History professor Paul F. Boller Jr. dead at 97

Longtime history professor had prolific career humanizing presidents and detailing the personalities of U.S. political leaders.


by Kathryn Hopper
Updated: Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Emeritus professor of history Paul F. Boller Jr. was the world’s leading authorities on the American presidency. (Photo by Linda Kaye)

Paul F. Boller Jr., emeritus professor of history and one of the world’s leading authorities on the American presidency, passed away March 16. He was 97.

Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. has requested the TCU flag to be lowered to half staff on Friday, March 28 in Boller’s memory. A memorial service will be held at Robert Carr Chapel at 3 p.m. Friday, March 28.

Boller was a longtime history professor at TCU, tireless champion of human rights and author of popular books on the American Presidency including Presidential Anecdotes, Presidential Wives and Presidential Diversions.

In his lectures as well as books, Boller humanized those who occupied the Oval Office with stories that brought insight into their drives and desires.

For example, in Presidential Diversions, a look at the favorite pastimes of various presidents, he noted that John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the only President to swim in the nude in the Potomac River.

“Every morning he walked to the Potomac, took off his clothes and plunged into the river,” Boller wrote. “One morning a tramp stole his clothes when he was swimming, and he had to ask a boy who happened by to run to the White House to get clothes for him.

Photo Another morning, a reporter, it was said sat down on his clothes after he hopped into the river and refused to let him have them until he promised to be interviewed.”

Boller was born on December 31, 1916, in Spring Lake, New Jersey. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 1939 with a B.A. degree and proceeded to Yale Graduate School.

He attended the U.S. Navy Language School in Boulder, Colorado in 1942 and 1943 and served in the U.S. Navy as a translator of Japanese in Honolulu and Guam. In 2011, Boller was featured on an episode of History Detectives that highlighted the role of propaganda leaflets dropped over Japan from B-29s during World War II. Boller helped create the leaflets, which called for Japan’s surrender and urged the evacuation of civilians in cities identified as possible bombing targets.

“The true heroes were at the front,” Boller told The TCU Magazine. “They are the ones who deserve to be honored. Still, I felt like I did a little something. It did save lives. I felt some pleasure in that.”

After the war, Boller returned to Yale and earned his Ph.D. in 1947. Over the next sixty years, he worked as a professor of history at various academic institutions including Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

In his book Memoirs of an Obscure Professor, Boller recounts his days SMU in the early 1950s and the conservative climate of the McCarthy era. The title came from a 1953 Chicago Tribune writer who took umbrage at something Boller had written calling him “an obscure professor.” Instead of being offended, Boller embraced the label.

“What’s so bad about obscurity? It’s a helluva lot better than celebrity! You don’t have to truckle to public opinion if you’re obscure, or do any grandstanding. Also: you can change your mind about things without provoking hoots and hollers. And, best of all, you don’t have to sound off on everything under the sun.”

PhotoIn 1976, Boller came to TCU as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Chair of United States History. In 1978, he wrote Freedom and Fate in American Thought before becoming a best-selling author with Presidential Anecdotes in 1981.

Boller retired from teaching in 1983 to become a professor emeritus and devoted himself to scholarship. He completed his trilogy of presidential books with Presidential Campaigns in 1984 and Presidential Wives in 1988. Other books Boller wrote after he retired included Hollywood Anecdotes, A More Perfect Union with Ron Story in 1988, They Never Said It with John George, Congressional Anecdotes, Not So! Popular Myths About America, and Presidential Inaugurations.

Boller donated his papers to the university and they are now housed in the library’s special collections.

 During his distinguished career, Boller received the Henry Seward Fellowship, the Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship, the Foote-Sheldon Clark Fellowship, the Macy-Howard Fellowship, the TCU Brachman Award for Excellence in Teaching, Mortar Board Top Professor Award, Honorary Alumnus Award, the John H. McGinnis Award, the Honors Faculty Recognition Award, and a 1993 doctorate in literature, honoris causa, from Texas Wesleyan University.

Photo In 2009, TCU held the first Paul F. Boller Jr. Symposium, an event honoring the longtime history professor.

Bestselling author Michael Beschloss was the inaugural speaker at the symposium and called Boller “a national treasure,” adding that speaking in front of him made him feel “like a young batter being told ‘Oh yeah, you’ll be wearing Babe Ruth’s uniform tonight.’ ”

In the most recent book, Essays on the Presidents: Principles and Politics, published by TCU press in 2012, Boller said history is full of questions and it’s the historian’s job to come up with thoughtful answers.

“Knowing something about the past is absolutely essential for making sensible choices in the present,” he wrote in the book’s preface. “Without putting our questions into the great world of the past, our choices and actions are likely to be simplistic, hit-or-miss or even reckless.”

From the archives:
Boller's role as linguist in World War II subject of "History Detectives" show
Sampling of Presidential Diversions

Boller’s linguistic role in World War II is part of an upcoming episode of the "History Detectives." - See more at: http://www.magazine.tcu.edu/Magazine/Article.aspx?ArticleId=515#sthash.7AMaPnDr.dpuf




3/22/2014 9:47:53 PM Mary Lee Sargent said:

Paul Boller was my professor at SMU from 1958 to 1962, and he was my friend for a lifetime. He inspired my choice of career – college teaching – and influenced my moral development and political worldview. He was loved and admired by his colleagues and thousands of students. I can't really believe that this beautiful and vibrant man is no longer going to answer his phone when I call to talk about history, politics, movies, our health and mutual friends. I don't know anyone who will be missed more that Paul.

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