Commencement 2015: Honorand citations and conferrals

The honorary degree citations and conferrals for Mark Abelson, M.D., Manjul Bhargava, Thomas Moser and Joan Benoit Samuelson, delivered at Commencement 2015 on May 31.

Each citation was read by Dean of the Faculty Matthew Auer, and each conferral by President Clayton Spencer.

Mark Barry Abelson

Citation:

Our first guest has said that growing up in Montreal, the long cold winters provided ample incentive to study hard by a roaring fire. We can only hope that the winter behind us motivated Bates students to study as hard as our guest, an internationally renowned ophthalmologist and founder and chief scientific officer of Ora, the world’s leading ophthalmic research and product development firm.

He earned undergraduate and medical degrees from McGill University before heading south for a fellowship at Harvard’s Schepens Eye Research Institute and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

When you stand in the eye-care aisle at your local drugstore, you can thank our guest for giving you so many effective choices. He channeled his passion for research into developing methods for the rigorous testing of new treatments for dry eye, ocular allergies, and other external eye conditions. This passion was just the beginning, and it became the backbone of a career that spans prolific writing, research, and a highly successful business.

His sons Stuart and Richard would eventually join him at Ora. Stuart graduated from Bates in 1997 and became a trustee in 2009. Devotees of purposeful work, father and sons have offered internships and jobs to dozens of Bates graduates, convinced that the liberal arts in general and a Bates education in particular are powerful preparation for “leading projects and getting stuff done.”

Our seniors today may think that their Bates days are coming to a close, yet we know that this is another beginning. College doesn’t “end” in four years. One of the greatest assets that our graduates have acquired here is a network of Bates friends, faculty, and fellow alumni to help them navigate the future. Our guest is an exemplary Bates friend, and has also remained active with his own alma mater, serving for many years on the Advisory Board of McGill Medical School.

I present Mark Barry Abelson for the degree Doctor of Science.

Conferral:

Mark Barry Abelson, your visionary quest began with a fascination for the human eye. As we honor your remarkable achievements and generosity to Bates, we behold the fruits of your journey with clear-eyed wonder. You say to our graduates, yes, it is possible to marry passion and purpose. Work hard, with eyes wide open, ears attuned, hands and heart ready to reach out and give back — as have you, physician, scientist, entrepreneur, and longtime friend of Bates.


 Manjul Bhargava

Citation:

Our next guest could add and multiply large numbers in his head before he ever entered school.

He completed all of his high school math and computer science courses by the age of 14.

In the next 15 years, he graduated from Harvard, earned his doctorate at Princeton, and was appointed full professor there when he was 29. He now teaches at four other universities as well as Princeton. In 2014, he won the Fields Medal — the most prestigious award a young mathematician can hope to receive.

There’s more. Our guest is an accomplished musician and a student of Sanskrit poetry.

I know what you’re all thinking. Is he an avatar? How can we relate to this guy?

The answer is the Rubik’s Cube. As it turns out, our guest has spent some time with this brain-teasing puzzle most of us have fiddled with. Some of us love the challenge, while others break out in a sweat and heave the darn thing across the room.

But none of us, except our guest, discovered that by labeling each corner of a Rubik’s, slicing the cube, forming a matrix with the numbers from each slice, and using the matrices to calculate binary quadratic forms and their discriminants, Gauss’s composition law could be obtained.

I salute all who are still with us here, and for those who aren’t, trust me, this is poetry to everyone who gets it.

Today, we honor a man who operates at the intersection of mathematics, poetry, and music, each informing and illuminating the other, and enabling him to capture the imagination and awe of layperson and scholar alike.

I present Manjul Bhargava for the degree Doctor of Science.

Conferral:

Manjul Bhargava, your work lays to rest the false binary that we are either geeks or artists. Our planetary and cultural survival depends upon the synthesis of art and science ­— your natural habitat. What is possible may not be probable, but as you know so well, therein lies the beauty, the truth, and the joy.


