Paul Boller, well-known presidential scholar and a TCU professor emeritus, dies at 97

Posted Saturday, Mar. 22, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Memorial service

TCU Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. requested that the TCU flag be lowered to half-staff Friday in Mr. Boller’s memory. A memorial service will be held at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the ballroom of the Brown-Lupton University Union.

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Well-known presidential historian and author Paul Boller often regaled his students and friends with stories about his experiences as a Japanese-language translator during World War II and of the lives of many presidents chronicled in his books.

But he was also known as a man of great compassion.

Mr. Boller, a professor emeritus of history at Texas Christian University, died last week in Fort Worth after a brief illness. He was 97.

Mr. Boller never married, but his niece Marina Jones of Palm Desert, Calif., said he was like a father and friend.

“When I think of him, the first word to come to my mind is fun,” she said. “We were so much alike, and we were always on the go. I just idolized him.”

During visits Mr. Boller often had parties to introduce his niece to his friends and colleagues, and she reciprocated, inviting her friends to meet him.

Jones also recalled that she always made sure to have 10-pound weights, dark chocolate and port wine on hand because Mr. Boller was concerned about his health and the environment. “He was a 97-year-old man in a 60-year-old body,” she said.

Jones said she and her uncle also loved discussing presidential history and would often analyze the inaugural speeches.

Distinguished career

Although Mr. Boller retired from TCU in 1983, he stayed involved with the university, often visiting with students.

Dan Williams, director of the TCU Press and an honors professor of humanities, said he met Mr. Boller five years ago when there were concerns that the press might close.

“He came in and asked what he could do to help,” Williams said. “Paul was a man of unlimited compassion and friendship. We became quite close.”

The press published a collection of Mr. Boller’s essays two years ago, Williams said, and Mr. Boller submitted a draft for another book recently.

Ken Stevens, chairman of TCU’s history department, said Mr. Boller was always on hand to talk to students. “He knew hundreds and hundreds of people,” he said. “He was an all-around good guy, and he was a good storyteller and a listener.”

After his retirement, Mr. Boller devoted his life to scholarship, and his books provided insight into the lives of the presidents. Titles include Presidential Anecdotes, Presidential Wivesand Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play From George Washington to George W. Bush.

In Presidential Diversions, Mr. Boller described how John Quincy Adams was the only president to swim nude in the Potomac River, and on one occasion a tramp stole his clothes. Adams had to ask a boy to go to the White House to fetch something for him to wear.

Mr. Boller was born Dec. 31, 1916, in Spring Lake, N.J. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 1939 and pursued graduate studies there.

During World War II, Mr. Boller attended the Navy language school in Boulder, Colo., where he learned Japanese. He served as a Navy translator in Honolulu and Guam.

In 2011, Mr. Boller was featured on the History Detectives TV show for his work creating leaflets that were dropped from B-29s calling for the Japanese to surrender and to encourage civilians to evacuate from cities that were possible bombing targets.

During the 1980s, longtime friend and retired attorney David Broiles persuaded Mr. Boller to return to Japan. Mr. Boller insisted on “relearning” Japanese, Broiles recalled, and the two traveled to a museum in Hiroshima where the pamphlets he helped to create were on display.

After the war, Mr. Boller returned to Yale and earned a doctorate. He taught history at institutions including Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Mr. Boller joined TCU in 1976 as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Chair of United States History and retired in 1983 to become a professor emeritus and scholar.

He earned many awards, according to an article in TCU Magazine, including 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 honorary doctorate in literature from Texas Wesleyan University.

Although Mr. Boller was well-known and recognized for his work, his friends and students were always a priority in his life, recalled another longtime friend, Jeff Barnard of St. Louis.

“Paul always knew how to defend his beliefs,” Barnard said. “He was just so personable and likable that he could talk to right-wing religious fanatics without antagonizing them.

“Someone called Paul a ‘Sermon on the Mount Democrat.’ He wasn’t really religious, but he believed in doing unto others as they would do unto you. He had a good heart.”

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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