Travelling in Japan, if you said to someone, ‘Boys, Be Ambitious!’ you would be readily understood. It’s a widely used expression, and it is the most lasting creation of Massachusetts’ Renaissance man William Smith Clark.
Even today if you travel to Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, you will find images and statues of Clark bearing the phrase, an unlikely outcome of his eight-month visit to the country 150 years ago.
Clark was a whirlwind of a man from Ashfield, Mass. who served as a colonel in the Civil War, was educated as a scientist and played a major role in founding two universities: Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1864, which became the University of Massachusetts, and the Sapporo Agricultural College in 1876, which later became Hokkaido University, one of Japan’s seven national universities.
Clark was an enthusiastic supporter of Massachusetts Agricultural College after leaving the Union Army in 1864. When the Congress set aside federal lands for sale to support the establishment of colleges, Clark became an active political supporter of the agricultural school and he took over as its president in 1867, serving until 1879.
He played a major role in organizing and stabilizing the institution after its launch. In 1874, Clark was invited to Japan to help establish its Sapporo Agricultural College, where he also served as head of the school. While in Japan he was also an active proselytizer and converted a group of students to Christianity. He boastfully noted that while he was only going to serve for eight months, he was certain he could get double the amount of work done as an ordinary man.
Upon leaving, he gathered together the students and gave them a rousing goodbye, telling them: “Boys, be Ambitious!”
The entire speech is memorialized today at the college: “Boys, be ambitious. Be ambitious not for money, not for selfish aggrandizement, not for the evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man can be.”
Upon returning to Massachusetts, Clark eventually turned his attention to mining, establishing the Clark and Bothwell company with John R. Bothwell in 1880. Bothwell, however, was a dishonest man and ultimately ruined Clark financially.
Largely forgotten in Massachusetts, Clark remains a prominent face in Japan where his likeness is used in images representing the Kitahiroshima city, known as “the ambitious city.” Among other places, his bearded face appears on the city’s crest.