Dr. Bernard Lown

"I am less eager to make a point than to make a difference."

-Bernard Lown, MD


Bridge Naming Ceremony Speech
Lewiston, Maine, October 17, 2008
Bernard Lown, MD

I left Lewiston precisely 70 years ago. Since departing for the University of Maine in 1938, I visited Lewiston only three times: once to give a commencement address at Bates college, once to talk about the nuclear threat and today for this festive Bridge ceremony. Yet Lewiston has left a far deeper and more enduring impact on me than Baltimore, New York City or Boston, where I had lived far longer.

It is here in Lewiston that I gained initial exposure to the remarkable American experience and learned the English language. Learning English was not a completely happy undertaking. High School sophomore English was especially traumatic. The teacher regarded me a bumbling idiot. I could not distinguish the proper pronunciation of certain words. When I was called in English class to read some passages out loud there was commotion. The class went into hilarious uproar when I read "I was lying on the bitch."

I was kept back after class and got an F for the year. As a result I was not accepted to any college except the University of Maine and there only on trial. I was informed by the dean that if I worked hard, I was a potential "C" student. When graduating with the highest of honors, I proved the inadequacy of pedagogy in assessing individual potential. However because of the tough love as a sophomore in Lewiston High, I concentrated on mastering the English language by studying Webster's dictionary as well as prodigious reading of literature. It helped me hone a sensibility of the power and beauty of English. Without this traumatic experience I would probably not have been an effective communicator nor successful organizer. So thank you Lewiston High School.

It is here, in Lewiston that I fell in love and courted Louise. She was my first tutor in the basics of English. A few months hence, Louise and I will celebrate our 62nd wedding anniversary. This enduring compact is testimony of Louise's forbearing character. I don't know about Louise, but I am certain that this was the wisest choice I have ever made. I have never encountered a more exceptional human being, kind and forgiving, always on the lookout to be of help to others, a wise mother, a solicitous grandmother, a healer, an interesting companion, a comrade in common struggle, and above all a spiritual mate. So thanks again Lewiston.

My intent to pursue a medical career also began in Lewiston. My interest was actually to be a foreign correspondent, until I was invited for a Saturday afternoon tea in the home of Dr. Max Hirshler - a German refugee surgeon who practiced internal medicine. Interestingly the discourse in the Hirshler home did not deal with doctoring, but rather was sweeping in cultural reach. I sat there spell bound, ignorant and envious. I had never heard of Francois Villon, the 15th century French poet and troubadour. For the first time I listened to the magical music of Antonio Vivaldi. I concluded that doctors were in the cultural avant-guard of civilization. From that moment on I was determined to pursue medicine. I never regretted that judgment though based on a false assessment. Dr. Hirshler urged me to apply to The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which he regarded as number one in the USA, and that is where I obtained a medical degree. Again thanks Lewiston for helping with the right career choice.

Lewiston was also the place where I cut my political teeth, gained a critical view of the political order and acquired a deep insight into our class dominated society. This too happened in a most unexpected manner. I was constantly complaining to my father about my meager allowance, then 75 cents a week. One day he indicated that if I worked part time in the Lown Shoe factory, then on strike and short of workers I could grow instantly rich. I could earn as much as $15 a week. I jumped at it. It was the cold winter of 1937. Lewiston and Auburn were then driven by the largest strike in the state of Maine's history, led by the United Shoe Workers of America (CIO). At the time, I saw no moral issue in being a strike-breaker.

One day when I was walking through a long picket line at the Lown Shoe Company in Auburn, a picket yelled out "scabs." These were mostly French-Canadian workers confronting out of state recruited strike breakers, who looked more like thugs and goons than shoe workers. To this day, I remember distinctly the picket who did the shouting. He was a short, scrawny, middle aged man. No sooner did he shout when he was knocked unconscious by one of the strike breakers. He was on the ground with a broken nose and knocked out teeth reddening the white snow with profuse bleeding. At this point a rush of policemen arrested the unconscious man. I was outraged.

I became obsessed with learning about events convulsing Lewiston and Auburn. Pickets were being roughed-up and arrested by the police and the National Guard armed with submachine guns. The justice system was transformed into largely kangaroo courts, flagrantly biased against the workers, issuing injunctions abrogating fundamental civil rights, prohibiting mass meetings, invoking medieval conspiracy laws not used in 100 years. French Canadian workers, barely literate, were accused of being part of an international communist conspiracy. The press was primarily publishing manufacturers handouts, not mentioning the long grueling hours, the abysmal working conditions and the meager wages. The strikers and their families were being starved and frozen into submission.

When the assault against working people in the great shoe strike finally reached the US Supreme Courts there was shock. One of the justices compared what happened in Lewiston and Auburn to the practices of Nazi Germany. No doubt the fact that I was a refugee from Hitlerism, arriving in Lewiston two years before these events unfolded, accounts for their deep impact.

I have retained a permanent sense of outrage against such unfairness and injustice. In this age when the word liberal evokes disdain, I am proud to pronounce myself to the widest public as unapologetic "radical." After all our Founding Fathers were radicals. The deepest thinking people who ever lived from Moses, Jesus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein were all radicals. They groped at the roots to bring forth new ideas. So thanks once again Lewiston and Auburn for sharpening my moral sensibilities while I was still an impressionable teenager.

I have expressed appreciation to Lewiston and Auburn for enriching my life in four vital areas; namely, mastery of the English language, gaining a lifelong companion, choosing medicine as my profession, and providing me with a moral compass. But there is a fifth reason - this morning's bridge naming.

