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Chapter 3: college days at Bowdoin; United States Military Academy

After rising every day except Sundays for three weeks at four o'clock and continuing work until near midnight during the final preparation for college; and after the subsequent trying examinations early in September, one may imagine, weariness and apathy succeeded. I was glad enough to get home to my friends and have a short vacation. The good air, the good water, and the wholesome food at home soon restored me to my normal condition, and father took me to Bowdoin for the fall term, which at that time commenced during the last week in September.

Soon after reaching Bowdoin, before I was fairly settled in my college room in the south end of North Hall, I met a young man, Peleg Sprague Perley, who had belonged to the previous freshman class, but being kept away by illness so much of the year he had concluded to join the class to which I belonged. He was a year my senior in age, and his mother had been in early life my mother's neighbor and school friend, so we readily formed an acquaintance and agreed to room together. He was about my height, with a fair physique, but one hardly strong enough in our trying climate to give him the endurance which his mental capacity and his ambitions demanded. He had a large head and a very active brain. In the languages no [31] man could excel him, but in anything akin to mathematics he had a hard struggle. In these respects he was the reverse, or I might say the complement, of myself. To me mathematical studies were easy and a pleasure and the languages not so readily mastered. We two roomed together during our entire college course. We became fast friends and always exchanged confidences. During the first term at Bowdoin we were, I may say, “broken in” to systematic study. The daily routine embraced “Livy” under Professor Upham, a continuance of the “Odyssey” under Professor Packard, and algebra under Prof. William Smyth. At least once a week every member of our class was obliged to “declaim” before the class under the supervision of Professor Boody. He also caused every student to write themes, which must fill at least two pages of foolscap.

Professor Boody took great pains with our speaking, endeavoring to train us in the right way in all that pertained to elocution. He was equally careful in reviewing and correcting our compositions.

One of the professors was always present in the “Old chapel” where all the students met at dawn for prayers, and President Leonard Woods presided at the evening chapel exercises; his singularly sonorous voice so impressed every student that he never forgot it nor the dignified lessons which came gently yet forcibly from his lips.

As I run over my college diary, and letters which I wrote to my mother and which she always preserved with care, prizing them far beyond their merits, I see the glaring faults of composition in, first, the gradual but slow emancipation from the stiffness of paragraphs, from the stilted manner of conducting a correspondence, [32] and from the use of words that hardly conveyed the meaning intended, to a freer and easier style.

Herein I discover something of the great benefit to a young man taking a classical course simply in this line of review and examination. I realize now the fidelity of our professors, and rejoice in the unfailing personal supervision which they gave to the work of every student under their charge. Our studies went on to embrace the entire course of four years. No important department was neglected. We had not only the dead languages, but considerable instruction in French and German. Attention to chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and astronomy was abreast of that in any college. The harder studies which pertained to metaphysics, such as Butler's “Analogy,” Paley's “Evidences,” and Upham's “Moral Philosophy” were explained by the teachers and mastered by the students.

I feel that I was too young and had too poor a preparation to receive all the benefit that was needful, or the help and discipline which came to many of my classmates who were older and more mature before entering college, but, after all, this classical training was for me in every way a good foundation for my subsequent professional life and for the various requirements of what followed in my career. Indeed, I count the great gain of a college course to be the impression made upon the character of a young man, first, by the professors, and then by daily intercourse with the students.

President Leonard Woods, by his example, earnest, dignified, and sincere, always exacted a high standard .of deportment. His corrections were given with such [33] fidelity and kindness that a student was never discouraged, but rather stimulated by them to do better.

Prof. Thomas O. Upham, a tall man of sixty with head modestly drooping, sat at his desk and reasoned with any delinquent lad in such a fatherly way that even the boy's wrongdoing seemed to be a source of drawing him nearer to a fatherly heart; though the professor had, without any severity of manner or method, a way of getting from a youth anything he wanted to know. In spite of his modesty and retiring disposition, scarcely able to give an address on his feet, Professor Upham was a natural and polished diplomat.

Prof. A. S. Packard differed from the others. He had a fine figure, was very handsome, and wore a pair of gold spectacles; his hair and clothing were always in perfect condition. He was quick to see a student's fault and sometimes corrected it with severity, sometimes wittily, but he conveyed the impression of the highest order of gentility. He was, in fact, the student's beau ideal of a Christian gentleman.

