At the beginning of last semester, an alumnus emailed Luis Beltran ’13 an unusual letter. Although Luis corresponds annually with alumni who contribute to his Bowdoin QuestBridge scholarship, this letter was different. Reverend Albert W. Tarbell, who at 102 was the oldest living Bowdoin graduate, had gone beyond the usual formalities of this type of exchange. “He really wanted to know more about me and me to know him, too,” Beltran said.
Beltran quickly wrote back, and soon the two settled into regular correspondence. Coincidentally, both Beltran and Tarbell were from New Mexico; Beltran immigrated there when he was one, and Tarbell relocated there after World War II. This similarity was the first of many to be discussed in a total of 27 emails they exchanged throughout the fall, Beltran said. At times they sent short messages, but more often Tarbell emailed reflective and thoughtful letters, and Beltran said he paid close attention “to the words of wisdom and advice of someone who had lived a century.”
Beltran said he learned about Tarbell’s fascinating and varied life, which began in Bangor, Maine in 1909. After Tarbell graduated from Bowdoin in 1932, he earned his masters degree from Yale’s drama school. When he shared stories of working as an actor, director and Broadway producer in the 1930s, he dropped names of actors such as Clifton Webb, Estelle Winwood and Hope Williams.
When Tarbell retired from the army in 1956, he entered seminary school in New York to become an Episcopal priest. Eventually he started a church in New Mexico, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and was still giving communion at 100 years old. “He was inspired by his time in the army and his wife’s religion to do something that improved the human condition,” Beltran said. “The war had a dark impact on his life, but he turned it around to become a faithful and positive person.”
Paraphrasing a local newspaper story, Beltran said “It was like he lived three who lives in the course of a century.” Beltran said he admired how Albert had drawn from his education and experience to pursue a variety of callings.
As winter break drew near last semester and the two grew closer, they discussed meeting when Beltran returned home. “He was excited for me to come see him,” Beltran said. Tarbell’s health began to deteriorate through December and Caroline Kennedy ’82, Albert’s grand-niece, encouraged Beltran to visit as soon as possible. Beltran went directly to Tarbell’s home from the Albuquerque airport. When he entered Tarbell’s darkened living room, Tarbell’s “eyes lit up a bit. He perked up and we just started talking.”
Soon after, on December 26th, Tarbell passed away in his home, a day before his 103rd birthday.
Kennedy said the friendship meant a great deal to her uncle, “who was impressed that such a young man was truly interested in him, more than 80 years his senior! My uncle was always eager to reach out to others, from young people like Luis (who have such a bright future) to the folks who had lived through the same times he had.”
Initially, Beltran thought he would not have much to share with Tarbell, considering their age difference. But he was quickly disabused of that idea. In a tribute he wrote about Tarbell, he encouraged other students to reach out to alumni, “if not to thank them for aid, to at least remind each other of the bonds we hold in our community.”