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President, Occidental College, 1921-1946

(This Biography is adapted primarily from Joan P. Olson's Remsen DuBois Bird: A Biography, a Master of Arts thesis written in 1977 when Olson was a graduate student at Occidental College's history department. For more information about President Bird and the Japanese American internment and relocation, consult the researchers guide.)


At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Remsen Bird was the president of Occidental College, a position he had held since 1921. Convinced that he and his colleagues shared a compelling obligation to help displaced Japanese American college students, Bird and a few other educators were instrumental in laying the groundwork for what would become the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. This is all but one of the many projects Bird took on during his long career in academia, and it conforms to his belief in the importance of an "open mind" throughout his life.


Born on January 3, 1888 in New York City, Remsen Dubois Bird lost his father at an early age and grew up in dire poverty. Bird recalled in later years how his mother was forced to surrender their furniture to a landlord in order to avoid eviction. From about the age 12, Bird lived periodically with an aunt and an uncle, who emphasized patriotism, hard work, and religious faith in their home. When he was 13, he lost his older sister Daisy to consumption; this was followed four years later by his mother's death. Bird later told friends that as he sat beside his gravely-ill mother, noting her worsening conditions and her thoughtfulness of him, he resolved to lead a life of service in her memory.


In 1905, Bird left New York for Easton, Pennsylvania, where he entered the Presbyterian-founded Lafayette College and earned an A.B. degree in 1909. (Lafayette College endowed him an honorary degree in 1919.) From 1909 to 1912, Bird matriculated at the Princeton Theological Seminary, earning a B.D. degree in church history. Perhaps because of the difficult and humble beginnings, Bird relished every opportunity to learn and to broaden his horizons, extending his studies in church history by another year at the University of Berlin. Rumors and talks of the impending world conflicts did not dim Bird's enthusiasm for Berlin and its vigorous intellectual as well as cultural life. At the end of the year abroad, Bird returned to Princeton Theological Seminary to teach church history.


That Bird believed in an open and liberal mind is evidenced by his decision to move, with his wife Helen (they had married in May 1914), from the east coast to the west. While developing a reputation as a good teacher at Princeton, Bird nevertheless found himself at odds with fellow faculty members and the school's prevailing rigid, conservative, and closed-minded attitudes. Bird was particularly disturbed by the Seminary's insistence on narrow interpretations of Presbyterian doctrines and its failure to utilize the Christian faith in important social issues. Finally in the summer of 1915, Bird accepted an invitation to become the California Chair of Church History at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California.


The Birds, who shared a passion for natural beauty, music, books, and friendships with people all over the world, found their new surroundings in northern California immensely satisfying. Between 1915 and 1921, Bird taught with other devoted and like-minded faculty, wrote poetry as well as plays, and when the need presented itself, filled temporarily empty pulpit in the area. (Bird had been ordained as a minister in 1912.) This relatively idyllic period was, however, interrupted by a major world event: World War I. The United States' entry into the war in 1917 was significant for Bird personally in at least one way: it was the impetus for serious introspection. Bird, despite a patriotic upbringing, wrote that he was "anything but heroic and belligerent and ... had no hatred of the Germans." As an ordained minister, Bird thought he might be called upon to serve as chaplain but found no enthusiasm for that role either. At 30, he was within draft age and dutifully filled out a government questionnaire. While awaiting a response, Bird learned unexpectedly that the Presbyterian Church of Pasadena had recommended him to serve at YMCA's centers in France. For the second time in his life, Bird found himself crossing the Atlantic Ocean full of hope, believing that he would well serve his country and his fellow men. 


During his wartime service, Bird had been surrounded by people from various backgrounds --- people outside the circle of faculty and students and their families which the Birds had built their lives around --- and after his return to California, he grew increasingly aware that he enjoyed the company of people above everything else. His calling in life was not serious scholarly research. Bird wrote, "I loved people, all kinds of them, wanted them around in great numbers ... And helping solve the complicated problems of persons enmeshed in difficulties soon became for me the most satisfying of all." The opportunity to enable Bird to utilize the talents he knew he possessed came in 1921 when the Board of Trustees of Occidental College asked Bird to become its next president. It was a position he would hold for the next 25 years. 


At the age 33, Bird was the one of youngest men ever to lead the school. He brought to Occidental, in the words of colleague Robert Cleland, "spontaneous enthusiasm, extraordinary energy, capacity for making friends for the college, imagination, a contagious love of beauty, and zeal for contributing to the common good." All of these qualities proved enormously beneficial for the liberal arts college. Bird's appreciation for natural beauty led to large-scale projects which improved the physical environment of the school, transforming the relatively barren landscape to one dotted with trees and vegetation. 


His genuine interest in and love for people meant that he was comfortable with persons of status --- and that he was a prodigious fundraiser. The Birds counted as their friends politicians, people in the entertainment and finance industries, members of the church, and of course, colleagues in the academia. Occidental's registrar during Bird's administration once said of him, "He had charisma before that word became overworked." Bird's ability to utilize his contacts raised much-needed funds for Occidental, especially during the Great Depression years when the school seemed to be perpetually mired in dire financial straits. 


Those who worked with Bird would recall most vividly his enormous energy in both utilizing his talents and inspiring those around him. Ideas poured out of him so fast that others at times found it difficult to keep up with him. Bird's mind was always engaged in visions of how to make the school better: an auditorium/theater on campus, the building of a second campus, fundraising campaigns, recruitment of faculty, relationship with local communities, strong interests in student affairs, and so on. Olive Hutchison, Bird's personal secretary from 1928 till 1945, remembered working with the president with fondness and amazement --- fondness because of Bird's kindness and amazement because of the zest he brought to his work, exemplified by his voluminous letter writing. At one point in the 1930s, the workload grew to a point where her doctor ordered it to be reduced. 


Bird's long tenure at Occidental was not without its critics. Admittedly and proudly an idealist, Bird often approached situations with emotions and not much analysis --- his contemporaries have described him as a "great dreamer" who "engaged in flights of fancy." He had been known to envision a large project, convince colleagues and community members to join the endeavor, and then dash off to another project leaving the details to others. At times potential donors found his fundraising tactics distasteful. Bird's feelings were hurt by some of the criticism, particularly the publication in 1939 of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley, whom Bird had regarded as a friend. In his satirical novel, Huxley portrays the character based on Bird as a college president wholly preoccupied with the pursuit of the rich and well-connected, speaking in an "oily manner, like vaseline with a flavour of port wine". According to Hutchison, Bird "went right to town and told Huxley just what he thought of him!"


Bird's 25-year tenure covered tumultuous times in history; his leadership took the College through first the Great Depression and then World War II. It is his idealism, however impractical or imperfect, that prompted him to defend liberalism and academic freedom (when George Day, professor of sociology and economics, was accused of being pro-communist, Bird resisted calls for Day's resignation and threatened to resign if the Board of Trustees fired Day), to refuse a large but questionable donation (businessman George Pepperdine had proposed to support the school's religion program with the condition that he would exert considerable influence by naming faculty members), and to become involved with the Japanese American student relocation.


Bird announced his resignation from Occidental College in 1945, citing health reasons. For the next 25 years he and Helen resided in Carmel, California where he remained active in preserving the natural beauty of the Monterey Bay area and in the founding of the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in 1955. Remsen Bird died of heart disease on April 9, 1971.


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