The Start of Something Better

Elaine Bennett

Elaine Bennett found her grandfather in Bowdoin’s archives, and his community here on campus.

By Elaine Bennett

She longed for a connection with her grandfather, whose early life was mostly a mystery to her. A chance encounter on campus last fall changed that.

My name is Elaine Bennett. I am twenty-four years old and I live in New York City. I visited Bowdoin for the first time in October for my work as an admissions program manager at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University. I am not sure if this type of story is of any interest to you and your readers, but I want to share it with you to express my gratitude for the incredible alumni community that my grandfather was a part of. I asked a stranger on campus [Hope Marden, campus services mail clerk] to take a photo of me in front of Hubbard Hall and, when I told her my story, she suggested that I email you.

My grandfather’s name is George S. Bennett, and he graduated from Bowdoin in 1934. He grew up in the suburbs of Boston, in a struggling Irish immigrant family. His father died when he was only eight years old, and his mother died when he was a senior in high school. He was the youngest of seven children, and his oldest sister, Josephine, sacrificed everything she had to make sure he went to college—the first person in his family to do so. He was lucky that he had the right people advocating for him because, when Bowdoin took a chance on that orphan boy, he made a better life for himself and his family, and it changed the course of my family’s history. After graduation, he married my grandmother and they had four children, including my father. Three of their children became lawyers (including my uncle George Bennett ’65) and my aunt Sally dedicated her life to education as a math teacher. I truly believe our family would not be where it is today without the support Bowdoin gave to my grandfather all those years ago.

Unfortunately, I never met my grandfather. He died in 1991, and I was not born until 1992. I had heard his inspiring story from my father when I was growing up, and I have always wished I could have met him. For some reason, upon arriving on the Bowdoin campus, I decided to pay a visit to the archives. I’m not really sure what I was looking for. I guess I was hoping to find even a simple news article from my grandfather’s time at Bowdoin. I wanted to get a sense of his experience during those years. He was captain of the baseball team, so I figured there had to be a trace of him. Little did I know the archives had a whole file on my grandfather that they let me look through. There were nearly 100 original paper documents in this file. I was able to hold in my hands the application my grandfather filled out by hand in 1930. There were letters from my great-aunt Josephine to Bowdoin President Sills, explaining the family’s dire situation and asking the school to provide financial aid to her brother. There were more handwritten letters between my grandfather and the dean of the College [Paul Nixon] discussing job searches, looking for guidance.

It’s difficult to put into words the emotions that I felt when I was holding on to the same pieces of paper my grandfather held nearly ninety years ago. I always longed for a connection with him, and I felt such love on the Bowdoin campus. Every single person I encountered was extremely helpful and caring. I understand why my grandfather kept in touch with contacts from the school for so many decades after he graduated, why he donated every year until he died, why my grandmother continued to donate to Bowdoin until she passed away, and why they would visit the campus together as often as they could over the years. This type of community and connection my grandfather was a part of is not the norm. Bowdoin should be extremely proud of its community, and I am eternally grateful for the experience I had while visiting campus for the first time. I will never forget it.

I hope that this note will remind your alumni they are bonded to a very special place—even as an outsider, I can feel it, too.

 This piece first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Bowdoin magazine.

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