Whispering Pines: Let It Snow!

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 discusses – and solicits from readers – “memories of snow images from days at Bowdoin.”

Soon enough, but not yet this season, there will be one of those snowfalls on campus where the balance of moisture and temperature produces large flakes of snow – the kind of snow that can be compressed and will hold its shape. Snow is never just snow; quantity and quality matter for shovelers, drivers, skiers and snowboarders, electrical power-line repair crews and emergency planners, and the child in each of us that yearns to throw a snowball or give three-dimensional form to imagination.

From the earliest days of the College, compressed spheroids of snow have been a projectile of choice for students, whether aimed at a professor’s top hat, another student, or a dormitory window. By the 1820s the published “Rules of the College” identified deliberate injury to a building as a punishable offense. The quantity of window-pane fragments that are recovered from any trench or pit excavated adjacent to the dormitories is the tangible evidence for a practice described in the 1919 Bugle:

“It used to be the custom during snow balling time for the college students to line up outside the dormitories and break as many windows with snow balls as possible.”

Confronted with a building façade of broken windows, the single maintenance worker assigned to the job might take a few cold winter days to make the necessary repairs, allowing each student ample opportunity to contemplate the consequences of their actions. Then, as now, a thrown snowball may be a playful invitation to engage in interpersonal or collective competition or an unwelcome and unpleasant surprise. Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured an impromptu snowball fight on film for a January 8, 1940, LIFE magazine article on Bowdoin Houseparty Weekend. Perhaps the largest snowball ever hurled at a Bowdoin building was delivered in a slow-motion roll, as students from West Hall blocked a door to Osher Hall with a snow sphere measuring in excess of five feet in diameter, following an April 2007 storm.

I don’t know when the first snow sculptures appeared on the Bowdoin campus, or whether there was an evolution from the simple two- or three-tier snow figure to sculptures of grander artistic vision. In October of 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s children story “The Snow Image” was published in The International Magazine. In the tale, two young children create a figure out of snow to serve as a playmate, and their imagination brings it to life. Their father, a practical man, didn’t grasp the magical nature of the snow image, nor did he appreciate the threat posed to enchanted snow people by interior heated spaces. A century later, Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys recorded the song “Frosty the Snowman,” which drew on many of the same themes as Hawthorne’s story, such as the life-giving power of imagination and the skepticism of adults. The animated cartoon of the same name made its television debut in 1969.

Traditionally, Winter’s Weekend has been the occasion when Bowdoin students are most likely to engage in sculpting snow to express themselves politically, socially, and aesthetically. Over the years there have been competitions among fraternities, dormitories, or groups of students for the title of best snow sculpture, often on a particular topic. The 1960 Mississippi riverboat (television show theme) built by the members of Alpha Delta Phi attracted considerable attention, as did a short-lived 1970 Psi Upsilon sculpture of two polar bears mating (coeducation theme) that tested – and discovered – the boundaries of public acceptance of artistic expression on Maine Street. Growing up in Brunswick, I remember seeing a Venus de Milo of snow that gleamed whiter than Carrara marble (“World Peace without Arms” – Cold War theme), a polar bear engineer on a locomotive of snow, a Statue of Liberty, a camel kneeling between two pyramids, a likeness of JFK’s head, dragons, and other wonders of the winter world.

The 1960 Mississippi riverboat snow sculpture (television show theme) built by the members of Alpha Delta Phi.

I hope that alumni will share their own memories of snow images from their days at Bowdoin in their comments on this column. As you enjoy the warmth of the holiday season, please remember that the snow images into which you breathe the life of creativity and imagination will not fare well near a stove or radiator.

Best wishes for 2011!

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


  1. Peter H. Dragonas, M. D.,'59 says:

    What is the date set for BOWDION,s snow and ice sculpters to CELEBRATE ” THE POLAR BEAR FESTIVAL”?. Profits could go to “SAVE THE GREAT WHITE BEAR of the NORTH”. HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL THE WHITES PHDRAGONASMD ’59

  2. Jim Winninghoff says:

    I remember the walk from the tip of Mere Point to Birch Island across the frozen section of Casco Bay in January of 1977. A little tricky at the tide line, but a spectacular walk!

  3. P F HEALEY ' 73 says:

    As always, great article. I had a hand in the fabrication of the mating Polar Bears at Psi U in ’70. You may recall that after the instruction was given to disengage the love struck bears, there miraculously was a vast number of baby bears over the lawn. It was a classic circle of life demo for the Township.
    Keep the stories coming,

  4. During the winter of 1963 I was a freshman at the Kappa Sigma house, not at all sure how I was supposed to get involved in the Great Snow Sculpture experience. That year the theme was “I Like Bowdoin Because…” To the best of my recollection, fellow Kappa Sig freshman Roy Boone came up with the winning answer, “…Bowdoin Makes Bud Wiser.”

    I found myself in the midst of a throng of “Jolly Kappa Sigmas” creating a towering beer wagon pulled by a suitably oversized Polar Bear. When it was discovered that I had what passed for some artistic ability, I got the job of sculpting the driver and, for good measure, a Dalmation dog at his side on the high seat.

    Kappa Sigma won the trophy that year.

