Remarks by President Barry Mills at the Dedication of the Edwards Center for Art and Dance

More than 120 people gathered in Main Lounge on Friday, October 11, as the College officially dedicated the new Robert H. and Blythe Bickel Edwards Center for Art and Dance, located on South Street in the former Longfellow Elementary School. Blythe Bickel Edwards and President Emeritus Robert H. Edwards spoke before dinner, with President Barry Mills closing the evening with thanks to all those involved in the project, and with gratitude for the many contributions to Bowdoin by Blythe and Bob Edwards.

IMG_8530 copyI’m really delighted to welcome you all here tonight. This is a big night for Bowdoin, as we celebrate the opening of an extraordinarily important building at our College. But, of course, it’s not about the building. It’s about what happens in that building. We care about important architecture at this College, but what we really care about is what happens within the walls of these buildings.

The Longfellow Project—and I think it’s important to start with remembering it as “The Longfellow Project”—is really something we’ve aspired to achieve for a long time. This is a building that stands next to Coles Tower and Thorne Hall, and as the town decided what it was planning to do with the building, we stood quietly in the background. The last thing Bowdoin College wanted to do was to seek to close a building that is beloved to so many people in this town.

So, due to the great work of Don Gerrish and Joanne King and Gary Brown — all town leaders — we were able to negotiate a deal with the town. Now, it’s fair to say that this deal would have never happened but for the work of Bill Torrey and Katy Longley. Bill and Katie had their own independent relationships in the town of Brunswick. One day they said to me, “The town leaders want to speak with you about a swap.” And so, I said, “Okay, let’s meet.”

So, we met. It was Bill, Katy, me, and the people from town. These folks said: “We’d like to swap Longfellow for McLellan.” So, in my typical uncertain, always-in-doubt fashion, I said, “Okay, let’s do it.” Katy and Bill looked at me and said, “Well, there’re a lot of details here.” I said, “No, don’t worry about it. We’ll make this deal work.”

But it’s fair to say that without the relationships that Bill and Kay had with the people in town, the level of trust we had with the town of Brunswick would not have been possible.  And so, the town of Brunswick and Bowdoin College came together to create an opportunity for the town to make the McLellan Building the town council offices and the municipal offices, and for us to make Longfellow a new home for art and dance at Bowdoin.

Our director of capital projects, Don Borkowski, shepherded this project. We all know Don and the miracles he pulls off for this College year in and year out. And we all know how fantastic it is to have him here at Bowdoin. Thank you, Don.

…when I walk in those rooms, I share some of the experiences that the people in this room remember; remembering what that building means to all of us who are from Brunswick. That building has a real history.

And then John Moriarty, who couldn’t be here tonight. John is a Bowdoin parent. His daughter, Claire, graduated from Bowdoin in 2009. He’s from Concord, Massachusetts, and he is a very accomplished contractor in the Boston area. John was very helpful in helping us envision how we could take an elementary school and convert it into the project we have today. Now, truth be told—and many of the trustees know this—I thought initially we would acquire the building, give the keys to Mark Wethli, and say, “It’s all yours. Figure it out,” and let Mark and his colleagues on the faculty do whatever they wanted to do.

But of course, we did not do that. John and his team—Eric Harstad and Emil Hoogendoorn—really helped us think through how we could efficiently, thoughtfully, and economically renovate this building. I can’t exaggerate the importance of John Moriarty to this project, and I really want to thank him publically for his commitment.

And now, our friends from Cambridge Seven: Bert Bremer, who has worked on many, many projects here at the college, and Timothy Mansfield. Timothy and Bowdoin have a long relationship. He and I have spent a lot of time together. In fact, many of us have spent a lot of time working with Timothy—standing out by the polar bear in the rain looking at the colors in the Buck Center to understand whether we were building an elementary school or a fitness center at Bowdoin College, and trying to make sure that the project was fitting for the architecture of this College (and, Bob, it’s gratifying to me that you recognize the real transformation that the Buck Center has had for Bowdoin).

