand meant taking serious risks.  For David, this was not a matter of politics, but a statement of morality and social justice.  David was a passionate spokesperson against apartheid in South Africa when anger and confrontation clouded the call for promoting basic human dignity. And David advocated never with rage or antagonism, but rather with reason, intelligence, and passion. This is why we so respected him at Bowdoin and why we listened when he had something to say.

My years as a Bowdoin student overlapped David’s. We served together on the Board of Trustees, and as president, I frequently looked to David for advice, insight, and support. I will miss that counsel, and all of us will miss David’s unyielding passion for his college. We are proud of him, we are grateful for his many lasting contributions, and we are honored that he wanted Bowdoin to host this event today.

Thank you.