Baccalaureate 2012: Voices from Bowdoin’s Past

Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster delivered “Voices from Bowdoin’s Past,” a Bowdoin Baccalaureate tradition, in which he shares the story of how the Polar Bear came to be the College mascot.

Why a Polar Bear???

Tim Foster

There are all sorts of theories and legends about why this majestic animal was chosen to be the mascot of Bowdoin College. The reasons are deeply rooted in the history of our College through the lives and accomplishments of some of our most intrepid graduates. And they are linked to what these early Bowdoin alumni and their peers saw as characteristics necessary for human success: confidence, resourcefulness, fortitude, and endurance.

Each of us on this campus has, many times over, walked past the glass case in the hallway between Morrell Gym and the Buck Fitness Center. Inside that case is Bowdoin’s original polar bear. How this magnificent creature ended up in Brunswick — and why — are the subjects of my remarks today.

We all know the story of Admiral Robert Peary, Class of 1877, who was the first explorer to reach the North Pole. While Peary and his benefactor, Thomas Hubbard, Class of 1857, are responsible for connecting Bowdoin to Arctic exploration, neither could take direct credit for establishing the polar bear as Bowdoin’s beloved mascot. That honor goes to Admiral Donald B. MacMillan of the Class of 1889.

A member of the Peary expedition that reached the Pole in 1909, MacMillan would continue his work in the Arctic throughout the next half-century, with many Bowdoin graduates serving with him in more than 30 trips into Arctic waters. It was on one of those trips that our bear was brought back to Bowdoin.

The decision to officially adopt the polar bear as the emblem of Bowdoin College was taken not here in Brunswick, but on Broadway in New York City at the Sherman Square Hotel. There, in 1913 during the 43th annual meeting of the Bowdoin College Alumni Association, diners decided it was high time that the College had a mascot to match Princeton’s tiger or Yale’s bulldog. A bulldog? Really?!?  Beats a mule I guess.

Of course, the vote was the easy part. It was left to MacMillan, to figure out how to produce a polar bear for the new trophy room in Sargent Gym — a feat quite a bit more challenging than introducing a leashed bulldog to New Haven!

MacMillan was thrilled with the choice. “In the selection of Nanuq, the King of the North,” he said, “Bowdoin has selected well. Upon him, she can place her trust.

His courage has never failed. His strength is beyond belief. His vitality is astounding.

Seen a hundred miles from land swimming along with easy strokes, not a particle of ice in sight;
seen in a gale in Baffin Bay on an ice pan, almost concealed by flying spray freezing as it strikes;
seen in the darkness of the long winter night with the temperature at fifty and sixty below zero.
And seen in the spring, mounted on an iceberg looking out over glittering ice fields, he seems an inherent part of the Great White North, a true representative of it all.

As it turned out, MacMillan would come across a lone abandoned bear cub while crossing Smith Sound. The 40-pounder was captured and initially lashed to MacMillan’s sledge, but eventually untied and allowed to travel on its own.

MacMillan described what happened next:

When the lashing was removed, “he followed at my heels for fifteen miles. Henceforth, ‘Bowdoin,’ as I called him, was my boon companion. He climbed the big hills in search of flowers; the cliffs for the eggs of the burgomaster gull. We roamed the stretches of those silent fiords. With the passing of the days, his strength increased. I harnessed him to my sledge—always going where he wanted to go, never where I did!

One night, Bowdoin escaped. MacMillan found him the next morning, seated on top of a box and staring intently at distant islands out in the harbor. As MacMillan remembered…

He hardly noticed my approach. I sat down beside him. I understood. Far off at the edge of the ice I caught the silvery sheen of the open waters of Smith Sound, and knew that in him there was being awakened a desire to contend, to struggle, to fight for his food, that which makes life sweet.

As you, the members of the Class of 2012, contemplate your time at Bowdoin and think about the challenges and opportunities ahead, I’m sure you can relate to MacMillan’s interpretation of his cub’s fixed stare.

Donald B. MacMillan

As MacMillan said so beautifully:

It has come to us all—a teacher in the classroom, the physician hurrying to the bedside of a patient, the lawyer preparing briefs.

Through and beyond it all we catch the glitter of the ocean, the grandeur of a particular mountain, the winding of a familiar stream, the waving and the music of evergreens, the sound of the rapids, the smell of a wood fire—the call of primitive [humankind] echoing down through the centuries.

Here for my cub there was a home, plenty of food, a life of ease.

But out there more than this—an opportunity to match his strength, his cunning, his patience, his powers of endurance against violent winds, a tossing sea, a grinding ice pack, the antagonistic elements of the Arctic.

For this he was born.

One week later, MacMillan’s cub was gone — as you will be after tomorrow — and he did not end up in Brunswick.

The bear in the glass case outside Morrell Gym is not “Bowdoin the cub.” The bear that is so familiar to us all was brought here after an encounter in North Greenland with 30 of MacMillan’s dogs, several of which were killed or seriously injured when they encircled the much more powerful polar bear.

Presented to the College by MacMillan, this bear — our bear “from his home almost within the shadow of the North Pole” — stands today facing north, toward the Artic. For nearly a century, the polar bear has stood for what MacMillan intended when he made his gift to the College. It is, as he said, “the guardian spirit of every Bowdoin man” and woman.

You, members of the Class of 2012, are and always will be Bowdoin Polar Bears and members of Polar Bear Nation. Yes … As you know, sometimes the bear will bite you and sometimes you will bite the bear.

But, I hope you will take pride in this emblem of your College and that this association with a magnificent creature imbedded in Bowdoin history will inspire and encourage you as you match your own strengths, talents, and powers of persistence and perseverance against the challenges of life ahead.