Much in life that is meaningful is propelled by mini conspiracies of some well meaning folks. As the great American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, wrote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

It invariably begins with an inspired idea obsessing someone. Nothing very much happens until he or she involves another, then another, and then another. This very same thing is true of the bridge. It was a true maverick, Allen Harvie, who conceived of the bridge naming after listening to a commencement address I delivered at Bates College 25 years ago. As he wrote in a recent email "I can finally see the shoreline after a very long journey. It has been a most wondrous voyage."

But an idea is never enough, one must persevere and persuade others. Harvie persevered for a quarter of a century. His idea had no takers until he connected with another enthusiastic conspirator, in the person of Lewiston's Mayor, Lawrence Gilbert. For Louise and myself this brought an early dividend as we become friends with Larry and Pat Gilbert. Harvie also found close support from Auburn's Mayor John Jenkins. State Representative Richard Wagner carried the project to the State House where he obtained a strong assist from representative Emily Caine from Orono and from the University of Maine. The State legislature approved unanimously and this past April Governor John Baldacci made it official. Thank you all of the unsung movers and shakers who made this special day possible.

I must confess that having a bridge named for someone appears far more significant than the naming of a street, an avenue or a building. A bridge metaphorically projects the image of connecting, crossing a divide, of bridging differences. This is a bridge to Somewhere, not a Washington earmark.

The bridge is especially meaningful to me as a physician. To be an effective doctor one must be able to connect with another human being. In fact to connect is to build a bridge. It is a prerequisite to fostering trust; indispensable for gaining understanding, obligatory in comprehending illness and mandatory for healing the afflicted. It is key to exposing and grasping the deeper human ache. One is always building bridges in order to gain friends.

But this bridge is far more than the honoring of a single individual. This bridge promotes the quest for peace. This singular dedication is juxtaposed to the more frequent celebration of war and militarisms. Long ago John Lennon, of Beatle fame, wrote a song "Give Peace a Chance." This goal has been far too long delayed. In songs, in poetry, in prayers, in shouts and whispers, in endless demonstrations people have denounced the ugliness of war. No more angry or powerful lyric has been written than Bob Dylan's "Masters of War."

Forgive my indulgence in selected excerpts from Dylan:
"Come you masters of war/You that build all the guns/You that build the death planes/You that build the big bombs.... You that never done nothin'/But build to destroy/You play with my world/Like it's your little toy/ ...You lie and deceive/A world war can be won/You want me to believe... You fasten the triggers/For the others to fire/Then you set back and watch/When the death count gets higher/ ...You might say that I'm young/You might say I'm unlearned/But there's one thing I know/Though I'm younger than you/Even Jesus would never/Forgive what you do."

Peace has been intoned prayerfully from the earliest recorded human history. But instead we have had thousands of years of killing. "Thou shalt not kill" remains the most powerful commandment Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. Proscription against murder has been codified into the laws of every nation. Murder when committed by an individual is severely punished. And here is the odd paradox. When a murderer rampages in a community, killing one or more people, it is widely headlined in news media; the outrage is felt everywhere and condemned. Yet, no one blinks at the fact when nations engage in mass killings, nor do we regard the death of thousands as mass terrorism.

We just killed off more than 300,000 Iraqis. We don't think our morals are compromised. We don't think our religious faith is compromised. We don't think our human values are compromised. On the contrary, we do not question it. We equate it with nobility, heroism, patriotism and bestow honors. We are made to think of it as promoting democracy, bringing civilizing values to barbarians. Cities are filled with monuments commemorating battles and generals.

Wars and militarism exact enormous costs not only in human life, nearly exclusively of the very young, but in the resources needed for a civil society to function. Lewiston and Auburn, as well as the State of Maine, have budget deficits and are forced to cut back on social services. Similar fiscal crises afflict every community across the USA.

Everywhere you hear the mantra that we have to curtail spending. This means cut back on help for the needy, for the poor, for the old, for the disabled, for young people, for education, for health care, for police, for firefighters, for veterans, for energy independence, for inner cities. We are told we are living beyond our means. We are lectured by business school types that we have to be fiscally responsible. We must cut back on governmental waste.

No governor, no federal or state official, no mayor, no media pundits dare to tell people the truth. We have plenty of money. And here is the big secret. We spend much of it on the military. This year we shall be spending close to one trillion dollars on the military. You wouldn't know it. It is squirreled away in various pockets, so the ordinary citizen can't figure out how much is being spent. It is hidden in the Pentagon budget, in separate allocations for the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, in the Veterans Department, in the budget of Homeland Security, in the Energy Department, in 16 secret service agencies, and God knows where else.

Firing a single tomahawk missile costs more than $500 thousand, that could build 20 schools in Afghanistan. Which is more likely to defeat the Taliban? A B1 bomber, once intended to fight the Cold War, costs more than a billion dollars. We haven't stopped building like planes. The amount spent on a single bomber could fund Pell grants for 700,000 American youngsters to attend college.

Pray tell me which would make America safer? Building costly weapons to fight the Cold War, that ended in 1991 or being more competitive in global markets? Certainly educating our youngsters would not only give them hope for a better more meaningful life, but would give our nation strength. This at a time when our schools are run down. This at a time when 65% of all 12 graders in America can't read and write the English language at their level. This at a time when US high school students rank at the very bottom in math and science among industrialized countries.

I am therefore proud that my hometown is celebrating peace. A commitment to waging peace needs to spread all over our great country. If we Americans lead in promoting peace, the world will follow. Confronting us is whether to choose triumph of the human spirit or colossal tragedy for all of humankind. Which shall it be? This is largely up to us.

By naming a bridge honoring peace, you have taken a single step forward, to lift the curtain on a new age and away from the sickening tragedy that has befallen all of us.

I thank you for honoring me in such a meaningful way.


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