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In His Own Words: At Dartmouth, the passing of a silver bowl

In speaking at his inauguration ceremony this month, Dartmouth College’s new president, Philip Hanlon, reflected on the history of the school, Dartmouth’s first graduation ceremony and the precious Wentworth Bowl. We’ll let Hanlon explain:

We are continually blessed that when Eleazar Wheelock sought out a place to locate his school, he chose this picturesque hill overlooking the Connecticut River. The natural beauty that surrounds us is timeless.

Yet when I look on this gathering today, I can’t help but imagine what a contrast this is to another gathering that took place here many years ago – the graduation ceremony of 1771, the College’s first.

This would be notable as the only graduation ceremony in Dartmouth history that had to be drawn out longer than was necessary – there were only four graduates. Each was asked to give a speech. Then they were asked to sing a song.

You see, people had covered great distances over dangerous roads to view the ceremony – a simple handing-out of diplomas just would not do.

In the audience that day was Gov. John Wentworth, who had himself braved a long, circuitous route to get here, camping several nights by the side of the road – something I know Gov. (Maggie) Hassan would do for us today if duty called.

Gov. Wentworth was so impressed – not necessarily by what he saw here, but by what he envisioned here – that upon returning to Portsmouth, he sent the fledgling school and the good reverend a gift. He sent a monteith – a silver bowl used for chilling wine glasses.

It was the kind of finery that a member of the nobility like Gov. Wentworth might be accustomed to.

But on a rough-hewn campus like Dartmouth – where the smell of freshly-cut pine still clung to every beam and board – such a piece had no functional value whatsoever.

But what it lacked in functional value, the bowl made-up for as a symbol. While we tend to think of it as an icon of the past, for Gov. Wentworth and Rev. Wheelock, the bowl represented the future – what Dartmouth might become. You might even say that it was a challenge to the reverend: The college would have to grow into the gift. And more than anything, it remains for us today a vessel of challenge.

So today, for only the 18th time in some 244 years, the Wentworth Bowl has been passed on, and I have accepted it – its tremendous legacy and challenges that come along with it. This is a moment for all of us to consider, once again, what Dartmouth might become.

We do so from a vantage point that Reverend Wheelock himself would have found unimaginable. Today, Dartmouth is home to some of the most respected scholars and educators in the world, outstanding graduate and professional schools, and offers the premier undergraduate education in the country.

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