December 15, 2012
Last Saturday, Christa wrote to me to let me know that Tom had passed away the previous evening quietly and peacefully, surrounded by his family. As I read Christa’s note on that chilly, rainy afternoon, it occurred to me that the Tom Cornell I knew was anything but quiet and peaceful. He was a force on this campus for fifty years. Never shy, always outspoken, always filled with ideas and a vision for things he wanted to accomplish and for the power of art in conveying important messages and in getting things done to change the world.
My first encounter with Tom was when I was a student here at Bowdoin in the early 1970s. I think I actually met him for the first time through a close friend who was studying art. So, I knew who Tom was, never thinking he knew anything about me. Then, in my senior year, I served as student representative to Bowdoin’s Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee. Remember, I was the student representative in this group of faculty and deans—not a major figure, by any means. But that didn’t matter to Tom. One night, unannounced, he showed up at my door in the Senior Center (now, Coles Tower) to get my advice on how to get something approved by the CEP.
Those unscheduled encounters with Tom became our relationship over my years as president. He would often walk into my office with books, or drawings, or memos to discuss with me. My most vivid memory was only about a year ago. I was walking home. Tom was driving down Bath Road, and I waved to him. As I arrived home in my driveway on Federal Street, there was Tom—I still can’t figure out how he managed to get there before me. But there he was to tell me I am doing a great job, remind me about the Common Good and social justice and to tell me if I ever needed him in our family trials with our son Will—he was there for me. This for me was Tom—impetuous, impatient, passionate, and most of all—deeply caring and emotional in his personnel connection.
So, I knew Tom Cornell for a very long time and today, like you, I feel the loss of his spirit on our campus, in our community, and in my life.
Tom was a man of complexity. His was a life filled with complexity. In fact, I believe he reveled in the complexity, and unpredictability of ideas, life, and personal connection. Tom was a man with texture—a person of enormous personal substance.
It’s only been a little over six months since we honored Tom at a retirement dinner in Main Lounge with trustees and special guests. It is almost as if Tom wasn’t meant to be off this campus and away from the teaching, the mentoring, and the life of the mind that he loved.
His impact on this College is significant and enduring. A graduate of Amherst College, Tom came here in 1962 with a full experience in and appreciation for the liberal arts. He literally established the visual arts program here, a program that today helps to define Bowdoin—along with music, dance, and theater—as an undergraduate institution where art thrives and where students can both master artistic skill and gain an appreciation for creativity, beauty, and invention. Through the years, as the visual arts have expanded at Bowdoin, Tom was here to encourage and mentor students and his colleagues, to challenge convention, to imagine new approaches, and to teach us all about the beauty and power of nature, harmony, and optimism.
I’ve done some reading these past days about Tom and his career—pieces written by those who knew him well as a friend, as an inspirational teacher, and as a gifted artist. One of the themes repeated is that Tom was never satisfied to accept what is without wondering what could be. Whether the challenge before us was the environment or war or ignorance, Tom saw—before many others—a way to get at the problem and, importantly, a way to use art and a love of nature to make a difference. He always had an idea, and he always worked with an infectious enthusiasm to gather others into his dreams for a better world.
Tom and I had a conversation on this campus that commenced the day I returned as president. Tom was—and continued to be through his life—unsatisfied intellectually and philosophically with the College’s enunciation of the common good. Tom’s view was deeply rooted in his version of philosophy, and he felt that the College should define the common good as man’s relationship to our environment and social justice. I did not disagree with Tom’s vision. In fact, it is central to our sense of the common good. But for me, the concept is more expansive and grounded in both education and in acts of compassion, kindness, and concern broadly and tangibly enacted individually and collectively for humanity. As you might imagine knowing Tom’s personality and mine, these conversations were often a contact sport. These encounters always ended with Tom telling me how impressed he was with the job I was doing, but I knew he would be back. We will miss the challenge of the debates and Tom’s vivid, expansive sometimes undisciplined mind and artistic talent. Tom made us listen, but more importantly, he made us think and consider.
These last years and months weren’t easy for Tom, but he battled his illness with the same force of purpose and audacity that defined his life and career. We would see him on his beloved squash courts when we knew he couldn’t possibly have the energy to be there, and we would see him outside on the Quad, stopping a passerby, often any passerby, to offer a word of encouragement or to enlist their ideas in a cause worth fighting.
This is the Tom Cornell I will remember, going all the way back to the night in the Senior Center—a truly gifted artist fully engaged in teaching, in serving his version of the common good, and leaving his benevolent and optimistic mark on an imperfect world.