College of the Atlantic creative writing professor Bill Carpenter, one of the founding faculty members of the school, speaks at the 2018 Laurel Ceremony.College of the Atlantic creative writing professor Bill Carpenter, one of the founding faculty members of the school, speaks at the 2018 Laurel Ceremony.

The Laurel Ceremony is a gifts and awards event for graduating College of the Atlantic seniors and their families held the day before commencement. The 2018 Ceremony included perspectives from several students, gift presentations by faculty, and the following reflection from Carpenter, reprinted in full.

Ordinarily, commencement is when we remove the down parkas and battery-heated undergarments that got us through winter and plunge into the future with all its splendor and liberation. This year we have to pause that for a moment to remember an overarching figure from the temporal context of Bill Drury and Dan Kane, almost 50 years ago; because if it had not been for Ed Kaelber none of us would be here and on this spot would be a Marriott Hotel. Or worse, I won’t even say it. Ed was COA’s founder and first president and he died just three weeks ago after a full and plenteous life at the age of 94. He formally left the college in 1982, and many on campus just know his name as a building where we eat and read and occasionally sleep, but for the COA family he is the phylogenetic ancestor who is replicated in everything we do.

Ed’s journey to this island followed the paradigm of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with A Thousand Faces. He held an assured and civilized post at Harvard when he received a call from the complete unknown. How would you like to be CEO of a non-existent college at the end of the world? His task was to take on the presidency of an idea and bring it across the threshold of existence into reality. He was in the direct line of visionaries who have shaped this remarkable place into what it is: Champlain the discoverer, Thomas Cole the artist, George Dorr the conservationist, Rockefeller the philanthropist and Clarence Little the genetic researcher whoCollege of the Atlantic writing professor Bill Carpenter's tongue-in-cheek remarks offer plenty of laughter while painting a remarkable picture of the history of the college.College of the Atlantic writing professor Bill Carpenter's tongue-in-cheek remarks offer plenty of laughter while painting a remarkable picture of the history of the college.founded Jackson Lab. In creating COA as its intellectual center, Ed honored and combined them all; our presence and our graduates have transformed the island, whether you submerge into the depths with Diver Ed or watch a double feature at the Reel Pizza, or drop into the Lompoc to discuss human ecology with the Beer Guy, you can’t turn around without meeting Ed’s legacy on MDI.

It was Ed Kaelber who conceived of a senior project even before we opened, and defended it against skeptical opposition including me. Some of us could not quite believe that college seniors in their last semester, drenched in nostalgia and finally 21 years old, would give up the tanning and fermented-beverage season for a month of pressure and anxiety; but each spring Ed’s faith is reconfirmed by the amazingly diverse and brilliant accomplishments that germinate everywhere you look. We began this morning with Teaghan’s mouth-watering breakfast of kelp and oysters, we lifted our eyes in reverence and wonder with Ursula, we got translated into the Old Testament by Shir, we toured a museum through the eyes of a five year old, we were teleported to Mexico, we juggled three chainsaws while re-envisioning higher education, we underwent surgery with a veterinarian at considerable savings to the college health plan—no doubt in the next cost-cutting phase a dog itself will perform the operation—we sampled some charcoal from the fire of 1947 whose destructive path led to the founding of COA; we shrunk wrapped our yacht in beeswax, we inspected an Andean volcano, we fell hopelessly in love with a sea turtle, and in Arlo’s poem we had our arms chewed off by a grizzly bear.

“Our national leaders were the product of Western education at the highest level. Robert McNamara had a degree from Harvard, William Rogers graduated from Cornell and Dean Rusk was an Oxford man. All that elite schooling had done nothing but set fire to a Buddhist nation on the other side of the earth.”

