On a festive night that kicked off Colby’s year-long bicentennial celebration, the nation’s preeminent historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin ’64, told an audience of trustees, administrators, staff, faculty, and students that the College played a crucial part in preparing her career.
“There is no question but that my experience here at this wonderful liberal arts college played a central role in shaping my twin passions for history and government, in developing the craft of writing, and most importantly in building confidence in my abilities,” Goodwin said.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and commentator was the keynote speaker at a campus dinner that was the first of a series of events—to be held on campus and across the country—marking Colby’s 200th year.
Goodwin, the author of five bestselling books, including No Ordinary Time, about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, was introduced by Robert E. Diamond ’73, chair of the Board of Trustees, who noted how crucial individuals have been in Colby’s history. “One person after another has seen to it that our college is a place where generation after generation of students have had their lives expanded and their lives transformed,” Diamond said.
That was the case for Goodwin, who recounted how as a high school student from New York she was encouraged to apply to Colby because of its history of opening its doors to women. “It was so exciting to go through Mary Low and Louise Coburn dorms and keep hearing the stories of these two women who had broken the barrier way back in the 1870s,” she said.
Goodwin said Colby was the perfect place for her, providing her with opportunities to lead student groups and work with faculty, including her mentor, the late Professor of Government Albert Mavrinac. “The most gifted teacher I have ever known,” said Goodwin, who went on to earn her Ph.D. at Harvard and taught there before deciding to write full time.
“Each semester he somehow made us feel that if we could truly understand Plato or Aristotle or the Founding Fathers, we would not simply master a series of books, we would begin to comprehend huge concepts that would be important to us through our lives. Justice, faith, equality, democracy,” she said.
It was Mavrinac who suggested Goodwin apply to become a White House Fellow, while in graduate school. That experience brought her to the attention of President Lyndon Johnson, beginning a relationship that lasted long after Johnson left the White House and included Goodwin editing Johnson’s memoirs.
Goodwin recounted highlights in her career as a historian, including being given the first access to 150 cartons of letters and photographs from Joseph and Rose Kennedy and exploring a trove of unexplored primary materials relating to Lincoln’s cabinet members and political rivals.
The structure of that book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which focuses on Lincoln through the lives of his closest associates, was shaped by reading she did at Colby. “One weekend I took a copy of Plutarch’s Lives off the shelf,” Goodwin said. “I had not read it since I was here at Colby College. I was entranced one more with the insights Plutarch gained by his comparative technique and began to think, What if I couple Lincoln’s early life with that of these rivals?”
The book is the basis of the film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis. It opens next month.
The following day the College sponsored events downtown celebrating the partnership between Waterville and Colby over two centuries.