The Return of Sarah and James Bowdoin Day

Published by Tom Porter. Photography by Michele Stapleton.

For the first time in two years, the Bowdoin community was able to gather in person to celebrate Sarah and James Bowdoin Day. The annual ceremony, canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was held in Memorial Hall's Pickard Theater on Friday, October 22, 2021.

The event, which is part of Bowdoin’s Family Weekend, is to recognize and give scholarship gifts to Bowdoin's highest-ranking students—those with grade point averages in the top 20 percent of their class as determined by the previous year's record. The total number of Sarah and James Bowdoin Day scholars this year is 320.

Each scholar who earned a grade point average (GPA) of 4.0—the highest score awarded—also receives a Book Award, which bears a replica of the early College bookplate found on books in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library’s James Bowdoin Collection. In this year’s ceremony, 128 scholars also received this award.

Additionally, the College honored twelve Phi Beta Kappa students from the Class of 2022 and presented four of them—Anthea Bell, Emily Yuan-Ann Pan, Julia Perillo, and Anthony Yanez—with the Almon Goodwin Prize, awarded to exemplary members of the academic society.

In his opening remarks, President Clayton Rose said the accolades being offered on this day are not earned easily. “Ours is a rigorous academic program with standards of excellence that are challenging and with expectations set by faculty that are difficult to meet,” he commented. “The outstanding level of achievement demonstrated by these students requires intense focus, a deep pride in one’s work, and a passion for learning, and it warrants our full appreciation and the congratulations we offer today.”

The annual fall ceremony includes two addresses, one by a highly recognized practitioner in a liberal arts discipline—from Bowdoin or elsewhere—and one delivered by an outstanding Bowdoin student. This year's speaker was Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Michael P. Danahy, while the student address was delivered by Julia Jennings ’23.

In her talk, called “Bowdoin in the First Person Plural,” Jennings reflected on the how the world around her has changed radically while her campus surroundings have remained constant. “Nearly every day during our time at Bowdoin, we cross the Quad on the same paths, over and over and over again,” she observed. “As I have walked recently, I have felt that, though the paths remain unchanged, the world that we have come to navigate here has grown to feel radically different. It has been disorienting, in many ways, to return to this old, familiar place in a time of such complete novelty and uncertainty.”

The absence from Bowdoin imposed by the pandemic was at first unsettling, said Jennings, but over time it gave her the opportunity to delve more completely into the intellectual challenges of her academic studies—"now I had time to dig into Aristotle’s Poetics, the cinematography of The Farewell and, yes, even the screenwriting of Michael Clayton”—something she found deeply rewarding. “I commend the desire within myself and within us as Bowdoin students to follow all of our passions and to take on innumerable responsibilities, but I also believe we need to recognize that we can only do our greatest work if we make room to prioritize what feeds our minds as thinkers and creators,” observed Jennings.

Danahy’s address was titled “Obey the Law and Enjoy the Entropy,” and in it he talked about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and how perfectly it complements a liberal arts education. The law in question, said Danahy, states that “the entropy of the universe is always increasing.” Entropy in this case means randomness or disorder, he explained, so as the universe expands, the more disordered or chaotic it becomes.

“This idea,” said Danahy, “is not just for the physical world, not just for universe expansion or things like molecules in chemical reactions… It has implications for us…for humans!” We humans should follow the Second Law, he urged, and need to be open to randomness, disorder, and the serendipity of discovery. “Not everything can be planned or ordered; and from time to time, things can and will happen in an unplanned way,” continued Danahy. “Some of the greatest discoveries in chemistry, in science, and in many fields, happened when someone had a random result, a random thought.”

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Ceremonial music was provided by Beckwith Artist in Residence George Lopez on piano, who opened proceedings with an overture by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). For the recessional music, he performed “Raise Songs to Bowdoin” followed by “Études-Tableaux” by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

Bowdoin began recognizing James Bowdoin scholars in 1941 to honor undergraduates who distinguish themselves by excellence in scholarship and to commemorate the Honorable James Bowdoin III (1752–1811), the College’s first patron. James Bowdoin III—who asked that the institution be named after his father—was an agriculturist, art and book collector, and diplomat who served as Thomas Jefferson’s minister plenipotentiary to Spain.

By faculty vote in 1997, this commemorative day and scholarly distinction were changed to recognize both Sarah and James Bowdoin, who were married from 1780 until his death in 1811. Like her husband, Sarah Bowdoin gave many gifts to the College, including most of the Bowdoin family portraits, which were bequeathed to Bowdoin College upon her death.