LOS ANGELES — Roger Boesche, a popular professor and renowned scholar credited by Barack Obama with sparking the future president’s interest in politics when he was an undergraduate at California’s Occidental College, has died at age 69.
Boesche died in his sleep Tuesday at his home near the campus, university spokesman Jim Tranquada told The Associated Press. No cause of death was given, but the professor had been afflicted since childhood with rheumatoid arthritis and had undergone numerous surgeries throughout his lifetime.
He had attended the university’s commencement ceremonies on May 21, receiving a standing ovation from faculty, staff and students when it was announced that he was retiring after 40 years.
“Roger was a beloved figure on campus and a nationally known scholar and teacher who really demonstrated the ability of a great teacher to transform lives,” Tranquada said Thursday.
Perhaps never more so than in the case of Obama, someone he once chastised for not putting in enough effort when the future president asked why he received a B in political theory instead of an A.
“I said, ‘Well, frankly, I think you’re really brilliant, but you don’t work hard enough,’ ” Boesche recalled telling Obama.
The former president clearly never held a grudge.
“I had a wonderful political science class, I still remember the name of the professor, Roger Boesche at Occidental College,” he told reporters in 2010 when asked to name his favorite college class.
“It sparked my general interest in politics,” continued Obama, who transferred from Occidental to Columbia University after his sophomore year and later earned a law degree from Harvard.
Obama, who called Boesche “just a wonderful, wonderful teacher,” invited him to the White House for a visit in 2009.
Boesche earned Bachelor of Arts and doctorate degrees from Stanford University, where he led protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ’70s. He was hired by Occidental in 1977, beating out approximately 250 other applicants for the job, according to the college.
Soon after arriving he led efforts to have the university sever business ties with South Africa while it was ruled by its racial separatist apartheid government.
Popular with both faculty and students, he was twice voted Occidental’s best teacher by its senior class. He received similar honors from his fellow teachers, who also selected him faculty president in the 1990s.
An expert on political theory and history, Boesche published several books, including “Theories of Tyranny: From Plato to Arendt” and “The Strange Liberalism of Alexis De Tocqueville.”
Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 15, he endured more than a dozen surgeries during his lifetime and said he was told by one doctor not to expect to live past 60.
Although the once athletic teenager used a wheelchair to get around in his later years, he didn’t let it deter him from either of his two passions, teaching and travel. He said last year that he and his wife, Mandy, had visited 120 countries, including Nepal, Mali, Madagascar, Pakistan and Greenland, and were collaborating on a travel book.
He is survived by his wife and their daughter, Kelsey.