When we came to modern languages we had Professor Goodwin, whose mind was replenished with knowledge and so clear cut in its action that every student felt at once his superiority. He was quicktempered and at times irascible, and resented any attempted humor on the part of a pupil; but the lessons he gave were settled in his own mind, and the student could not well forget them. Besides his teaching the languages, he often gave us brief historical lectures of a high order.

Professor Smyth's unruly hair had already begun to whiten; he had good health, was interested in everything that concerned the college or the welfare of the [34] village. He was rather above the medium height, had a fine head and face, models for an artist. His large gray eyes when not abstracted beamed with kindness; yet the students who disliked mathematics called him “Ferox,” more from his earnest pursuit of a matter in hand, regardless of chalk and dust, than from any severity of look or act.

Prof. Parker Cleveland was the oldest teacher when I came. He had been for over forty years connected with Bowdoin. His forte was chemistry. His lectures to students, including the medical classes, were plain, clear, and beautiful, not at all behind the times. Chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and astronomy could not be pursued as now with the new splendid opportunities for individual experiments, but in these subjects the venerable professor made ours the equal of any existing college. The man himself was grand. His face was strong, like that of Bismarck. No student would willingly receive a reprimand from him. His looks with a few words were enough for a delinquent lad. Though he was a great scholar and indeed a manly man, yet he had, it was said, a peculiar weakness. He was nearly paralyzed with fear in a thunder storm and resorted to an insulated stool for safety; he would never step into a railway coach, but rode in his own chaise from Brunswick to Boston when duty called him to Massachusetts. In spite of his rough exterior he had a tender heart for young men and we all loved him.

During the freshman year a young man had all the old trials in the way of hazing; holdings — in at the chapel; football miscarriages; smokings-out; baths at the pump; casting the remains of nightly feasts into his room and such like performances, that some sophomores, [35] aided by other fun-loving boys from the higher classes, could give him. When my roommate and I came to the sophomore year we determined to abstain from such practices. In fact, as he had belonged to the previous class he proved to be quite a mascot of prevention to his roommate during the first and second years.

As I think of my college course, and in fact of all my school life, I see that I had in mind very clearly defined one purpose, and that was to accomplish what I undertook in spite of the obstacles thrown in my way. The means of my family, so far as I was concerned, were very limited, and I desired greatly to teach a district school the first winter, but in spite of every effort which I made I could not at sixteen convince the school committees that I was old enough to undertake the teaching and government of forty or fifty scholars. Though fully grown, I had no beard, and my face was yet that of a youth emerging into manhood. “O Otis, you are too young altogether!” the Chairman of the Leeds Committee declared.

That winter vacation, however, was a very important one to me. It was a complete rest from study and very much enlivened by social intercourse with young people in Leeds and the neighboring towns. My roommate, Perley, lived with his parents, brothers, and sisters in Livermore, which was separated from Leeds by the Androscoggin River. He invited me to visit him. I did so for a few days. His mother gave him and me a pleasant evening party of young people from the neighborhood. Among the girls there came to the party a young lady visiting her relatives in the vicinity, who was a cousin of Perley. During the evening I made her acquaintance. She was about two [36] years younger than I, but very mature for her age. As two or three of us were chatting together that evening, I related some of my mischievous performances, probably exaggerating them, when with her large, dark eyes she looked into mine and said, “Mr. Howard, do you think that was right?”

I may here say that this little contretemps eventuated in a lifelong relationship. The acquaintance ripened into a correspondence which absorbed my heart and much of my leisure during the college course. After this my purpose to do well, to accomplish what I undertook, and to make a success of life never faltered.

The next winter I was able to get a school in the district where I was born. Here I began to teach for $14 a month. The following winter I had a large district school in East Livermore and received for my hard work $18 per month, and part of the time I had the very pleasant experience of “boarding round.” Of course, the master, during his week with a family, always had the very best. After a month, however, I was relieved from the wear and tear of it by an aged widow who found me so useful and companionable that she requested the privilege of boarding the master at her house.