 Thomas F. Moser

Citation:

Our next guest has said that the most inspiring course he took in college was “The Aesthetics of the Parthenon.” Years later, the triglyphs, pediments, and marble of Greek architecture became the dovetails, mortises and tenons, and American black cherry that have made him a legend in the realm of handcrafted American wood furniture.

None of this came quickly or easily. He lost his parents young, dropped out of high school, and joined the Air Force. In 1957 he enrolled in college and married Mary Wilson, who shared his prodigious work ethic and a willingness to move frequently. Within a year they built their first house, and started the family that would soon include four boys.

He came to Bates in 1966, and soon succeeded the fabled Brooks Quimby as the impresario of rhetoric and debate. Seeking to bring the best to Bates, he created a summer program to raise the sights of Maine high school debaters. Amidst social change on campus, he offered himself as adviser to the college’s nascent Afro-American Society.

Before long he traded the classroom for a workshop, one that would grow into a unique design studio, marrying his reverence for history with a passion for creating furniture of exquisite form and function. He may have left the Academy, but his ethics, artistry, and dedication to family and work could not honor Bates more.

The way we see it, he took the Academy with him and infused its principles into every aspect of his true calling. He spent years learning the craft, taking risks, recognizing that economic fortitude requires a skilled collective. He created furniture that graces homes, boardrooms, presidential libraries, college buildings, and public libraries big and small, from Dallas, Texas, to Vinalhaven Island here in Maine. His work defines the character of our own Perry Atrium in Pettengill Hall, where young Bates scholars find his furniture to be as useful for studying and researching as for lounging, discussing, dreaming, and, yes, napping.

We salute our guest for his deep intelligence in design, for creating a sustainable work community, and for educating our eyes to the inherent history, soul, and beauty of handmade furniture.

I present Thomas F. Moser for the degree Doctor of Humane Letters.

Conferral:

Thomas F. Moser, your life’s work — family, scholarship, artistry, and business — evokes your signature Continuous Arm chair, an arc of triumph, forged through patience, perseverance, and the utmost respect for history, materials, craft, and design. Simplicity is not simple. Function is essential. Elemental elegance endures.


 Joan Benoit Samuelson

Citation:

Our final guest used to ditch study hall in high school to run the back roads in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Given that her mother was on the school board, this was a somewhat risky endeavor, but our guest has told us that, “all the teachers and police officers turned a blind eye because it was something positive. I would be out there and wonder if I could just run farther.”

Indeed, during the next 10 years she did run farther and faster than any other woman in history at that time. She would win two Boston Marathons, the first while still at Bowdoin. In 1984, 17 days out of knee surgery, she qualified for the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon. Many of us remember that August day, when, as one writer described it, this “tiny unlikely figure in her oversized white cap” emerged from the tunnel into the sunlight of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, completed her final lap, and claimed the gold medal. She has never looked back.

Though her high school had no track team for girls in 1972, Title IX would soon change the prospects for women nationwide. In the early 1970s, one in 27 girls in Maine participated in competitive sports. Now it’s one in three. Our guest modestly claims that she was in the right place at the right time, but her achievements attest to something far greater.

She has been a tireless, lifelong advocate for the “running revolution,” noting that running is the most accessible, affordable, and social sport, perfect for those with multi-tasking lives. In recent years, she has made deep connections between running, health, and the environment. She founded the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, bringing thousands of elite runners from all over the world to raise money for a different Maine charity each year.

She continues to race, and ran the Boston Marathon in 2012 with her daughter, Abigail, a member of the Bates Class of 2010, and she ran this fabled race again this year, in less than three hours.

I present Joan Benoit Samuelson for the degree Doctor of Humane Letters.

Conferral:

Joan Benoit Samuelson, your feet have wings, and the medals to prove it. Your heart flies even faster, and further. Maine radiates with pride in your example and gratitude for all you have given back. You extol us to set our own pace and run our own race, at every age, and to give back to the people and places that made our own stories possible. May we follow in your footsteps.

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