75th Anniversary Speek by Derek Bok – 2004

Twenty-five years ago, I was privileged to speak on the occasion of the Bok Sanctuary’s 50th anniversary. I could hardly be confident then that I would be fortunate enough to find myself speaking again today. Nor could I have foreseen how the sanctuary would move from family oversight to the benevolent stewardship of a board of Floridians or how it would flourish as a result. The Visitors’ Center, the new conservation programs, and the increased access to local schools and groups are all testimony to the vision and hard work of the new board and the vigorous leadership of Bob Sullivan and his staff. Truly, we gather here today at a high point in the history of the Bok Sanctuary.

Anniversaries are times to look back on where we came from, what we have achieved, and how well we have adapted to a world very different from the United States of 1929, poised at the end of the “Roaring Twenties” and on the brink of a great depression that would change the nature of America forever. The sanctuary, as we all know, was the personal vision of my grandfather, Edward Bok. Grandfather lived the life of Horatio Alger. His family arrived in the United States when he was only six. At thirteen, he left school to go to work as an office boy at Western Union. Three years later, his father died, placing primary responsibility for sustaining his family on his own young shoulders. Rising to the challenge, he went to work at a publishing house and then, at the age of twenty-six, became the editor of the leading women’s magazine of the day, The Ladies Home Journal, a job he held for the next thirty years. Always an activist, he used his position to mobilize women on behalf of a series of social causes—clean water, safe medicines and drugs, prenatal education and child care, better architecture, and many others. All Floridians are indebted to him for his successful campaign to preserve the egret from fashion designers intent on using egret feathers to flatter the tastes of their clients. Eventually, he retired to a life of civic engagement, from fighting on the national stage for the League of Nations and the World Court to efforts closer to home supporting the Philadelphia Orchestra and other local initiatives. One of the high points of his later life was winning the Pulitzer Prize for writing his rage-to-riches autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok. One of the low points of my life was being forced by a well-meaning eighth-grade teacher to read long excerpts of the book to my smirking classmates.

Grandfather never forgot his Dutch roots. There was a legend in his family about an ancestor who was commissioned by the Dutch king to rescue a barren island off the coast of Holland and restore it to its pristine beauty. However true or false the legend may be—and this is a matter of some dispute—it lived in the mind of my grandfather and eventually inspired him to build the sanctuary here on this elevated spot, which another legend also describes as an island long ago when Florida was reputedly covered with water. The sanctuary was one of his ways of leaving the world a bit better and more beautiful than he found it and of trying to give something back to America in gratitude for all this country had given him.

But more than gratitude and sentimentality were involved in building the sanctuary. As he wrote in his book TWICE THIRTY, Florida was even then in danger of being overrun by developers at great cost to its natural beauty. By preserving spaces such as this, he wanted not only to offer sanctuary to migrating birds and preserve other flora and fauna; he also hoped to create a quiet and beautiful spot in which people could take refuge from the pressures of the outside world and get in touch with something more profound and more essential in their own natures. As he described it:

“There are those who are afraid to be alone, but there are also those who seek for the spot where one can be apart and take an inventory of the things that count and are not of the flesh. Some natures there are who feel it incumbent to take a personal accounting; to drop the lead and sound the bottoms of Life now and again; to refresh themselves in the song of the meadowlark or see a sunset from some quiet mount; to invite the inner self and bring it to the surface. Some natures grow larger from such contacts; some thoughts come at such times that go deeper; some lives there are which become fuller and richer from moments of repose and aloofness from the traffic of the world.”

These sentiments, expressed three-quarters of a century ago, ring even truer today than when he wrote them. Urban sprawl and human settlements have grown well beyond anything he could have imagined. 

Scientists who care about preserving nature and its living species say that, by far, the greatest threat is not acid rain or polluted streams but the relentless march of human habitation as more and more people seek larger and larger homes with more and more space around them. In such a world, Grandfather’s desire to offer sanctuaries for nature seems farsighted indeed.  

Equally prescient was his desire to create quiet places for people seeking sanctuary from the busy world. Not everyone perceived such a need. As this Tower was being built, prominent social thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes and Harold Laski were prophesying that growing affluence in industrial societies would automatically bring about a society in which more and more people would be freed from daily toil to enjoy more leisure and to spend more time taking an interest in music, literature, and other cultural pursuits. As it turns out, however, nothing of this kind has occurred. Americans are working as hard today as they did in 1950. The best educated, most affluent Americans, who could most be expected to live the more leisurely lives that Keynes foretold, are actually working more hours per week today than they did several decades ago. 

In major law firms, corporations, leading hospitals—investment houses, consulting firms, and top government offices—sixty and seventy-hour weeks are a common occurrence for successful professionals.  

Not surprisingly, there are costs to living at such a pace. The familiar hazards of pressure-filled lives —occupational stress, substance abuse, divorce, and other afflictions have all increased. Although our standard of living has risen several times over, psychologists tell us that Americans are no happier now than they were 50 years ago. If grandfather were alive today, therefore, he would think it more important than ever to offer places of beauty and repose where harried individuals could seek reflection and find sanctuary from the hectic pace of contemporary life. He would hardly change the words he wrote 75 years ago that “The watch-towers of life are not all atop great office buildings,–some folks find them on a mountain, beside a brook, or in the quietness of a pine forest where even the carpet of needles is silent to the tread.”

Fortunately, Edward Bok was never so wedded to his ideas that he became incapable of change.

On the contrary, his ability to recognize new ideas and to capitalize on fresh opportunities was what enabled him to remain a successful editor for 30 years during a time of great change in America. 

He would never have wanted the sanctuary to remain a static institution. The essential purposes he would not have wished to change. But he would welcome the introduction of new ways of achieving those purposes, such as the new scientifically-based conservation programs and creative education programs for children that now exist at the sanctuary. Seeing these changes amid a deeper continuity, he would be a very happy man were he able to join us today. He would rejoice, as we rejoice, in seeing a Sanctuary more beautiful than he left it, more active in its good works than he conceived it, yet continuing as a place of quiet contemplation and repose for people eager for a respite from a world even more fevered and hectic than the one he knew.

Surely, he would say, my cup runneth over. And so, to all those who have worked so hard and successfully to keep Grandfather’s dream alive, I thank you most warmly on behalf of my entire family.

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