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Roger Boesche, Oxy professor who sparked Obama's interest in politics, dies at 69

Roger Boesche, Oxy professor who sparked Obama's interest in politics, dies at 69
Occidental College politics professor Roger Boesche, a former professor of U.S. President–elect Barack Obama, in his home office in 2008. Boesche, who Obama has often cited as influential, died Tuesday at 69. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Roger Boesche, a beloved Occidental College professor of four decades whom President Barack Obama cited as sparking his interest in politics, died Tuesday. He was 69.

Boesche, a scholar of Alexis de Tocqueville and tyranny, taught American and European political thought until he retired this month.

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He passed away in his sleep at his home across the street from the Eagle Rock campus, school representatives said.

Obama took Boesche's classes in his two years at Occidental, and mentioned him to biographers and at a White House question-and-answer session as a favorite professor, even though he'd received a B in his class.

"I told him he was really smart, but he wasn't working hard enough," Boesche was quoted as saying in David Maraniss' 2012 book, "Barack Obama: The Story."

The professor reconnected with Obama over e-mail in 2004 during his Illinois senate race, and was later invited to visit the Oval Office in 2009.

The president wrote in a letter congratulating Boesche on his retirement: "Your classroom is where my interest in politics began."

While Obama was his most famous student, he was just one of scores who were inspired by Boesche over his years at Occidental.

"As one student told me, 'Obama can get in line,'" a colleague wrote on Facebook Tuesday.

Students often lined up outside his campus office — where in recent years, a life-size cutout of Obama stood — and dozens went on to become lifelong friends with whom he corresponded and whom he continued to advise.

"Roger changed my life, from the very first class, to the day I graduated, everything I learned from him shaped who I am today," said Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner for the New York City Department of Transportation and principal of Bloomberg Associates. "It was not only about political theory. It was about ideas, about society, community and public service."

Boesche was born Jan. 24, 1948, in Tulsa, Okla., and studied political science at Stanford, where he led protests against the Vietnam War and met his future wife, Mandy, who was a few years younger. It was for her that he remained at Stanford for his doctorate, according to a profile in the Occidental College alumni magazine.

He arrived at Occidental in 1977 as a young professor and quickly developed a devoted following among students.

"It was one of those courses that just about everybody who took it found it to be transformative," recalled Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio and an Occidental trustee who was a student in the late '70s. "It caused you to see the world differently think about your place in the world differently."

In the 1980s, he was one of the faculty leaders urging the college to divest from South Africa under apartheid. He won numerous teaching awards and served as the elected president of the faculty from 1990 to 1992, according to the college.

Boesche fought a lifelong battle with crippling rheumatoid arthritis, which shrank his previously athletic 6-foot frame and later put him in a wheelchair. But he didn't allow the illness to keep him from his many passions, which included teaching, writing and travel, friends said.

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He and Mandy traveled to more than 120 countries, including Nepal, Mali, Madagascar and Pakistan.

"Roger did in a wheelchair what 99% of humanity would be terrified to do with armed bodyguards," said Andrew Pappas, an attorney who said he took at least one class with Boesche every semester for three years in college—so many that he says he "minored in Roger Boesche."

Boesche and Mandy had been working on a book about their travels, in part to encourage others with disabilities to do the same, said Heidi Johnson, a longtime family friend.

"Roger was writing it and Mandy was making it funny," she said. "They got to really know people, traveling not just to see things, but to really understand life around the world and experiences of other people."

Boesche is survived by Mandy, who was a drama teacher at the Waverly School in Pasadena until her recent retirement, and daughter Kelsey, an opera singer based in Berlin.

Prof. Roger Boesche is shown during his "Political thought in the ancient world, Greece, India and China at Occidental College in 2007.
Prof. Roger Boesche is shown during his "Political thought in the ancient world, Greece, India and China at Occidental College in 2007. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)
President Barack Obama invited Prof. Roger Boesche, whose classes he took at Occidental, to the Oval Office in 2009.
President Barack Obama invited Prof. Roger Boesche, whose classes he took at Occidental, to the Oval Office in 2009. (Courtesy Boesche family)

For more California news, follow me on Twitter @vicjkim

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