Timothy had an invaluable ability to take the Longfellow School and to navigate through all of the wonderful desires that others had for what the building would become. He is really right up there with George Mitchell as one of the great negotiators of peace in our time! As we walked through the building, people said to me, “It’s really unbelievably special that you’ve maintained the integrity of this great old building, but you’ve created this really cool New York City vibe in Brunswick, Maine.”

I think that’s what we intended to do when we started, and, Timothy, I really want to thank you for creating a very important project for our College. It is a fantastic building.  It’s an imaginative and inspired design, but, more importantly, it is the home for many, many talented students and enormously talented faculty, who will, within the walls of that building, make great things happen at Bowdoin for generations to come. Thank you, Timothy.

And then, of course, for those of you who know me even a little bit, on time, on budget is very important. Peter Warren and David Merrill from Warren Construction Company, I think you probably saw a little bit too much of me as classes were beginning and I was walking the halls, but this is a fantastic project. We started this project not so long ago, and it’s done. It’s open. It’s beautifully constructed. The work is artfully done, and it was, both from my perspective and from the perspective, I’m told, of everyone who worked on the project, a real joy to work with you folks. Thank you very much for making this a fantastic building and a process and an economic conclusion that makes a lot of good sense for Bowdoin College.

…today we recognize how important the arts are to the centrality of the liberal arts. We recognize that in our curriculum. We recognize that in the work that our students do, in the way we support our faculty, in the way we enable and encourage our faculty to do better and more important work, and in the way we celebrate our students.

And then there were many other people. Remember this is a College and we have committees. We have all kinds of program committees to help design these buildings, and there were lots of folks who were involved. But, Bob, I do have to say that you have shown your real sense of what’s important by recognizing Cristle and what she does here at this College. Cristle’s leadership in the creation of this building was largely the inspiration for why we are where we are today. So, thank you, Cristle, and thanks to the committee.

Then, we have the fabulous faculty who worked long and hard and thoughtfully and flexibly. That’s important when you’re building projects like we’re building. So, Paul Sarvis in the dance department and Jim Mullen and Mike Kolster in the art department were really essential in creating a home for themselves that is vital to the future of Bowdoin College.

And it’s fair to say that there’s one person in this room who I know Bob and Blythe would not have created a project at Bowdoin College without. And, whenever I do anything that has anything to do with aesthetics—knowing my own sensibilities and lack of them—I call Mark Wethli. If Mark Wethli says it’s okay to do, then I believe it’s okay to do. So, as you look around this campus, I think it’s fair to say whether you’re in Smith Union or you’re looking at the most recent renovation and landscape around Moulton Union or you’re looking at what happens on College Street or you look at this fabulous new building, Mark’s influence is intimately and creatively important. He is both committed to the real history of this College and to the boldness of our future. So, Mark, I want to thank you, especially because I’ve called on you too many times.

So, let me talk briefly about Longfellow School. There are many residents of Brunswick in this room. Karen and I moved to Brunswick more than 12 years ago, when our youngest was in the second grade. Every morning I would wake George up—George is now a junior in college—and we would walk across campus and I would take him to Longfellow School. And so, when I walk in those rooms, I share some of the experiences that the people in this room remember; remembering what that building means to all of us who are from Brunswick. That building has a real history. It has a real emotion for all of us as we took our young kids to the schools. So, I remember Mr. D. and all the people who really helped George, and it’s pretty cool to think that this building is now part of Bowdoin.

As I look around the room, with so many people here with had deep, deep connections to the Longfellow School, I think it’s essential that we remember the history of that building. So, on Saturday, November 2nd, we’re going to host an open house for the people of Brunswick so that they can understand what we have both enhanced and preserved, and so that they can all remember what it was like to have those second-graders screaming through the halls!

Why do we name buildings for people? Well, certainly to honor them, as we’re honoring Bob and Blythe tonight. But, more importantly, for the future of this College. It’s so that when people walk by the Edwards Center who may be the grandchildren of the youngest trustees in this room, they’ll look at that building and ask, “Who were Bob and Blythe Edwards and what did they do for Bowdoin College?”

This is an important building for Bowdoin. It’s an important building because it is now the home of vital programs that have long, long histories at this College. Blythe mentioned Tom Cornell who was once the only studio art professor at Bowdoin, and June Vail and the work she did with the dance program here at the College. One can’t help but look back at these and other people and say that Bowdoin is the place it is today because lots of people have done really, really invauable work.

