LEWISTON — Sometimes a life hinges on whether someone finds what they need at the moment they need it.

A Bates College professor played that role for one of America’s leading politicians during the Cold War, former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, a lanky young man from Rumford who walked into Brooks Quimby’s classroom during the early years of the Great Depression

Muskie called himself a “stumbling, bumbling person” who deliberately sought out Quimby and the debate team he coached because the future U.S. secretary of state wanted to become something more than he had been.

“I was a shy boy, determined to learn the art of self-expression to overcome that shyness,” Muskie said in a speech given years later.

Nestled in a folder in the Muskie Archives on Campus Avenue is a letter that Muskie wrote to his professor in 1967.

After logging two terms as Maine’s governor and winning election to the U.S. Senate, Muskie described Quimby in the epistle as “a hard-hearted taskmaster who was always a soft-hearted and understanding friend.”

“I am not sure that Brooks, as a loyal Republican, will regard what I am about to say as a compliment to his efforts,” Muskie wrote in tribute to the old man. “Nevertheless, his influence, more than that of any other teacher, contributed to my ultimate choice of public life as a career.”

Quimby dominated Bates for decades, the sort of figure so all-encompassing that he defined the school for generations. Fifty years after his death, Quimby’s legacy lingers, from the school’s successful debate club that bears his name to the hundreds of high-flying careers he shaped.

As King Virgil Cheek Jr., dean of North Carolina’s Shaw University, once wrote to Quimby in another letter preserved in the Muskie Archives, “It may be said that you are immortal because one never knows where your influence stops. Your work has left an indelible mark.”

Quimby, who grew up in Turner, graduated from Bates in 1918 — a century ago — and taught there from 1927 until his retirement in 1967. He died Dec. 13, 1968.

What he taught influenced generations of students and may still offer a path toward a more civil public discourse than the country has heard in years.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a Maine Democrat mentored by Muskie, wrote recently that Muskie in his prime “led the nation to understand that reasoned dialogue is possible even among those who disagree.”

“How quaint that notion seems now,” he said, “as our nation continues its descent into harsh, unbridled partisanship.”

The key to “reclaiming our democracy” is for leaders to “talk to each other” with respect and to focus on the common American ideals that Muskie held dear, Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, said during a recent forum at Bates.

“It would be most appropriate if the fix came from places like Bates College,” he said, the spot where Muskie learned the communication skills that took him so far in the public sphere.

Jane Fenderson Cabot, a former Muskie aide, said that because of her experience working with the senator, she has carried “a lifelong feeling that rational discussion of issues is important.”

She said Americans need someone like Muskie talking to President Donald Trump, injecting decency and civility into the national conversation.

What Muskie was came in part from Quimby.

QUIMBY A MODEL FOR DEBATE

Quimby explained his approach in a 1954 book for debate teachers. He told them that students need help “emotionally as well as technically.”

“They will get discouraged, tired and angry,” he said. “It is your job to furnish them inspiration and encouragement as well as direction.”

Irving Isaacson, a classmate of Muskie’s at Bates, said in an oral history that Quimby “was a country boy and looked like it: a tall, loose-limbed sort of straggly kind of guy.”

Quimby, though, possessed “a very keen, sharp, incisive mind and ability for analysis and ability to teach people how to look at things, how to analyze things, how to present themselves, how to be articulate or to become … articulate in a directed manner as opposed to spouting all over the place,” Isaacson said.

John J. Smith, a 1938 Bates graduate, remembered Quimby teaching him about “differentiating between the important and the superficial, in organizing chaos into meaningful order, and, perhaps most important of all, in recognizing the value of keeping quiet when there is nothing useful to say.”

During his own years as a student at Bates, Quimby compiled an impressive resume that included serving as Student Council president and editor of the newspaper. His older brother Clarence later wrote that Brooks was the first Bates freshman to participate in intercollegiate debate.

Aside from noting his honors, the yearbook noted that Quimby’s “frankness of speech is often caustic, yet fairness must be conceded to him. He has college spirit to the Nth degree and his hard work cannot be too deeply appreciated.”

One of Quimby’s teammates in debate was Benjamin Mays, the longtime president of Morehouse College and the man Martin Luther King Jr. once called “my spiritual mentor and my intellectual father.”

Mays said in a letter to Quimby that during their time together in Lewiston during World War I, the older student was one of the men “I looked up to, respected and admired.” That admiration, he said decades later, never diminished.

“We are all in your great debt for doing so much for Bates College and for the debating world,” Mays said.

Quimby briefly became a chicken farmer after graduation and then taught in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Portland before Bates hired him in 1927 as its debate coach. Within a decade, he also chaired its Speech Department.

He guided Bates to the top tier of international competition in debate — a tradition that remains strong at the college — and served as vice president of the Speech Association of America for years.

Bates still calls its debate team the Brooks Quimby Debate Council.

Isaacson called Quimby “one of the really great, great professors at the college” who transformed many of the young men and women who entered his classroom.

Muskie was one of those young men, and his transformation became known on a national scale.

HOW QUIMBY SHAPED MUSKIE

Muskie once said the motivations that led him to a career of public service “lay dormant until awakened and stimulated by my training in debate.”