Not to mention Max’s viral tentacle-mouthed aliens or the nonstop visual feast we have enjoyed all spring in the Blum gallery: from Haley’s embroidered Yucatan village tapestry to Rose’s aesthetic reminder that even after four years as intellectuals, we still have bodies and if we take them to a pollinator party we do so at our own risk. It’s been a breathtaking series of interdisciplinary achievements and Ed Kaelber was the unacknowledged mentor of every one. Ed had no use for the Magna cum Laudes or Phi Beta Kappas that stratify one student over another, but he knew human ecology could inspire a finale of discipline and effort and the last 44 graduations have proved him right.

My first meeting with Ed Kaelber was in a Chicago restaurant over wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut. The search process was pretty informal in those days. His opening question was what work of literature would I use to teach human ecology. I had no clue what human ecology was, but Ed was such an instant father-figure I blurted out Oedipus Rex, which must have been the answer cause I got the job. He was the father of us all in COA’s infancy. We were a startup little household living on Eden Street and we all had an Oedipus complex on Ed.

In the beginning we leased a 26-room mansion with a three-story circular staircase for eight cents a month; it would be difficult to match that in Bar Harbor now, especially for shorefront. Ed always said, “It’s not the bricks & mortar, it’s the people.” We reconsecrated a Catholic seminary in a nonviolent transfer of power from one religion to the next. The Oblate fathers had worshiped the Blessed Virgin in the site directly behind us where we now celebrate the solar fire of clean energy and universal enlightenment. The shrine we inherited still evokes their self-sacrifice and commitment to a community of belief. We honor their passionate monotheism in our single major of human ecology reflecting the oneness of all life.

COA seniors and faculty react to founding faculty member Bill Carpenter's Laurel Ceremony speech.COA seniors and faculty react to founding faculty member Bill Carpenter's Laurel Ceremony speech.

The first summer of COA’s existence, in June of 1971, the whole Kaelber family lived up on the second floor like houseparents. Classes convened downstairs in the sunroom whose French doors opened to the sea. Gray Cox was just out of high school and Millard Dority was a Fulbright fellow in Lawnology and rodent control with long hair that almost reached the ground. It was the first COA class ever and a little striped chipmunk crept over the threshold to check us out. The local creatures were accustomed to priests and monks but they had never seen hippies before. Suddenly the Kaelber’s cat came streaking down through the sunroom and appropriated the little chipmunk by the neck. I leaped out of my chair and whacked the cat upside the head and the chipmunk escaped. It was COA’s first instance of bystander intervention. Half the class thanked me for rescuing a helpless victim, the other half hated on me for tampering with the laws of nature. Even Ed’s cat was a gifted educator. We learned right then that if you put 12 idealists in a room with two animals you’re guaranteed to have a civil war. We talked all morning about human ecology and 47 years later the conversation hasn’t stopped.

Writing professor Bill Carpenter has been teaching at College of the Atlantic since the school first opened it's doors.Writing professor Bill Carpenter has been teaching at College of the Atlantic since the school first opened it's doors.We went home that night and turned on the TV and the Pentagon Papers had come out. Not to Meryl Streep but the New York Times. Our national leaders were the product of Western education at the highest level. Robert McNamara had a degree from Harvard, William Rogers graduated from Cornell and Dean Rusk was an Oxford man. All that elite schooling had done nothing but set fire to a Buddhist nation on the other side of the earth. It was Ed Kaelber’s mission to design a college that would be a little bit more woke. It would take more than recalibration of the status quo. The structure of learning had to be dismantled and rebuilt from zero; this time with students involved from the outset so we would get it right. Ed thought COA should model itself on the hands-on democracy of the New England town meeting and we started the All College Meeting the first week to give the student majority its rightful voice. The ACM met in the old, low-slung auditorium where the monks had gathered for prayer and Gregorian chant. On Wednesdays a huge stuffed moose watched us debate policy and principle till one night the vegetarians took it down and buried it behind the garden but left its memory intact. Saturday nights we cued up Jefferson Airplane on the 8-track, swallowed our power dynamics and boogied till the Virgin Mother morphed into a whole-grain, Paleo-diet fertility goddess with the ghosts of the old Oblates looking on.