It wasn’t always true, as Bob has described, that the arts were important at this College. But today we recognize how important the arts are to the centrality of the liberal arts. We recognize that in our curriculum. We recognize that in the work that our students do, in the way we support our faculty, in the way we enable and encourage our faculty to do better and more important work, and in the way we celebrate our students.

And so, it is entirely fitting that this College has committed itself to this building. In doing so, we send a message to students when they come to look at Bowdoin that this is a place where there is a spectacular art and dance faculty, and where we have a facility that will allow them achieve in an excellent way.

A couple of years ago, a student from the Bowdoin Orient called me, and asked, “How do you name buildings at Bowdoin? How do you decide whose names to put on a building?” Of course what they were looking for me to say is, “You tell me how much and we’ll put your name on a building,” right?  That’s of course what they were looking for. And, by the way, if anybody is interested in another building, I’ll meet you across the hall.

But all that being said, let’s remember our history. We understand the importance of teaching and learning history, but also the importance of remembering it. And we do stand on the shoulders of people who have been enormously important to this college. So if we think about Howell and Coles, Sills and Hyde, Chamberlain and Appleton, McKeen and Greason, we think back upon people whose names are linked to buildings on this campus; people who did, in their time, extraordinary work for this College.

As one who sits as the leader of this place, I am absolutely confident that every single person who sat where I sit made decisions in furtherance of the common good that were designed to be the best for this College at the time, and that they made those decisions in good faith, with intelligence, and with ambition for this College. And so, why do we name buildings for people? Well, certainly to honor them, as we’re honoring Bob and Blythe tonight. But, more importantly, for the future of this College. It’s so that when people walk by the Edwards Center who may be the grandchildren of the youngest trustees in this room, they’ll look at that building and ask, “Who were Bob and Blythe Edwards and what did they do for Bowdoin College?”

This place is fundamentally different because of the strength and wisdom of these two folks to change the school in ways that has made it the really incredible College it is today.

That will renew the history of this place, and they will learn about two people who came to this College when it was an excellent place, but recognized it was important to reinforce that excellence in ways that would make Bowdoin a fantastic liberal arts college in the 20th century; people who recognized that excellence and ambition for Bowdoin College is what we are about; people who recognized the importance of bringing to this College the most talented faculty and encouraging them and enabling them to be great; people who recognize the importance of creating a staff here who love Bowdoin College; people who brought to this College fantastic students with the desire to achieve and create; and people who were prepared to make hard decisions.

There was no more important decision for Bowdoin and its history (at least in recent history) than the decision to change fundamentally the residential life of this College.  And when one thinks about the successes and achievements that we’ve had over the past number of years, none is more important than the fact that Bowdoin has created a residential life experience for our students that is second to none in ways that other colleges and universities like us have been unable to do. This has allowed us to attract students who feel so closely connected to this College that even those who lived at Bowdoin at the high point of fraternities here were never as connected to the College as the students who’ve graduated in the last ten years.

And so, as we look around Bowdoin and we see fantastic buildings and wonderful architecture, incredible programs, and fantastic faculty who are at Bowdoin College today because of Bob and Blythe, all of that is true, but this place is fundamentally different because of the strength and wisdom of these two folks to change the school in ways that has made it the really incredible College it is today.

In the years to come, people will walk by that building and they will see “Edwards” on that door and they’ll ask, “Who are they?” and they’ll learn. They’ll understand the values that this College represents, and they’ll understand the history of this place and why we are what we are. We stand on the shoulders of fantastic people—in this case very, very tall people, but also shoulders of people who always understood that this is a special place and who had the intelligence and the will to ensure that it would stay an important place forever. So, it’s entirely appropriate tonight that we celebrate the Edwards Center for Art and Dance; a building that celebrates these two fantastic people who have a legacy at this College that will be important forever.

This is one special place, and as people have always said, we are all incredibly fortunate to have been able to be connected to this College. For the trustees, you have to get up early tomorrow morning. There’s more work to be done to make this place great, but I want to thank you all for being here tonight. Thanks very much.