“The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!”
– from “Morituri Salutamus” (1875) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
While prowling around at a library used book sale this fall, I came across a copy of Maine: A Guide ‘Down East,’ published in 1937 by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. The project was designed to provide useful work for historians and writers who were otherwise unemployed during the Great Depression. As I read the acknowledgements I came across the following: “…a word of especial appreciation is due to Albert Abrahamson, associate professor of economics at Bowdoin College, whose sympathetic support while he was Maine Works Progress Administrator was a source of continual encouragement.”
I had known Albert (“Jim”) Abrahamson ’26, H’71 as a dignified and well-liked professor of economics, but I had been unaware of his role as Maine’s W.P.A. administrator and, as it turns out, I knew comparatively little about his extraordinary career. He was the youngest of five children of Lazarus and Rosie Abrahamson, whose parents had emigrated from Russia to Portland in the 1880s. In a 1946 interview for The Orient, Professor Abrahamson explained that his nickname was given to him by one of his brothers for no particular reason; the name stayed with him for his entire life, and he was always “Jim” or “Jim A” to all who knew him. According to the late Bill Shipman, Jim’s admission application attracted the attention of President Kenneth C.M. Sills ’01, and Jim ended up at Bowdoin, thanks to scholarships and part-time work opportunities.
Jim lived in Winthrop Hall (#18, #25, #23) for four years and had three different roommates – all of whom were from Portland. He was the winner of the Smyth Mathematical Prize in his sophomore year, elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, and capped off his undergraduate career by winning the Class of 1868 Prize for the best oration (“Freedom of Thought”), the Noyes Political Economy Prize, the Almon Goodwin Prize (voted by the Trustees for the top scholar among the members of Phi Beta Kappa), and the Lucien Howe Prize (for the senior with “the highest qualities of conduct and character”). He was the only member of his class to graduate summa cum laude, earning highest honors in economics for a thesis that examined the displacement of labor by machinery.
As one of the few Jewish students at Bowdoin in the 1920s, Jim may have experienced first-hand some of the prejudices that existed at the time in Maine. He recalled to a faculty colleague that he had on at least one occasion seen a cross burning in a Franco-American neighborhood across the Androscoggin on the Topsham side of the “swinging bridge.” The summer after his graduation, the Ku Klux Klan held a large rally near the Portland Exposition building. While the primary targets of the resurgent Klan of the 1920s in Maine were Franco-American and Irish Catholics, Portland’s Jewish population of almost 3,000 and a smaller African-American population were not spared from intimidation by the post-World-War-I nativist movement.
After Jim completed a master’s degree in economics at Columbia University in 1927, he was hired as an instructor at Bowdoin in 1928 at the age of twenty-two, becoming the first Jewish faculty member in the College’s history. In his first two years as an instructor he contributed to Recent Economic Changes (a report to the President’s Conference on Unemployment) and to a Report of the New York Commission on Old Age Security. Jim’s solid work had not gone unnoticed; in 1934 he was invited to join the Roosevelt administration as staff economist for the Cabinet Committee on Price Policy. President Sills was willing to “loan” Jim to the federal government temporarily. Jim thrived on being a member of FDR’s “brains trust.” He became an expert on the price policies and constraints on the automobile tire and whiskey industries. He worked closely with policy makers in the National Recovery Administration and Frances Perkins’s Department of Labor before returning to Bowdoin to teach.
In 1935, W.P.A. National Administrator Harry Hopkins came calling. Because of political infighting no state administrator had been named for Maine – it was the only state that had not appointed one. Hopkins installed Jim (a registered Republican) in the post, prompting howls of protest from both sides. Republicans distrusted his connections to the Roosevelt administration, while Democrats thought he was a radical Republican with “socialist tendencies.” Once again, Bowdoin granted a leave. It took a little time, but Jim’s firm and non-partisan hand put 11,000 Mainers back to work in projects all over the State. He managed a $7 million annual budget, obtained relief aid following the devastating spring floods of 1936, and gradually he won the skeptics over. In a 1935 speech, Jim reminded his audience that, “The field of economics is very crowded these days. Every man considers himself an expert in the dismal science. The butcher and baker and candlestick-maker have not yet become leaders of contemporary economic thought, but…they, too, will soon join the motley group that solves economic problems in short and simple fashion…the poor economist still struggles along, baffled by the complexity of his field, but his competitors see clearly and simply, and offer ready solutions.…economic problems, like so many others, are neatly and completely solved only in text-books and political speeches.”
At the end of Jim’s time with the W.P.A., President Sills wrote to Harry Hopkins in July of 1937, “We at Bowdoin are so glad that we could loan the government for such an important piece of service such an excellent man.” Jim returned to teaching again, although he was not convinced that the economic conditions that had created the Depression had been resolved: “To me…the paramount question is not concerned with the current level or with the probable future trend of stock prices or of individual production. The inescapable and fundamental question is simply this: How can the worthy citizens of Maine and the nation be assured of a decent living?”
Jim didn’t settle in for long. His resume shows that he was executive director of the Jewish Occupational Council in New York in 1939-40 and executive director of the National Refugee Service in New York from 1941-43. Jim gave a series of speeches in which he encouraged the incorporation of refugees into the American war effort, since refugees were clear about what they were fleeing from and what they were fleeing to. He enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in 1943, and was quickly assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington. The year 1944 saw him as the assistant executive director of the U.S. War Refugee Board, with a mission of trying to get humanitarian aid into concentration camps in Europe.
In the twenty years after the war, Jim was a consultant (and a Bowdoin professor) in high demand. The Office of Price Administration, Secretary of Labor, U.S. National Security Resources Board, President’s Materials Policy Commission, National Manpower Council (seven years), and the National Science Foundation (five years) benefitted from his wise counsel. He was engaged as an advisor to help develop Israel’s economy in 1954. Closer to home, Jim served on the Maine Panel of Labor Mediators and the Economics Advisory Board, and from 1958-60 was the Chair of the State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. With all these demands on his time and talents, Jim kept teaching at the College and served as Dean of the Faculty in 1969-70 and on a number of faculty and College committees (eleven in one year!). From his graduation through his 50th Reunion in 1976, Jim was 1926’s class secretary. In recognition of his dedication to the College and to public service, Jim received the Alumni Award for Faculty and Staff in 1969 and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in 1971.
A number of faculty members recalled that when Jim knew that a student was having financial difficulties, funds from an “anonymous donor” would suddenly be made available for Dean Kendrick to dispense to the needy student. Jim A had a big heart and, according to Bill Shipman, Jim had subsidized the law school education of several students as well.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Jim developed the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which forced him to retire in 1976, and to accept the fact that independent living was not an option. He retained his characteristic clarity of mind and compassion for others until his death in 1988. One of his last gifts to Bowdoin was a lead gift that allowed the completion of the underground connector between Hawthorne-Longfellow Library and the stacks in Hubbard Hall. The Albert Abrahamson Reading Room was dedicated on the top floor of the Hubbard stacks in 1984 in appreciation for all that Jim had done for the College over the years.
When I began this column, I was drawn to Jim’s involvement as administrator of the W.P.A. in Maine. I had no idea of the breadth and the extent of his public service, and that his tenure on the faculty was exceeded only by the sixty-five-year teaching career of Alpheus Spring Packard of the Class of 1816. For the many ways in which Bowdoin loved and respected this brilliant, selfless, and private man, the feeling was mutual. In July of 1926 Jim wrote to President Sills ’01: “In a short time, I shall choose my life’s work. No matter what I do, no matter how ‘successful’ I may be, my life will be fuller and more worth-while, because of my four years at Bowdoin and because of my contact with you.”
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations