RICHARD “MERS” MERSEREAU, seen recently at Bowdoin College, is retiring from the Brunswick college after 44 years.

RICHARD “MERS” MERSEREAU, seen recently at Bowdoin College, is retiring from the Brunswick college after 44 years.

BRUNSWICK

Richard “Mers” Mersereau is known to nearly every living generation of Bowdoin alumni, trustees, and to many current faculty, staff and students, according to Bowdoin College President Barry Mills and Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Rick Ganong.

“With a Bowdoin career that spans more than four decades, he is also one of the few people alive who have witnessed and contributed in meaningful ways to the evolution of Bowdoin from the all-male and mostly New England college of the 1960s to the distinguished national leader in higher education that Bowdoin has become,” wrote Mills and Ganong in a statement.

Mersereau entered Bowdoin College as a student, graduating in 1969 and returning in 1971 as a member of the admissions office to help the college become co-educational and more diverse. He established the women’s basketball program in 1975, which he coached. Mersereau has served in a variety of roles, including with the Senior Center, summer programs, career services, public relations, governing board and presidential office management, and development.

Mersereau is now the senior leadership gift officer and special adviser to the president for college relations.

Locally, he serves on the boards of Curtis Memorial Library and the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust.

Recently, he responded to questions from The Times Record about his retirement at the end of this year and the changes he’s witnessed after 44 years at Bowdoin College.

Times Record: How does the Bowdoin College of 1965 differ from the Bowdoin College of 2015?

Richard Mersereau: Fifty years is a long time and it is fun to compare then and now. There have been HUGE changes and fabulous constants.

The constants are what brought me here in the first place and kept me here when I had come back to work.

Bowdoin is a caring, people oriented place. Lifelong friendships are developed and matter deeply to faculty, staff and current students.

Bowdoin is still a Maine college in terms of character. It is understated and strives to be excellent and to teach students to “do the right thing.” It has always been a place where everyone learns “to give back” and now it has a Center for the Common Good that guides that instinct more intentionally.

Changes have been structural and qualitative.

Enrollment has evolved from about 900 men to about 1,800 men and women; from nearly all white people from the Northeast to a richly diverse student body from across the United States and from many foreign countries. As the college has grown, the percentage of Maine students has decreased but the number of Maine students is about the same. The percentage of students on financial aid (with an average grant, no-loan of nearly $40,000) has grown considerably to combat the barrier of rising costs.

It had a good student body and faculty in 1965 and today it has a great student body and great faculty much more across the board.

Social life revolved around fraternities with 97 percent of students as members. Today there is a lower key, universal house system with members assigned and not selected.

Strong and effective leadership in the last 25 years has upgraded every aspect of the college so that it is confidently one of the best of its kind in the country. I like to tell alumni from my era that “we have become the college we said we wanted to be” after a lot of intentionality and hard work. And we are “Bowdoin” and not some clone of another top-ranked liberal arts college.

TR: What were some of the challenges the college had to overcome in becoming co-educational?

RM: The biggest problem in going co-educational was changing the mind-set of the men. The college had no problem attracting bright women students with energy and leadership qualities, but it took many years before women felt they had equal opportunity or were treated with equal respect and many battles were fought over these issues in social, academic and extracurricular arenas.

Of course it took many years for the student body to be equally balanced between men and women and as many years for the faculty to achieve the same parity.

TR: How did you come to establish the women’s basketball team, and why was that something you wanted to pursue?

RM: In the early days of co-education the college added women’s sports to the athletic program based on the expressed interests of women as their numbers gradually increased. A handful of women knew I was a hard-core member of the NBA (faculty/staff Noontime Basketball Association). They petitioned to start a team and asked if I would volunteer to be their coach.

Being single, having many evenings and weekends free during the winter months, and having once attended a basketball clinic run by Red Auerbach, why wouldn’t I have said “yes”?

Nationally, women’s sports were just developing and there wasn’t a blueprint at Bowdoin about how to accommodate women within an existing men’s athletic program, so beyond the X’s and O’s, much of my six-year tenure as part-time, volunteer coach was spent on issues of equal treatment for the women players, who were equally passionate and hardworking about their sport as their male counterparts.

A fun side story to that was when campus and local sportswriters began to refer to our team as “Bearettes” or “Lady Polar Bears”; the women insisted that they were, simply, Polar Bears, just as were the men, and the use of the qualified terms was quashed pretty quickly.

TR: Can you share any observations regarding the relationship between Bowdoin

College and the town of Brunswick and if it changed over your tenure?

RM: Happily the relationship between the college and the town has matured remarkably in 50 years. In the all-male days, it could be dangerous for unsuspecting college students to walk down Maine Street and be confronted by “townies” who frequented the Maine State Hotel (name from memory) or Mike’s.

In the ’70s and ’80s the “two worlds” continued to exist separately and officially — the rich, white educated kids and faculty up at the top of the hill versus the small town folks trying to run a town that didn’t have much in common with college activities and aspirations.

That is, of course, a big overgeneralization but until the ’90s the college maintained its distance from town affairs as it was perceived as “trying to run the town” when it tried to be involved. In the last 20 years, relations have flourished as town and college officials meet regularly and work together on mutual interests.

A strong and caring college is good for Brunswick and a well-run town and vibrant downtown helps attract students, faculty and staff who otherwise wouldn’t want to come here. It helps that the college has thrown open its doors to most activities and events and encouraged members of the town to participate (usually at no cost).

TR: Do you plan on staying in Brunswick after retirement, and what will you be doing to keep busy?

RM: I’m not worried about keeping busy — still figuring it out but I’m not going away.

It will be hard not to be formally representing the college in some capacity after 44 years but I won’t lose the relationships I have with Bowdoin people near and far and it will be fun to engage Bowdoin life like so many friends who are Brunswick residents.

I am also looking forward to playing a stronger role on the development committee and the board at Brunswick- Topsham Land Trust and continuing to volunteer at Curtis Memorial Library, two organizations that are among the best of their kind in Maine and that add huge community-wide value to the Brunswick area.


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: