History with a Twist

History with a Twist

Earl Smith brings a new perspective to the life of the College

By Gerry Boyle '78

Earl Smith doesn't know how his new history of Colby will be received. The emeritus dean of the College, Smith does know that he never intended to write a complete chronology filled with the names of all of those who have come and gone. What he delivered, after four years' work ("eighty percent research, twenty percent writing") is a book that begins 10,000 years ago, when Native Americans plied Maine's rivers, and that sees the College and others like it as being at the forefront of social change.

In other words, Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College is not a continuation of the venerable history of Colby written by Dean Ernest Cummings Marriner, published in 1963.

"Would Marriner have had a chapter with a title, 'Shake Your Booty'?" Smith asked. "I don't think so."

Mayflower Hill does indeed open with the native tribes who first populated what is now central Maine. But it quickly moves through the early years of the College before Smith focuses on decade-long defining periods: The move to Mayflower Hill, the sexual revolution, the anti-Vietnam War years.

Yes, there are names. Yes, there is new information (Smith makes a strong argument that President Frank Johnson never intended to move Colby to Augusta, but skillfully used the specter of a move there as leverage in negotiations with Waterville). And, yes, there is an abundance of Smith's dry and understated humor. The section on changes in sexual mores in the 1960s begins, "The Sexual Revolution was under way and students were well pleased to be a part of it."

If Smith's wry humor colors the text, his fascination with history—both long past and relatively recent—shapes Mayflower Hill. In fact, he says, it is the only way he could approach such a project. "Left to your own devices, you probably wouldn't write a college history, because it's too narrow," he said. "If you can wrap enough stuff into it, you've got something.

"Review the history of Colby and other places and you're struck by the fact that colleges are in the vanguard of social change. From the Fifties through the Eighties, [there was] enormous social change, almost all of which was led by the colleges. The sexual revolution, the feminist movement, [opposition to] the war in Vietnam. It's little wonder that some things fell by the wayside, from panty raids to fraternities.

"Students were empowered because there was such division between the young and the old. The young felt they could change the world—and they did."

As the world changed, so did Colby, Smith writes. Faculty who for decades had taught the same material in the same way were replaced by professors who actually encouraged students to question authority. Rules and customs that included women students shouting "man on the floor" when a member of the opposite sex ventured into a women's dormitory fell to coed dorms and actual coed education. Students struck in protest of the Vietnam War, occupied Lorimer Chapel to demand redress for inequities for minority students, and began to shape the curriculum in ways unheard of just 20 years before.

Joining the Colby administration in 1962, Smith witnessed some but not all of these happenings. But still he spent months poring over old files, eventually amassing a data-base with more than 2,000 entries, he said. He called alumni who played pivotal roles and found them glad to help, Smith said. "Inevitably they'll tell you something you don't know."

The result is a portrait of a time, made more vivid by telling detail:
  • The Waterville Morning Sentinel crusading to keep Colby in Waterville while its publisher, William H. Gannett, offered land for a new campus in Augusta.
  • The city celebrating when it raised enough money to buy Mayflower Hill for Colby. Fire alarms were sounded, bringing fire trucks roaring up from the South End, where firefighters hadn't been informed of the party.
  • Senator Margaret Chase Smith speaking to a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters on campus, confronted by a veteran who debunked her account of how and where the war was being fought.

And other smaller anecdotes that Smith would read with a chuckle.

"The homecoming queen getting a carton of cigarettes," he said, smiling. "Chesterfields. I think it's funny as hell."

Some alumni will be relieved to hear that Smith, though he mentions his own role in some events in passing, does not dwell on one role he had as dean of students—College disciplinarian. "That's another book," he said, grinning. "That's the one they're paying me not to write."
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  • On November 23, 2007, Kenneth P Lord, III wrote:
    I found this article interesting as it outlined my great grandfather's efforts on behalf of Colby. I have been impressed over my lifetime with stories from my grandfather and father regarding Gen Herbert M. Lord's accomplishments. My only regret is I never was able to meet him personally.