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.
William Smith Clark, a whirlwind of a man from Ashfield, Mass., served as a colonel in the Civil War. He also received a scientific education at Amherst College and at the University of Goettingen.
He played a major role in founding two universities. Clark helped establish Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1864, later the University of Massachusetts. Few remember him for that.
He also founded the Sapporo Agricultural College in 1876, which evolved into Hokkaido University, one of Japan’s seven national universities. For that, people remember him.
William Smith Clark
William Smith Clark joined the faculty of Amherst College as a professor of analytical and applied chemistry in 1852. He returned to Amherst after the Civil War interrupted his career and began to lobby for the Massachusetts Agricultural College.
Congress had set aside federal lands for sale to support the new land-grant colleges. Clark then used his positions as president of the Hampshire Board of Agriculture and in the state Legislature to locate the college in Amherst.
In 1867, he took over as its president, serving until 1879.
William Smith Clark subsequently played a major role in organizing and stabilizing the institution after its launch.
In 1874, Clark received an invitation to Japan to help establish its Sapporo Agricultural College. Japan was then undergoing tremendous change, as a new government overthrew the feudal samurai and began to modernize the country.
William Smith Clark served as head of the Sapporo Agricultural College. While in Japan he also proselytized, converting a group of students to Christianity. He boastfully noted that while he only planned to serve for eight months, he knew he could do double the amount of work as an ordinary man.
Upon leaving, he gathered together the students and gave them a rousing goodbye, telling them: “Boys, be Ambitious!”
Today the college still memorializes the entire speech: “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. He founded the Clark and Bothwell company with John R. Bothwell in 1880.
Bothwell, however, had a questionable character and ultimately ruined Clark financially.
Largely forgotten in Massachusetts, Clark remains a prominent face in Japan. His likeness appears in images representing the Kitahiroshima city, known as “the ambitious city.” Among other places, his bearded face appears on the city’s crest.
This story last updated in 2023.