Author: Michael Tonetti
The college celebrated the life, legacy and travels of Politics Professor Roger Boesche and his wife, Mandy Boesche, in front of an intimate audience in Keck Theatre March 15 with an event titled “Roger and Mandy: A Love Story and Inspirational Lift.”
Dean of the College Jorge Gonzalez and History Professor Nina Gelbart opened the event by providing introductions. Though he has been afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 16 and confined to a wheelchair for the majority of his adulthood, Roger Boesche ambled on stage alongside his college sweetheart and wife of 46 years to a standing ovation from family, friends and students past and present.
“He embodies everything that makes Occidental special,” Gonzalez said during his introduction. “Roger Boesche is an institution.”
The event was held to honor the 39-year teaching legacy of Roger Boesche and the life of his family. Roger Boesche, currently in the middle of a three-year retirement process, will teach his final course as a full-time professor next spring.
The two-hour event traversed the journey and adventures of the couple. Structuring the event around informal storytelling, the Boesches used a photo slideshow to walk the audience through some of their favorite travel memories acquired in over 120 countries. The short anecdotes told by the pair intermittently showcased how people, places, adventure, cultural competency and mutually earned respect are cornerstones in Roger Boesche’s life.
“All of us know [Roger Boesche] is physically handicapped, but he is the most mentally healthy, powerful and strong person I have ever known,” Politics Professor Tsung Chi, Roger Boesche’s colleague of a quarter century, said.
The stories told throughout the night reiterated the mental tenacity of Roger Boesche and the alacrity of his counterpart, Mandy Boesche. From swimming in a lake full of jellyfish on an island in Palau to hopping in precarious seaplanes in the Brazilian rainforest, the entire Boesche family has never backed down from exploring even the most remote locations. Though, with his condition, adventures in Madagascar or exploration in Tibet might seem an impossibility, Roger Boesche never allowed his physical disability to hold him back.
“You can’t tell Roger no,” Mandy Boesche said. “It just makes him want to do something even more. He would never say he couldn’t until he tried. He tackled the things they said that couldn’t be done, and over and over again, he did it — that’s Roger.”
Besides the Atlanta Braves, Roger Boesche values his family and the friendships he has made in his lifetime above all else. Fellow Stanford alum Mandy Boesche, a drama teacher at The Waverly School in Pasadena, shares his passion for world learning, as does their daughter Kelsey Boesche, an opera singer currently living in Berlin.
Kelsey Boesche participated in the event via live stream, and at every mention of his daughter, visible elation shone over her father’s face. Mandy Boesche spoke of her daughter’s show-stopping performances singing “Ave Maria” in a church in the country of Georgia and of her performing cartwheels during a ceremony at a village on the Ivory Coast.
Of course, Roger Boesche also cherishes and prioritizes his academic research and intellectual pursuits, a source of numerous relationships that have formed over his lifetime.
Roger Boesche’s pursuit of politics, and subsequent career based in political theory, almost never came to fruition because of the talents he showed in other subjects. A math and chemistry whiz throughout high school in Oklahoma, he enrolled at Stanford University in 1966 and, according to his first hand account, aced his honors calculus course, a rare feat for freshmen at the time. The university pushed him to pursue mathematics, but the subject proved inadequate in addressing the world problems that dominated the intellectual’s concerns. Roger Boesche found his calling in politics and subsequently had to break his epiphany to the Stanford mathematics department.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but the world is falling apart’ — it still is,” Roger Boesche said. “I wanted to study political philosophy to see if there are alternatives to what we’re doing. Science, especially mathematics, just seemed so abstract when you have all these real problems of racism and civil rights and such a terrible war [in Vietnam].”
Boesche has been at Occidental since 1977, and thousands of students, from politics to chemistry majors, have been influenced by his teaching. While President Barack Obama ‘83 may be the most distinguished of his pupils, Mandy Boesche commented that Obama “is just one of his many great students.”
Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan ’82 has specifically praised Boesche’s ability to synthesize complex concepts and break theories down into digestible, captivating lectures. According to Politics Professor Jane Jaquette — who, along with Politics Professor Larry Caldwell, helped hire Roger Boesche 39 years ago — he has impacted so many students because of his ability to move between theory and moral values.
“He is so well read, knows so much and has such a wealth of ideas and experiences that he is able to draw on so much when he talks about issues. He’s so capable of infusing material with life lessons and he’s also a superb political theorist,” Jaquette said.
Dan Curran ‘91 met and was impressed by Roger Boesche as a first year. When Curran decided to major in politics, he gathered the courage to knock on the door of the Boesches’ house just off campus, requesting to be his advisee. Soon after, he was not only Boesche’s advisee but also Kelsey Boesche’s regular babysitter.
As it became harder for Mandy Boesche to deal with an increasingly rambunctious Kelsey Boesche and a decreasingly mobile Roger Boesche, the two decided it would be helpful to add a fourth member to their travel convoy. Curran has now accompanied the Boesches to over 25 countries.
Curran was credited for his ingenuity in discovering the effective technique of pushing his mentor’s wheelchair, tilted back on the rear two wheels to make it through rough terrain. In return for the assistance and positive attitude he brings on trips, Curran has received guidance, inspiration and travel opportunities from Roger Boesche.
“He always encouraged me to just do something crazy, something that sounded challenging and different,” Curran said. “He is an incredible inspiration.”
Curran took his adviser’s advice straight after graduation, floating around Alaska, Japan and the Philippines before spending four years in Rwanda directing genocide relief efforts. When he returned to the United States nine years later for graduate school, he reconnected with the Boesche family and became a permanent addition to their travels.
Brandilyn Tebo ‘15 echoed Curran’s sentiments about how Roger Boesche has an ability to inspire his students and convince them of their own potential.
“He would always tell me what a brilliant student I was, and that I could accomplish anything I dreamed up, that I could be president if I wanted to,” Tebo said. “It’s not just me, every student comes away feeling that special.”
Although Roger Boesche’s time as a faculty member at Occidental will come to an end next year, his lessons live on through his students, though some traditions will be lost in his absence. For the past 25 years, politics department meetings have been held almost exclusively in the Boesche home. Holding the meetings there has not only been convenient for Roger Boesche but a joy to his colleagues.
“His home is warm and full of humor and laughter,” Chi said. “We drink wine and interact casually, organically as friends. There is no temperature, no warmth in a building; he created it. This will be missed greatly.”
The story of Roger Boesche’s life, family, travels, teachings and legacy at Occidental not only portrays a man with a unique ability to overcome physical limitations in daunting situations, but more importantly, it exemplifies the limitless influence of a curious mind, generous heart and relentless spirit.
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