William Curtis was born in Brunswick on August 28, 1854, the son of Captain and Mrs. John Curtis. He attended Brunswick public schools and the Franklin Family School in Topsham. After graduating from Bowdoin, he studied law in Bangor while working as an editorial writer on the Daily Whig and Courier, a paper that eventually merged with the Bangor Daily News.
In 1878, Curtis was admitted to the Maine Bar and a year later, after taking a course at Columbia University Law School, was admitted to practice in New York state.
In 1887, he joined Sullivan and Cromwell in New York City, one of the nation’s leading law firms. As a member of the firm, he personally handled many of the legal matters connected with the construction of the Panama Canal and the acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone. Curtis was also prominent in the organization of the United States Steel Corporation, serving as its first president.
In 1901, he became a member of the Board of Overseers of the College, and in 1915, upon the death of General Thomas H. Hubbard, he was elected trustee. To Bowdoin, always in the name of the Class of 1875, he was enormously generous. He presented the Class of 1875 Gate, which is located on the west edge of campus along Park Row, framing the passageway through the Visual Arts Center to the Chapel. He also created the Class of 1875 Prize in American History, the Class of 1875 gift of $115,000 to the endowment of the College, and many other gifts. He donated the Captain John Curtis Memorial Library to the town of Brunswick in memory of his father and was so revered in the town that during the hour of his funeral, in October 1927, all places of business in Brunswick were closed.
With these words, the faculty paid tribute to Curtis after his death: “Benefactor of the town of his birth; friend and advisor of the President at every turn of college affairs; tirelessly interested, tirelessly serving by purse, social connections, intelligent insight, and constant, precise attention to details of execution; a man of force and gentleness, tolerant of persons without softness of principle; a man of virtue and a man of the world; beneficent at home and abroad; aiding the College even more by his talents than by his generous gifts of money, he had won the admiration of all in Bowdoin who knew him for his high qualities of mind and character.”
In establishing the Bowdoin Prize, the Curtis family stipulated that it was to be awarded not more often than every five years to “the graduate or former member the College, or member of its faculty at the time of the award, who shall have made during the period the most distinctive contribution in any field of human endeavor.” They further stipulated that the prize “shall only be awarded to one who shall, in the judgment of the Committee of Award, be recognized as having won national and not merely local distinction, or who, in the judgment of the Committee, is fairly entitled to be so recognized.”
The first Bowdoin Prize was awarded in 1933 to Dr. Fred Houdlett Albee, Class of 1899. Other Bowdoin Prize recipients are U.S. Senator Paul Douglas (Class of 1913), Red Cross Commissioner Harvey Dow Gibson (Class of 1902), Bowdoin President Kenneth C.M. Sills (Class of 1901), Rear Admiral Donald MacMillan (Class of 1898), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton (Class of 1909), journalist William Hodding Carter, Jr. (Class of 1927), penologist Austin H. MacCormick (Class of 1915), Dr. Leonard W. Cronkhite (Class of 1941), former Northeastern University President Asa S. Knowles (Class of 1930), Olympic Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson (Class of 1979), Bowdoin professors Samuel S. Butcher and Dana W. Mayo, U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Class of 1954), former U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (Class of 1962), and U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering (Class of 1953).