Degrees of Separation
“I remain convinced that Bates is the story of interesting people, not celebrities,” says the Rev. Peter Gomes ’65.
Gomes certainly looks interesting. He’s sitting in a Bates chair on the granite steps of Coram Library, decked out in a garnet T-shirt with huge block letters that read, “Isn’t It Funny… We Still Look the Same!” (at left, with Jim Leamon ’55, professor emeritus of history).
Yup, it must be the Saturday of Reunion, and Gomes is celebrating his 40th — hence the wacky shirt, worn by all members of the Class of ’65 in the Alumni Parade as they carry photos of themselves from the 1965 Mirror.
It is noon, and Gomes has just concluded his Sesquicentennial keynote address to the Reunion audience. He teeters on the brink of celebrity himself as a best-selling author and acclaimed Harvard preacher, but his address is all about embracing Bates’ “interesting” past. Except Gomes uses a better adjective.
“Bates was always peculiar,” he tells the audience. “It was peculiar in that it involved women and men on equal footing. It was peculiar in that it had persons of color in its earliest classes. It was peculiar in that it was founded not by Congregationalists, or conservative Baptists, but by Freewill Baptists…. [W]e are a peculiar and odd place.”
Reunion is an intoxicating weekend where alumni once more stroll “walks [that] are fragrant with the friendships of student days,” as George Millet “Goosie” Chase 1893 put it. Commencement is the other side of the coin. For the faculty, it’s a bittersweet day. “We do feel borrowed pride in their achievements. But by graduation time, the seniors have to shake us off as much as they can,” says Margaret Imber, associate professor of classical and medieval studies.
So Reunion and Commencement are bookends, but this year’s editions told a family story that filled the gap. On this Reunion Saturday as the crowd departs for lunch, Gomes helps to tell this story by sharing what he knows about one apparent “celebrity” at Commencement, Brian Williams, host of NBC Nightly News, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
The Williams family story began and was first heard in the Class Notes of this magazine, back on the other side of the staples, where Bates lives are told in happy, sad, and newsy moments. Sixty-two years ago, the first child born to Gordon Williams ’38 and Dorothy Pampel Williams ’40 was David; they sent a class note announcing his birth. Sixteen years later, in 1959, when their fourth and youngest child, Brian, was born, the couple again announced the news in the College magazine.
In late 2004, Brian Williams — soon to succeed Tom Brokaw as host of NBC Nightly News — received a phone call from Trustee Gomes ’65 broaching the invitation to receive a Bates honorary degree.
A subsequent call from President Hansen formalized the honor. Williams told his father, whose class note took the third-person voice of a proud-without-bragging parent: “Gordon’s son Brian Williams will receive an honorary degree from Bates in May 2005,” he wrote. “In December he succeeds Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News. I wish his brother David ’65 and his mother Dode Pampel Williams, deceased, could share the day with me.”
For many years a member of the Trustee committee that considers potential honorands for Commencement, Gomes says he advanced Brian Williams less for his celebrity than for his interesting Bates family story, even though Brian had never set foot on campus until Memorial Day weekend 2005.
When reviewing honorand nominees, says Gomes as he moved his chair further into the diminishing Coram shade, “there is a temptation to surrender to name recognition…. Grandma who comes to Commencement should be delighted to know who one of the speakers is. So there should be a sizzler whom everyone recognizes. There also ought also to be someone with a Bates connection: a loyal alumnus or a distinguished son, daughter, sibling, or any of those characters.”
Brian Williams was this year’s sizzler and favorite son. His brother David, who died in 2001 (their mother died in 1992), was Gomes’ roommate for two years in Parker Hall, and at early ’60s Bates, the elder Williams was indeed peculiar. “David was a gadfly, ahead of the curve,” Gomes says. “He was a liberal Democrat in a college of old-fashioned Republicans. He was a practicing Catholic among Protestants. He was a Bates legacy but far more critical of the environment than most of us. And he was very smart.”
Ahead of the curve? David once wrote a scathing critique of standardized testing in The Bates Student, quoting mathematician Banesh Hoffmann who once wrote that “[standardized tests] favor the shrewd and facile candidate over the one who has something to say.” To which Williams added, “As for the made-in-Lewiston variety, they are often not only comic but a dumb parody of the real thing.” Ouch. Williams also bragged about his youngest brother, Brian. “I’ve got a kid brother who’s going to be president,” he’d tell Gomes, who chuckles: “Of course, everyone said that back then. But David kept saying how damn smart this brother was. ‘He watches the news every night. He’s devoted to Walter Cronkite.'”
David did not graduate with his class in 1965. He got his diploma in ’66 after he and a female student ran afoul of a Victorian-era Bates social rule in their senior years. The sad incident — the Phillips administration censored Student coverage of it — portended the wrenching student-life revolution awaiting late-’60s Bates. “If there was a culture clash coming at Bates, David was an accident waiting to happen,” said Gomes.
Peter Gomes presents a chin-jutting, sinners-in-the-hand demeanor most of the time. But as he sat on the platform at Commencement 2005, he saw Brian Williams receive his first college degree, a Bates one at that, exactly 40 years after his brother David should have received his. (Brian does not have a bachelor’s, having left college to work at the White House.)
Gomes heard Brian talk mostly about his Bates family. And he saw Brian’s father, Gordon, seated in the front row with family. And Gomes teared up. “I’m a stoic person but it all came back,” he said. “The propinquity — a good old Bates word for that occasion. I just though how pleased David would have been. He adored that boy. He knew great things were going to happen to him.”