“Above all, (Quimby) taught us to seek fulfillment for ourselves by developing our capacity to make a contribution to the world about us,” Muskie said shortly before Quimby’s death. “He inspired us to do so, as he still does, by his own example.”

Muskie’s appreciation for Quimby “was very great,” Maine politician Clyde MacDonald Jr. said in an oral history contained in the Muskie Archives at Bates.

Betty Scott, a classmate of Muskie’s, said in an interview with archivists that “it wasn’t until maybe the end of his sophomore year that he really came into his own.”

“How much Brooks Quimby had to do with this I don’t know,” she said, “but I think he had a profound influence.”

“Whatever Quimby taught him, his classes and that debating, converted Muskie from a stammering and shy kid into a person that could express himself confidently. And if he didn’t have that, then he never would have had a political career,” MacDonald said.

Muskie told the American Forensic Association in a 1957 speech that he got involved in debate in high school but it took off at Bates to such a degree that in his junior year “I abandoned mathematics as a major” and instead focused on history and government.

Debate, he said, “had a profound and controlling influence upon my interests and undoubtedly it changed the whole course of my life.”

After Bates, Muskie went on to become the first Polish-American governor in the country, a U.S. senator, the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1968, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, and President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state in 1980, among many achievements that landed him among the most notable politicians of his era.

David Nevin, one of Muskie’s biographers, said that “the footing Quimby gave Muskie in debate is fundamental” to the career that followed.

“It had many effects on him, but one of the clearest was that it gave him a structured forum in which to escape his shyness,” Nevin wrote. “It gave him a reason to stand up and talk” and to focus “his quick mind and his developing ability to cut to the heart of an argument.”

Donald Nicoll, who managed Muskie’s vice presidential campaign in 1968 and remained close to the politician for life, said that in his later years his friend worried about the decline of courtesy in politics and the increasingly destructive nature of the back-and-forth among would-be leaders.

“He would go on and on and on and get worked up about it,” Nicoll recalled.

It was an issue that Muskie focused on frequently.

Nicoll said Muskie often brought up Quimby as he bemoaned the loss of civility — offering praise for his teacher that went “way beyond” the norm.

THE ART OF PERSUASION

It wasn’t until long after, when Nicoll interviewed Ruth Rowe Wilson, a Bates classmate of Muskie’s, that he figured out why Muskie so frequently mentioned Quimby and the unfortunate loss of civility.

In that discussion, available from the Muskie Archives, Wilson said Muskie always offered “reasoned, sensible argument” on any issue as a senator — and credited Quimby for helping forge those skills during their student days.

“Quimby’s whole theory was persuasion, you know, you do things by persuasion, and Muskie was a master at it,” she said.

Madeleine Freeman, a Bates student after Muskie graduated who helped found the League of Women Voters of Maine, said Quimby sometimes mentioned the senator and other politicians who had come through his door.

“These people had done what he wanted us to do, which was to be able to think straight, stand up on your feet, and … make a good presentation,” she said in an interview for the Muskie Archives. “I mean you had to be able to kind of project your voice, your body language, everything, and be persuasive.”

Former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler said Muskie, whom he long worked for, possessed a sonorous voice with a remarkable range, one of the reasons he could make such a good case on the stump.

“Oh, he could speak,” said Harold Pachios, a former chairman of Maine’s Democratic Party. “There are none like him now. He had the voice.”

He said Muskie had impeccable timing and “a remarkable gift of cadence.”

Campaign manager Nicoll said the “cool discourse” that Muskie learned from Quimby was the key to the senator’s success.

He recognized that the goal wasn’t “beating your opponent,” it was “patient, persistent persuasion.”

Looking around at an audience at Bates recently, Nicoll said, “He learned it right here.”

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The Bates College debate team pictured in the 1936 yearbook. Edmund Muskie of Rumford, who would go on to become a Maine U.S. senator and U.S. secretary of state, is in the front row, third from the left.

Brooks Quimby, a Bates College rhetoric professor from Turner, as he appeared in the college yearbook when Edmund Muskie graduated in 1936.

Edmund Muskie, as he appeared in the Bates College yearbook when he graduated in 1936. Class president in both his junior and senior years, Muskie was on the debate team for each of his four years at Bates. The George Bernard Shaw quote that accompanied his photograph said, “Kings are not born: they are made by universal hallucination.”

Muskie on the link between leadership and debate

In a 1957 speech in Boston, Maine Gov. Edmund Muskie called for everyone to embrace the art of debate.

“It should be practiced, not only on the level of Lincoln and Douglas, not only on the floor of the United States Senate, not only by politicians, but also by the average citizen — over the back fence, on street corners, in town meetings, by the use of both the written and the spoken word.

“It is so practiced, with varying degree of effectiveness, of course, because it is the natural state of man to be free, to govern himself, to entertain opinions on public questions and to undertake to convert his neighbors to his point of view.

“Debating, then, is possibly the most widely practiced of the arts in a free society. It is the most democratic of the arts, practiced even by my 7-month-old daughter who has not yet learned to speak.

“It is obvious, then, that the development of leadership in such a society has a very direct relationship to the art of debate.”

— Steve Collins, Sun Journal


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