In the fall of 1849 I stayed out of college and conducted a high school at Wayne Village; and the following winter was employed in our home district and enabled to board at home under my mother's care. This was the most difficult and trying of all my experiences in school-teaching, owing to the school being composed of boys and girls of all ages from five years to twentyone and without any proper classification, and further, owing to the fact that I had previously been a [37] scholar in the same school. I managed, however, to get through the winter without any serious difficulty. There were threatenings from some of the young men who felt sure that they could “put the master out” in a contest of strength, and there was at times a troublesome independence on the part of some of the larger girls who had known me as their companion in social life. To them I was hardly “master,” but simply Otis Howard.

The help that came from my school wages and from my mother's economy and self-denial paid all the expenses at Bowdoin which, including my preparatory course, cost a sum in the neighborhood of $1,100. So small an expense seems to-day hardly possible, but at Brunswick I joined what was called a club where the students themselves, twelve or less, organized and chose a good purveyor from their own number to serve without pay. He employed a family which did the cooking and served the table. The table furniture descended from generation to generation, being added to, now and then, when there was a deficiency or a breakage. During my course I belonged to four different establishments of this kind. Habitually the cost to each of us in the club was $1 per week. Sometimes it slightly exceeded this amount. The highest that was paid at any club was $1.75 per week.

During my last year, with several classmates of special selection, I boarded at Mrs. Hall's, not far from the Tontine Hotel, for $1.50 per week.

This board did not include what was called the term bill, which, for room rent, tuition, and incidentals, was paid to the treasurer of the college.

In my class were thirty-six students. One only, Dr. Holmes, a surgeon in the army, died during the Civil [38] War. Another, William P. Frye, of just my age, truly a most distinguished citizen, is now a United States Senator and President pro ter. of the United States Senate. John S. Sewall, D. D., for a time in the United States Navy, has just retired with accumulated honor from the Presidency of the Bangor Theological Seminary. Carroll S. Everett was, long before his death, a professor in Harvard College and at the head of the Divinity School of that institution.

My classmates were scattered hither and thither over the country. Some were lawyers, some were physicians, and several were clergymen of different denominations. With scarcely an exception the record of each has been most worthy, and I am proud to-day of those living; they are still doing important work in the world.

The oldest, most dignified, and perhaps the hardest worker when in college was John N. Jewett. His parents had moved from Maine to Wisconsin and he came back from Madison to take the Bowdoin course. He was really, while a student, the head of the class. I remember to have tried my hand with him in mathematics, which study we completed at the end of the junior year. The test problem was to be solved by using the calculus. This was the problem as I remember it:

Find the volume generated by revolving a circle about an axis exterior to it; given the radius of the circle and the distance of the axis from the center of the circle.

We both worked at it for some time. One morning I wakened quite early and went to my small blackboard and wrote out its solution. It seemed to have come to me in the night. I ran to Jewett's room. He [39] had not yet obtained the answer; so that my classmates gave me the credit of being the mathematician of the class, though Professor Smyth, with better discrimination, taking in the entire course, gave the palm to my friend Jewett. Jewett and Fuller were for years in the same firm in Chicago. “Mell fuller,” as we called him, was a college friend, though not a classmate, of mine. He is now the Chief Justice of the United States.

As I have said, in the winter vacation of 1846 I met at her cousin's house one who was but a girl just budding into womanhood. She arrested my attention and impressed me more deeply than I then thought. Our acquaintance very soon after that winter ripened into something more than an ordinary friendship. I met her during her visits to Livermore in vacations and I had several times visited her father's house in Portland. I may say that with the approval of our parents we had come, before my graduation, to have a constant and intimate correspondence.

In the fall, while I was conducting a high school at Wayne Village, something happened that threw a heavy cloud of sorrow upon the household to which she belonged. Her father, Alexander Black Waite, superintending a number of workmen engaged in calking one of his vessels, accidently fell through the hatchway to the deck below. This fall gave him such a terrific blow on the head that he never spoke again. He was carried unconscious to his house, where every remedy was applied, but to no purpose, and he very soon breathed his last.

His remains, accompanied by his wife and daughter, were brought to his father's house in Livermore and he was buried with proper ceremony in the cemetery [40] in that vicinity. The news of this fearful calamity came to me with the suddenness of lightning from a clear sky. I went over and was present during those saddest of days.

Alexander B. Waite was still a young man when thus so tragically arrested in the midst of a most promising career. His wife was never quite herself again. The only child, Elizabeth, seemed at first completely overcome.. She gave evidence of intensity of affection for her father and could not repress her grief. From that time it was understood by everybody connected with our two families that we young people were betrothed.

