My gift to Colby College drives them quackers

If you suppose erroneously that ducks and higher education have nothing in common, you will want to hear what I have to say.

Colby College is an esteemed liberal arts and science institution here in Maine, which the founding fathers located in a poor place. As the college and the community grew, the prosperity of the City of Waterville surrounded the campus with activity and abuse that at last far exceeded the academic influence of the encircled institution. So Colby's President Johnson arose to state, "We'll move Colby into serenity and sunlight!"

Not much, really, was actually moved, but the old Colby was deserted and a new Colby built on bucolic Mayflower Hill. This was far enough away so the click and surge of cotton-mill looms and freight-train whistles do not disturb the scholarly meditations of yearning students.

And in designing what may well be the nation's most scenic campus, the designer marked off the location of Johnson Pond, a "made" spring-fed jewel of beauty to complete the fresh emergence of this new Phoenix.

Soon after Colby was relocated, I chanced that way and was impressively amazed, and stopped to say so to President Bixler, who had now succeeded President Johnson. I offered him a thought rather much thusly:

"You can move everything else, but the dust of ages is left behind. Colby needs, now, a new lore, a new tradition, a beginning of a new set of old stories. The New Colby has no Prof. Carberry Beanpots, no cap on a chapel spire, no Mark Hopkins on a spruce log, no song on a special day. Colby must start all over again."

Dr. Bixler said, "What do you suggest?" To which I rejoined in my ripe twang, "With your permission, I would like to give Colby a few ducks to embellish Johnson Pond. A new college has to start somewhere."

And with his acquiescence I stuck an Indian runner drake and several lady friends in a grain bag and dumped them a-splash in the Pierian spring of the New Colby.

There was no academic procession for this, no recognition of my generosity. I told Dr. Bixler he'd have to find winter quarters for the birds, and it would be well to get a bag of grain. But, I said, if I know people and ducks, Johnson Pond would soon be rimmed by bird lovers tossing crumbs, and daily care by the groundskeeper might not prove critical. Dr. Bixler said he guessed so.

Thus Colby faced a future with new Old Colby stories incubating. Indian runner duck eggs are chalk-white, look like those from Leghorn or Wyandotte hens, and an Indian runner duck will lay out successive clutches with faithful rapidity.

I will never forget the rueful expression on the face of Dr. Bixler as he stood there on the bank of Johnson Pond, shaking his head with an Oh-what-have-I-done? look.

The results of this benevolence on my part have been yes and no. The consequences of my generosity have, I believe, been undervalued, or something. Yet there is something.

First, Colby put up some temporary housing for married GI students close to Johnson Pond, and the original gift ducks went their way for GI Sunday dinners. Duck is tasty.

At Colby, my matriculated Indian Runners were understandably the victims of their own trusting nature. If you hold down a handful of corn kernels, a duck will cast caution to the wind and run his or her bill into your hand to partake. Then you close your hand and, thus muted, the bird can't quack to alarm the neighbors. Colby renewed its ducks now and then.

Worse, however, was the lack of recuperation of Johnson Pond. The water did not cleanse itself to keep ahead of the birds, and there was an environmental problem. But, all in all, Colby does have some duck-pond lore, and for better or worse the college continues the Old Colby folklore about Gould's Colby Canard Caper Consequences. To me, this is better than being the second man in Rome.

At another Maine college, which I shall not name (much older than even the old Colby), healthy old legends are a dime a dozen, and it may be a long time yet before my Colby ducks generate such gems. I think of how Donald B. MacMillan climbed the chapel's steeple tower one night and left his cap. I think of how Harriet Beecher Stowe walked to church in a snowstorm. And I thought of Prof. Buck Moody and how he raced his horse Parallelepiped every fall in the free-for-all at Topsham Track.

Professor Moody taught mathematics, and he would also sit in his pew in church and absently point his finger at the huge timbers that supported the church roof. One by one he would consider them, and from the pulpit Pastor Ashby would see him do this and the pastor would be so hopelessly distracted that he would forget where he was in his sermon.

It got so he'd had quite enough of this, and choosing a proper moment, he asked Professor Moody what in the world made him act that way during worship? Professor Moody said he was merely considering which beams were in stress and which were in strain and he wouldn't do it anymore.

So I'm hopeful something similar may, in time, become a duck legend at Colby. Why not?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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