  5. Dave Larsson says:

    Peter, I always felt deprived that I hadn’t been there for the glorious love bears: it sounded so legendary, and still does. John, thanks again for a great article. Aside from kayaks on the quad, which was really a snow melt event rather than a snow event, what I vividly remember about snow at Bowdoin was a disaffected fellow freshman in Hyde Hall going out in the first major snowfall of 1972-73 and tracing with his boots the very large capital letters of an epithetic verb, followed by the name of our dear alma mater.

  6. Bill Chapman '63 says:

    As an AD Freshman, I remember building the steamboat. Many hours of hard work. I can’t ID the date in the picture.

  7. Campbell Cary says:

    I don’t recall any snow sculptures in the winter of 1942-43 but I do remember the wooden duck boards with a horse drawn plow to clear the snow on major campus paths . Thank goodness for Bean boots ,

  8. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    What I remember most is the variability. After flying home to Seattle for Christmas I never knew what would greet me upon my return to Bowdoin. Some years I’d come back to hardly any snow, others would surprise me with 4-5′. I do know that I was always glad to be back. The whole concept of frozen inlets and rivers, some with cars driving around on them was pretty entertaining too.

  9. Louis Bruno Briasco '69 says:

    When I was a sophomore, my mother and brother drove to Brunswick so I could use our car to take a driving test in Bath. There was a blizzard and they got stuck in Brunswick. Bill Whiteside graciously put my mother up in one of the guest suites in Chamberlain Hall. He was such a gentleman/ gentle man. As for the snow sculptures, we had a camel and a pyramid outside of Chi Psi in 1968. The caption, I believe thanks to Harry George, “I’d really walk a mile for a camel!”

  10. Peter Bevins "73 says:

    Peter Healey beat me to it. Dean Paul Nyhus had some uncharted ground scrambling to justify a decision that the pair of polar bears should be dismantled rather than leave them up to slowly melt away together. After a search, I haven’t been able to dig up a photograph on short notice. Stephen Hannock helped supervise artisticly and if we can dig up a picture of the sculpture, perhaps we should add it to his impressive Wikipedia information.

  11. John Ottaviani '79 says:

    The snow sculptures for Winters’ Weekend 1978 apparently were tame by comparison to those of earlier winters. The theme — Lord of the Rings — produced predictable dragons and wizards, but I don’t recall that any of them tested the bounds of public decency. We spent many hours on the Zeta Psi entry, a massive Smaug the dragon that spanned the width of the driveway circle in front of the Zete house. I can’t remember who won, but certainly ours was the largest sculpture that year!

    A few pictures can be viewed at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=259537&id=656862568&l=3bc895fb13

  12. Dick Buttner '50 says:

    I can remember ice skating to Adams Hall from the DU house for 1:30 class, using only campus paths.

  13. Don Weston says:

    I remember when living across from the Beta house in an upstair’s apt. and jumping out the 2nd floor window as the snow had drifted against the door. The only way to get to class! One of my wonderful memories while @ Bowdoin.

  14. Tom Holland '62 says:

    In the interest of (spelling) accuracy, the Venus de Milo snow sculpture, which was a TD creation, was titled “World PIECE Without Arms”…for obvious reasons. Another classic sculpture from around the same time, was “The Thinker” rendered in snow, proudly seated on a toilet. Ah, the benefits of a liberal arts education!

  15. What a sweet memory from the winter of ’70. Hats off to “Hogman” for his artistic endeavors. He will know who I mean. One other thing I remember about that winter. It got so cold one week (-30 to -40 below), that the door to my Volvo SNAPPED off its hinges and flew into the snow, when it hit a hidden piece of ice. Don’t ask what the door was doing open, as the car was moving. Happy Winter to all Polar Bears!

  16. Peter H. and Peter B. covered it well! The Urgent Ursi! It was a work of art and perfect mischief! Sorry, no picture here either…just in vivid LOL memory! I also spent a lot of time down at Mere, Harpswell, Bailey, Orr’s, and Popham Beach during the winter – beautiful!

  17. William Hoar '67 says:

    Somewhere among some of my old Polaroids is a shot of our freshman display at Chi Psi — which I think won that year. It was a well-sculpted groin-gripping superhero then immensely popular on TV: the cowled crusader urgently demanding to know “Where’s the Bat-room?!” I believe I came up with that idea, but I’m not sure whether to claim credit or take the blame.

  18. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    Eric Weis, I remember riding in that Volvo going home and back to Bowdoin for Winter break in ’69 or ’70. It had both doors at the time.

  19. Bob Lakin '68 says:

    I remember jumping off the second floor balcony of the DKE house and doing spread eagles into the snow bank below. That was great until the snow got fairly compacted. The snow sculptures were always wonderful including the huge polar bear driven locomotive made by the DKE freshmen. Thanks John for revisiting these moments.

  20. Bob Johnson'55 says:

    I remember riding back from Framingham,Mass. in Steve Bowen’s jeep, towing a truckload (jeepload?) of sheep for his family farm in either Gray or Green, Maine. Enroute, we swung into a section of urban Boston to pick up our friend, Neil Alter. (This created something of a stir as we hauled our noisy barnyard friends through the city.) We dropped of Neil at the ARU house, and parked the sheep for the night in the Delta Sig parking lot, whereupon we were serenaded all night with loud variations of the “Whiffenpoof Song”.

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