I left the stricken ones to return to my school and as soon as the term was completed went back to Bowdoin for a short time. Then, hard pressed as I was for means, I took my school in the winter.

During the hardest part of that winter, when the snow was deep and a storm raging, my mother on one occasion worked her way on foot from our home to the schoolhouse to bring me an important message. That trip of my good mother, so full of exposure and danger to herself, gave me the strongest impression that I ever had had of my mother's love.

During that year, while I was hard at work in the summer term, preparing for graduation, and while even to my sanguine mind the future was dark enough, I received a letter from my uncle, the Hon. John Otis, then at Washington:

Washington, June 20, 1850.
My Dear Nephew:
From what William (William Otis, his son) writes me to-day, I am of opinion that he will not be accepted at West Point on account of the narrowness of his [41] chest, and want of general physical strength. . . What I wish to know is whether, in case he is not accepted, you would like to have me recommend you or Rowland Bailey (my brother). The advantages you would have are a good constitution and strength for endurance, and you have a good acquaintance with the languages and are fond of mathematics. . . . The applicant must be full sixteen years of age. Is that Rowland's age? He must not be over twenty-one. Please write me your own thoughts before you apply at home.

Yours sincerely, [Signed] John Otis. Oliver Otis Howard.

This was a turning point in my career. What my uncle anticipated with reference to his son took place. He was rejected upon the physical examination. I did not accept the offer at once. It occasioned too radical a change in all my thoughts and plans. I had desired to do something to enable me to lay by money enough to commence and go through a professional course without interruption, and I wanted to be, like my uncle, a lawyer. It had never entered my mind before to be a soldier, and I knew scarcely anything with regard to the Military Academy; but the prospect of bettering my education and having a support while I did so and, if I graduated successfully, a career open which would relieve me from the anxiety of toiling too much for a support, soon determined the case in favor of acceptance. As we were so young, Miss Waite and her friends made no serious objection.

I went home to my mother and laid the whole case before her and think I should have been governed by her wisdom had she decided that I ought not to go into the army, but she looked into my face and said, “My son, you have already made up your mind.” It was the [42] nearest to an objection that she ever made. Her chief thought, often expressed, was that I must be upright in all my intercourse at the Military Academy and take a high stand.

By diligent study I was able to pass all my examinations at Bowdoin and secure my proper degree at graduation, though it was impossible for me to remain with my classmates for the final “commencement.”

It has been my privilege to attend ceremonials at home and abroad of every description and to take in as well as I could notions of precedence, arrangement, and dignity, but I have never been so much impressed as I was with the seniors of Bowdoin College during the last term of our class. Their display at chapel exercises was particularly noticeable, especially at the time of evening prayers. As a rule they wore tall silk hats and a majority of them carried canes. They attached considerable importance to their long coats, their well-selected cravats and standing collars. They usually came with a quick step, to be observed by the other classes, the professors and President Woods, who, through his large spectacles, never let anything escape his attention. As soon as the seniors were seated President Woods arose and gave out a hymn, which was well sung by a choir of selected voices. Then he read a portion of Scripture. Always reverent and yet always cheerful, he offered a prayer, simple and direct, as a prayer should be. It covered the usual ground of confession and entreaty, but always wound up with asking a blessing upon the college, upon our rulers, State and national, and upon “all our fellow men, for the sake and in the name of our Blessed Lord.” The seniors never waited for the last benediction, but as soon as they heard the words “all our fellow [43] men” they rose en masse and marched out with their dignified tread and deportment, much impressing, as it should, the under classmen who were to follow them. The hats were resumed, and the canes, carried under the arm, were taken in hand at the door.

The present beautiful chapel is not the one I found at Bowdoin in 1846, but is a new one, handsomely constructed, which, for a time, answered the purpose of a chapel and a library. After half a century the library, having become altogether too small, has been, through the generosity of an alumnus, General Thomas H. Hubbard, of New York, replaced by a new structure four times as large and in every way conformable to the wonderful growth of the college itself.

Perhaps at no time in my life did I feel so much that I had attained substantial greatness as when, among the seniors with their hats and canes, I passed in and out of the college chapel for the last time.

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