By Ruth Rowe Wilson ’36
While Maine and the nation mourn the loss of a great statesman, Ed Muskie’s Bates contemporaries are mourning a different loss, the loss of a great friend whose honesty, fairness, and loyalty defined what we all love about Bates.Remembering Ed Muskie has been a journey into the past for us, to the early 1930s at Bates, where friendships blossomed into lifetime relationships. The era — the depths of the Great Depression — was a time when “a Bates man was known by the patch on the seat of his pants,” a description coined by K. Gordon Jones ’35. Like many of his classmates, Ed Muskie worked his way through College and depended on the self-sacrifice of his parents. They lived in Rumford, where his father, a Polish immigrant, owned a small tailor shop.
During College, Muskie had a summer hotel job in Kennebunkport and was a dorm proctor and a head waiter in John Bertram Hall, then the men’s dining hall. When Muskie ran out of money the last term of senior year, he went to Dean Harry Rowe ’12 (my father), who told him to go back to class, not to worry. As Norm Ross ’22, then the College bursar, said, “We had an anonymous godfather, George Lane, who wrote a check to help worthy students. Ed was a country boy who worked hard and was worth our recommendation for help. We didn’t go to the well too often, but he thought a lot of Bates students and helped when they were up against it for cash.”
By the time our 20th Reunion arrived in 1956, Muskie was Maine governor. Ed and Jane hosted a reception at the Blaine House, an occasion marked by their warm and unpretentious hospitality, Jane’s lovely peony arrange-ments, and Ed’s sense of fun. He put everyone at ease, took candid pictures, and at one point lined up all the bald-pated fellows for a group photo. And at our 50th Reunion, Muskie was again the beloved center of our attention. That fall, the College dedicated the Muskie Archives. We were thrilled when President Carter said that “Ed Muskie should have been president of the United States.”
Classmates remember the good times spent with the Muskies. Some friend-ships began back with the cribbage crowd in Room 11 of Parker Hall, a half-dozen men who later organized a tournament as an excuse to get together over Christmas or New Year’s, originally in the Boston area. A Paul Revere bowl, dedicated to the late classmate E. Howard Buzzell as a memorial cribbage tournament trophy, made the rounds for thirty years with Ed Muskie a frequent winner.
In their jobs as proctors in East Parker, Ed Muskie and Joe Biernacki ’36 shared responsibility as mentors and in keeping order, not always a simple task. But whatever the job, Muskie always had a good sense of humor and could take a joke as well as make one. At a 1978 Rotary Club dinner, Dean Rowe poked fun at Muskie by calling him “the worst proctor Parker Hall ever had. Ed, you were terrible. We had more windows broken and more trash cans thrown down the steps during your senior year than and ever before or since.”
Across campus at J.B., Muskie and Biernacki worked as head waiters in Men’s Commons, an experience chiefly remembered for Ed’s attempts at diplomacy, his back to the door, holding back a hungry crowd until it was time to open the dining room. As governor of Maine, Muskie once gave a lecture at Skidmore College, where my husband, Val Wilson ’38, was president. Val, a former J.B. waiter under Muskie, introduced Muskie not as the governor of Maine but as the former head waiter at John Bertram Hall.
There was the time when Berne and Joe Biernacki, heading up to Rangeley on their honeymoon, stopped at Muskie’s China Lake camp outside Augusta. Ed, intrigued by the good fishing in Rangeley (and single at the time), hopped in the car and joined them! A few years later, when the Muskies were on their honeymoon, the Biernackis went along.
Larry Butler ’36 remembers taking time off from work to accompany the Humphrey-Muskie campaign in 1968. His wife, Louise, spent the summer in Kennebunkport with the Muskie children while Ed and Jane were on the road. The Butlers attended Muskie’s funeral on March 30, and they were moved by the eulogies that emphasized his accomplishments as a “man for the people.”
Kennebunkport native Betty Winston Scott ’36 spoke of summer jobs when she and Muskie worked in different hotels there. She said Ed once even washed her hair in a laundry tub of the old Narragansett Hotel! Scott also went on the Maine Yankee campaign plane, especially as a companion to Jane. She recalls many occasions in recent years when the Scotts, as guests of the Muskies, were invited to state occasions — the Clinton inauguration, the reception at the Democratic Club for U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, whom Muskie had sponsored. “Everywhere we went,” Scott observed, “we were impressed with all the people who spoke to Ed with respect and affection — not just government people, but the porters and guards, some of whom said `God bless you,’ as they walked by.”Thinking back to freshman year, classmate Damon Stetson, former labor reporter for The New York Times, recalls talking politics in Muskie’s Roger Bill room. A great admirer of Roosevelt, Muskie spoke with fervor about what FDR stood for — intimations, perhaps, of a political career even then. For a time, Damon traveled on theMaine Yankee campaign plane, covering stops in the Midwest and South for the Times. Also along was the late Bob Crocker ’38, a reporter for the Associated Press in Portland. They were on the “hop-skip” tour: When the plane landed, a great cheer would erupt from the crowd; the candidates would meet the local folks for several hours, and then take off shortly for the next stop.Lewiston attorney Irving Isaacson ’36 reminisced about traveling on debating trips with Muskie through New England and beyond. Muskie towered over his partner by nearly a foot, and they were dubbed “Mutt and Jeff” by their colleagues. Debates in those days included such topics as the desire of Hawaii to become a state and whether FDR should be reelected.
David Whitehouse ’36, retired businessman, says, “I would like to think that Bates’ debating tradition and Brooks Quimby were major contributors to Ed’s great success, as I know they were to my career.” While on an assignment at a United Nations meeting in Caracas, Muskie lost a golf game — and five dollars — to Whitehouse, who was living and working in Venezuela at the time. Later, when classmate Don Gautier ran for the Maine Legislature as a Republican from Auburn, Muskie saw a chance to win back his five dollars. Whitehouse, “wholly convinced that the people of Maine were sane and solid and would not vote for a Democrat,” bet Muskie on the result. Ed, having already helped resurrect the dormant Democratic Party in Maine, got his five dollars back.
In the 1936 Mirror, under the picture of a thin, lanky Ed Muskie, is the caption “Kings are not born; they are made by universal hallucination,” from Shaw’s Maxim for Revolutionists.
Even back in 1936, Muskie couldn’t stand pretension. Like his Bates classmates, he learned to value relationships based on honesty and fairness. In our memory, Ed Muskie will live as a giant of a man who never forgot his roots.
Ruth Rowe Wilson ’36 is the former editor of Bates Magazine. She currently serves as Class Notes editor.