A renowned architect, Edward Barnes, designed us a prizewinning quadrangular campus to be built on the summit of Strawberry Hill near the Jackson Lab. The faculty offices faced the ocean but the poor students got the air shaft and that plan went down in ACM. The architect returned with the exact same design, this time the students had the ocean view; the faculty stared at each other across the exercise yard. No dice. Ed listened to both sides and made an executive decision: stay right where we are on Frenchman Bay. We have Ed Kaelber to thank that we are here at all.

In 1971 we had never heard the phrase carbon neutrality; now to maintain our standing as the world’s greenest, absolutely most verdant college ever, we’re committed to reduce the shoe size of our carbon footprint. The biggest obstacle is the Witchcliff oil burner which runs full blast day & night just to keep the toilets from icing over. Even today we couldn’t turn it down, nobody has ever been able to find the thermostat. All this is about to change. Thanks to joint funding from Exxon Mobil and AARP, we’re on the verge of complete fossil fuel self-sufficiency. Extensive carboniferous deposits have been detected in the senior faculty, that were laid down in the Cambrian era, 270 million years ago, when they were in graduate school, and they’re now finally recoverable through the miracle of fracking, performed right on campus to save medical costs by the new Dean of Human Resources in the multipurpose seismology, Buddhist meditation, African drumming, experimental operating theater and low-temperature physics lab of the Center for Human Ecology.

COA founding faculty member Bill Carpenter, left, and president Darron Collins ’92, right, unveil a painting of COA founding president Ed Kaelber, who died at age 94 just one month before commencement weekend 2018.COA founding faculty member Bill Carpenter, left, and president Darron Collins ’92, right, unveil a painting of COA founding president Ed Kaelber, who died at age 94 just one month before commencement weekend 2018.

If the earth could speak it would tell you it’s a fearsome experience be fracked, especially for the elderly, but the rewards are fabulous. FDG met at 5:30 a.m. this whole year to assure retiring faculty a smooth and dignified transition back to reality. Any COA teacher with no felonies and 175 consecutive non-zero terms on campus, is eligible to taper off for a fixed period as a greeter in the new Entry Pavilion, followed by a real tribute for devoted service, a luxurious gap year on the cruise ship Crimean Princess which as we speak is anchored and awaiting departure off Bald Porcupine, no reference to the passengers. It once served as a proud Soviet troop carrier and its captain Toby Stephanovich has overseen its cutting-edge conversion to a sustainable floating retirement home, all waste products recirculated and reused in a treatment so technologically sophisticated you cannot tell the difference, including plastic, supervised by Abby Barrows, not even a discharge valve on this vessel, every particle thoughtfully re-consumed by the retirees. To prevent culture shock, a student-writing simulator will generate term papers at every known grammatical level of the English language, and simulated students will personally bring them to your stateroom late. Artificial deans Korn and Koren will conduct hourly reviews. Monster courses can be planned and hatched at the gluten free lunch tables with monster colleagues furnished at no extra charge.

The 2018 Laurel Ceremony included music by Chloe Gordon ’18 and COA Composer-in-Residence John Cooper.The 2018 Laurel Ceremony included music by Chloe Gordon ’18 and COA Composer-in-Residence John Cooper.

Plus, we’ll be completely free from worry about our replacements: the three finalists have been Skyped, vetted and vaccinated and they’re here on campus already fitting in. They’re being interviewed every lunchtime in TAB, they’re surrounded by adoring students, and they’re born classroom performers. So far their names are Ellie, Ezra and Willow [children born recently to COA faculty and staff]; but, down in Witchcliff, B&G is clearing out John’s animal trap room to make way for a cradle and a changing station in the event of a fourth candidate. They’ll be raised in captivity as all-out human ecologists. They’ll learn to stand on two legs, walk, dress themselves, read and earn their very own PhDs so they won’t need us. They’ll spare us the inconvenience of the search process, they won’t need an instruction manual and they’ll be a natural fit from day one. We welcome everyone to this campus, and their moms too.