Whispering Pines: Opening Doors

In this month’s column, John R. Cross ’76 writes about tolerance and how small acts of kindness can open doors to great things.

Earlier this month the Bowdoin community was saddened to learn of the death of Susan Jacobson ’71, the first woman to receive an undergraduate degree from the College. In 1969-70 Sue had been among the first group of women to study at Bowdoin on an exchange program that had been established by 12 colleges that were considering coeducation. On the basis of Sue’s strong academic performance, she obtained permission to study at Bowdoin for a third semester in the fall of 1970. On the Friday of their September meeting, the Governing Boards voted to admit women to the undergraduate program, and on Monday morning Sue was in the Dean’s Office with a formal request to be admitted as a regular Bowdoin student. She became the first woman to matriculate at Bowdoin, the only female member of the Class of 1971, and the first woman to deliver a Commencement address at the College. It was clear to her family and her friends that she was motivated by the opportunity to study at the College that she had come to love and that meant so much to her father, Mitchell Jacobson ’46, and not because she sought recognition for her role in Bowdoin’s history.

Susan D. Jacobson '71, pictured on the cover of the Bowdoin "Alumnus," commencement edition, 1971.

The College will celebrate 40 years of coeducation in 2011, four decades after Susan Jacobson graduated and the first four-year coeducational class – the Class of 1975 – was admitted. In revisiting the early days of coeducation through news accounts and the memories of those who experienced the transition directly, I am reminded of the linguistic asymmetry of contemporary news accounts about the “men” and the “girls” who now made up the Bowdoin student body, of “make-do” accommodations in residential, athletic, and health service facilities, and of changes in the norms of classroom and campus life. In so many ways we have come a long way since eight women arrived on campus in the fall of 1969 – slightly more than half of current Bowdoin students are women; they compete in 17 varsity sports and three club sports; they continue a long Bowdoin tradition of academic accomplishment, commitment to the Common Good, and loyalty to their alma mater. Sue Jacobson would have been the first to attribute the progress that has been made to all those who took on the obstacles that stood in the way and transformed attitudes one heart and one mind at a time.

To stand at a juncture in history, at a point in time where the full implications and consequences of personal action (or of inaction) are not clear, is daunting, especially for someone who is personally identified with a cause.  The name of E. Frederic Morrow ’30 may not be known to many alumni, but he occupies an important place in American history as the first African-American to be appointed to an executive position in the White House.  He grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, the son of an ordained minister who also worked as a janitor in the town library.  The Morrow children walked across town to attend an all-white public school instead of the separate (and decidedly not equal) neighborhood school nearby.  According to Morrow, mistaken identity brought him to Bowdoin, when College officials assumed that he was related to lawyer, financier, U.S. Senator and Ambassador Dwight Morrow H’31, the father of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. When he arrived at the Brunswick train station on The State of Maine Express, a large group of students was waiting on the platform, chanting “Morrow, Morrow!” As the last passenger to step off the train, he was ignored by the crowd, who expressed disappointment that the anticipated celebrity had missed the train.

Despite the challenges of being one of two African-Americans at Bowdoin, Morrow found encouragement from a young Herbie Brown H’63 and other faculty members, and he discovered in the students a strong democratic streak that appreciated ability and character above all else.  Morrow did well academically, but was forced to withdraw in his senior year to help his family back in Hackensack.  He worked for the National Urban League and as national field secretary for the NAACP, and served in the U.S. Army during World War II, attaining the rank of major. After the war he earned a law degree from Rutgers, and worked for CBS in the public affairs office.

William Kephart ’30, Frederick Morrow ’30 and Benjamin Whitcomb ’30 in 1980 at the Class of 1930 50th reunion. Photo by Phil Blodgett ’30, courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library

Committed to improving the Republican Party’s standing among African-Americans, Morrow served as an administrative assistant and advisor to Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 presidential election campaign.  On July 9, 1955, he was sworn in as Eisenhower’s Administrative Officer for Special Projects, in a closed-door ceremony intended to attract little public attention. From the outset, Morrow faced indignities and frustrations. White House secretaries refused to work in the building with Morrow without having a security guard present at all times. His advice was sought only on questions of race relations and then his advice was often ignored. Historians continue to debate whether the Eisenhower administration’s approach to civil rights and race relations was prudent and cautious or reluctant and indifferent, but it was a source of disappointment for Morrow.  He felt keenly the criticisms of the  African-American community that his had been a token political appointment, and that he had been unable to move the Eisenhower administration to take stronger political positions following the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that ”separation of educational facilities is inherently unequal,” the Montgomery bus boycott, or the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. However, Morrow was able to arrange an important meeting between Eisenhower and Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders.

Following his White House years, Fred Morrow became the first African-American to be a vice president at Bank of America, where he was in charge of the international division. For his leadership and public service, Bowdoin awarded him a Doctor of Laws degree in 1970. He was an executive with the Educational Testing Service from 1975 until his death in 1994. His extraordinary story is told with candor in his three books, Black Man in the White House, Way down South up North (about racial discrimination in the Hackensack of his youth), and Forty Years a Guinea Pig.

In a letter to a classmate in 1965, Morrow wrote, “Because of my experiences at Bowdoin in years when tolerance was not as popular as it is today, it was gratifying to me to find so many men whose only gauge for measuring a person was character and what he stood for as a human being.” It is important to remember that those who open the doors of opportunity for others had other doors opened for them by small acts of kindness, and that we each may open the doors a little wider for those who follow.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Jane Knox says:

    Dear John,

    I was very struck by this column as I am very interested in the history of co-education at Bowdoin College. I myself started teaching at Bowdoin College in the fall of 1976 and can say it was a very different place then, for many different reasons. I loved your final statement. I would love to discuss by email or in person some of our joint experiences in 1976.

    Jane Knox
    Russian Depar7ment

  2. Hubert S. Shaw, Jr. says:

    John, this is a wonderful article. It brought back a lot of memories of Professor Nate Dane who remarked to me several times, even before I entered Bowdoin, that women at Bowdoin would occur in the near future. Although discussed a lot, little did we in the Class of 1965 know that the first woman would be at Bowdoin so soon. Thank you for bringing this important event into focus for us. Hubert S. Shaw, Jr. ’65

  3. laurie whitehouse says:

    Hi John – I really enjoyed your article – it brought me back to our days at Bowdoin. People take these changes so forgranted these days! It’s funny – all that time I knew you at Bowdoin and never knew there was an eloquent writer behind all that goalie gear!
    Laurie (Scheiner) Whitehouse

  4. Bill Heath says:

    Dear John,

    It was good to read your article about people making a difference. The story of Bowdoin admitting Fred Morrow because they thought he was someone else is remarkable and something that gives one pause, as does the account of Fred Morrow’s arrival in Brunswick. To think that such things happened in our lifetime! Reading that Morrow arranged a meeting between Eisenhower and Martin Luther King, Jr., in turn triggered memories for me of the night when I was a student there that King spoke at the Congregational Church in Brunswick and afterwards met with anyone who was interested in the lounge of the Moulton Union. Thank you for telling us these stories, John.

    Bill Heath ’66

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