Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Good morning. I am honored to be a part of this bicentennial celebration at North Yarmouth Academy and delighted to see so many young faces here today.
I am both the father of three boys – now, young men – and president of a college, so I have some experience speaking in front of young people.
At Bowdoin, we have a single event annually that students are required to attend: it is the Opening Convocation of the College. On that fall day, members of the entering class arrive smartly dressed to listen to me, to the dean, and to a member of the faculty. It is our “Harry Potter” moment as many of the faculty, staff, and I are dressed in our academic regalia!
The first year students soon discover that they are the only students in the hall – their upperclass peers having already learned that, these days, compulsory attendance can only be required by their professors, and certainly not by the college president!
So, Convocation is generally my first and only shot with these young men and women as a group until the day, four years later, when I hand them their diplomas. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.
So, I’m very happy to see that today at North Yarmouth Academy, we have all come together as an entire school, and I thank you for this chance to address you.
Bicentennial celebrations such as these matter because they provide us with a sense of longevity and a well-deserved moment of achievement, as well as a jumping off point for even greater things to come.
There is no guarantee that an institution established today will be around a year from now, let alone two centuries later. This was even more the case in the early 1800s, at the dawn of the American republic.
Imagine life on the coast of Maine in 1814, the year North Yarmouth Academy was granted its charter. Back then, where we sit today was Massachusetts—the state of Maine would not exist for another six years.
In fact, the very day NYA was chartered, our young nation was at war with Great Britain. That same year, British forces occupied Washington. They burned the Capitol building, the White House, and other public buildings. In Maine, they seized Bangor and occupied Castine.
Life here was uncertain and difficult. If you think this winter has been harsh, imagine winter without the warm furnaces, indoor plumbing, or snowplows!
Yet, despite these hardships, this was a period when the people of the United States continued to advance the idea that education was essential for a democracy and for the welfare of its people.
Here in Maine, institutions of higher education were cropping up all over the state. Bowdoin was chartered in 1794 and opened its doors in 1802. Colby College was founded in 1813, and a year later, the Bangor Theological Seminary was granted a charter by the General Court of Massachusetts.
It was during this period of academic growth and expansion that your own school, North Yarmouth Academy, came into being, initially as a preparatory school that “fitted” students for Bowdoin.
Two hundred years later, our two institutions are linked with a common history and we share in the accomplishments of our common alumni who have made and continue to make important contributions to society.
We also share in the charge to our students that they put their education to use in service to the common good.
One shared alumnus deserves special recognition, in this, the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War: Oliver Otis Howard of the NYA Class of 1846 and the Bowdoin College Class of 1850.
Howard would go on to live an extraordinary life of public service. He would command Union forces on the first day at Gettysburg; receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism; lead the bureau that aided freed slaves after the Civil War; serve as president of Howard University and commandant of West Point; and negotiate peace in the Indian wars of the late 1800s.
Despite losing his right arm in battle, Howard exchanged letters with more than 14,000 people over his lifetime, including with such luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, James Garfield, Sojourner Truth, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Many of Howard’s letters are held today in the archives at Bowdoin, including some of his earliest correspondence: letters back home to his mother in Leeds that were composed right here at North Yarmouth Academy.
“Dear Mother,” Howard wrote on March 5, 1845, describing his first days at NYA. “There is not a single person that I know otherwise than by name. I was [obliged] to purchase [fire] wood…necessary to make my room comfortable. I have a very pleasant room, well furnished, including bed, table, stands, wash stand, chairs, pail and wash bowl…a good looking glass [and a] stove. The [school] stands in the Eastern extremity of the village. You can, by looking to the south, see the salt water about a half-mile distant…and the other scenery around in every direction is beautiful [and] it seems to me that it must be charming in the summer season. They have coffee for breakfast and cold water for [lunch] and supper.”
See how much better you students have it today?! No need for firewood or a pail, and surely more than cold water at lunch!
Howard’s legacy of service has been repeated many times over by NYA and Bowdoin graduates these past two hundred years.
In 2008, I presented Bowdoin’s President’s Award to Meredith Segal of the NYA Class of 2004.
The President’s Award honors a Bowdoin student whose actions demonstrate particular imagination and generosity of spirit and provide tangible benefits to the atmosphere, program, or general effectiveness of the College.
During her four years at Bowdoin, Meredith helped found Bowdoin Students for Peace and led a social media effort in support of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She also led Bowdoin’s Bear Buddies program, through which she and other students provided care and compassion to local children with physical and mental disabilities by hosting them on campus each weekend.
Today, Meredith works in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as a member of the founding leadership team for a new K- through-eight charter school that prepares students for college and sets them on a course to become service-minded leaders.
Our society has never needed such leaders more, and it is through education and a commitment to service that North Yarmouth Academy and Bowdoin College will continue to do our part to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
You young people have been listening to me long enough, but in closing, I urge you to honor the legacy of your school by using your talents throughout your lives in service to others. We live in a state that needs you. We live in a country that needs you.
Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, as he retired from his role as trustee of Bowdoin, reminded Bowdoin of its exceptionalism — a place of learning dating back to the birth of our Country. North Yarmouth Academy has a similar legacy and exceptionalism. Michael reminded us and I remind you of the responsibility of that legacy — a legacy of learning and upholding the values of our institutions and the United States. As NYA moves into its next century I am confident that it will continue its legacy of exceptionalism in teaching and learning for generations of students.
For members of the senior class, I have a specific call to action.
I’m told that each of you will pursue higher education. Many of you will leave Maine in the coming year to matriculate at colleges and universities in other places. You have ahead of you four years of opportunity and intellectual and personal growth. You will meet new people from many different backgrounds, religions, and socioeconomic conditions. You will pursue your own passions. You will succeed and you will fail, and from that success and failure you will grow.
Take advantage of these opportunities and remember where you came from. Use your talents not only to make life better for yourself and for your families. Use your talents also to build your communities and to change lives.
And don’t forget your home. Don’t forget Maine. Ours is a rugged state that will endure. But to make life better here, we need new ideas and the energy of young leadership.
Wherever you go from here, remember what you were taught at North Yarmouth Academy: The values of respect, perseverance, and compassion; the importance of character and integrity; a passion for lifelong learning; and a commitment to serve others.
On behalf of the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Bowdoin College, I congratulate you on the occasion of your bicentennial. Thank you for the opportunity to share in this special day at NYA.