This article is the first in a two-part series chronicling the life of University President Lawrence Bacow. This article will examine Bacow’s life before he came to Tufts; the second part will look into his life upon moving to Boston.
Although he spent three of his undergraduate years on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s sailing team on the nearby Charles River, University President Lawrence S. Bacow grew up sailing on an entirely different body of water.
“You can rarely walk more than a mile without running into a lake,” Bacow said of his home state, Michigan.
Tufts’ current president was born in August of 1951 in Detroit to immigrant parents. Growing up in nearby Pontiac, a factory town that housed three General Motors (GM) plants, Bacow said his early life was characterized by a socioeconomic awareness created by the town’s association with GM.
“[In Pontiac], either you worked for GM, or you were part of the economy that was supported by GM,” Bacow said.
While his own father was a lawyer, Bacow remembers being constantly surrounded by classmates whose parents were working directly for GM.
It took until Bacow’s junior year at a new high school, however, for him to realize the clear “pecking order” that the industry created.
Bacow switched high schools between his sophomore and junior year of high school, when a family move to a new home only a couple of miles away placed him in a new school district.
“I never really connected with my new high school; it was a very different kind of place,” Bacow said.
While his former high school had been a large, diverse, inner-city high school, the new school was more suburban, and subsequently more focused on class.
“The [new] high school that I went to was very status-conscious,” Bacow said. “Coming from Pontiac, I was sort of from the wrong side of the tracks.”
Bacow remembers one of his first feelings of culture shock at his new school, when he tried out for the tennis team.
“My first day there, I was paired up with a guy to play doubles, and one of the first questions he asked me was ‘What does your father do?’ [At my first high school], no one had ever asked me that before,” Bacow said. “But at the high school that I graduated from, there were a lot of executive parents, and so where they worked in GM tended to determine the pecking order of the students there.”
Despite feeling inadequate at his new high school because of his inner-city upbringing, Bacow said that a harmonious family environment fostered his good upbringing.
“I had a very happy childhood,” he said. “My family was very close.”
Bacow explained that a large part of that closeness may have come from his parents’ roots as Holocaust survivors.
“My parents, in some ways, were the products of the American dream,” he said. “They came to this country literally with nothing. And a common pattern for Holocaust survivors was to try and recreate the notion of the family.”
Maintaining a close-knit family bond, Bacow’s parents also pursued their own version of the American Dream by making travel within the United States a family priority.
“I think there was this desire, being in the country that was not the one of their origin, to sort of embrace everything that was ‘American,'” he explained. “As a consequence, we were always going off to see the country, as a foursome. Once, I remember, when I was about eight years old, my parents took us out of school for six weeks and we took a road trip to California and back,” he said.
But before making trips across the country, Bacow said his family vacations were more modest.
Because both Bacow and his father were Eagle Scouts, the family often went on camping trips until his mother took issue with sleeping outside. “We were in a tent, and in a cold snap, the temperature that summer dropped to the mid-30s. At that moment, I remember looking next to us and seeing a family playing cards, wearing short sleeves. They were in a trailer. So my mother said, ‘If we’re gonna continue doing this, it’s gotta be like that,'” he said. “So we bought a trailer.”
Following his family’s love of the outdoors, Bacow developed a love for sailing at a very young age.
“I went to YMCA camp when I was about eight or nine, and I saw a sailboat for the first time, which is when I fell in love with the idea of sailing,” he said. “I came back home and told my parents I wanted to sail – so my father bought me a book, and for the next several years, I read everything I could read about sailing.”
Bacow explained that it wasn’t until several years later that he actually set foot on a sailboat.
“After having made some money from my paper route, I was able to buy an old, broken-down boat,” he said. “My father, meanwhile, had had a client who couldn’t afford to pay him a fee. So instead, the client gave him an interest on a piece of land that was on a lake, so we had lake privileges – then I learned how to sail.”
Upon coming to his new high school, with his plate already full with academics and extracurriculars, Bacow found time to take on an activity that would be a harbinger of his future leadership roles.
“When I went to my new high school, I was president of my National Honors Society,” he said. “It was the only thing I was ever president for before I became president at Tufts.”
But while his high school résumé entailed a hefty list of accomplishments, Bacow said it was his sister Lanie who took most of the limelight during his adolescence.
“I was a good student, but what’s interesting is that my sister was always the most popular kid in school,” he said. “She always had the lead in the school play, she had a gazillion friends, and I was just her nerdy little brother. When we were much younger, she would make me walk four or five steps behind her on the way to school.”
But the same “nerdy” characteristics that separated Bacow from his sister would make for a career heavy in academic success.
“In elementary and high school I entered in a bunch of science fairs,” he said. “I did an experiment with mice, where I tried to see whether or not they could recognize visual patterns. I won the science fair that year.”