Heart Like a Wheel
Undeterred by life’s obstacles—including the 15 surgeries he’s endured related to his rheumatoid arthritis—Professor Roger Boesche and wife Mandy share a love for the world, adventure, and each other
By Andy Faught
Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., Roger Boesche was a whiz at mathematics and a kid with boundless athleticism. He played baseball and basketball, and could drive a golf ball 300 yards at the esteemed Southern Hills Country Club, host to three U.S. Opens and four PGA Championships.
Then the mysterious pains began.
At 15, Roger’s left knee ached and filled with fluid. Pain soon arrived in his fingers. His mother took him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where Roger was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes persistent joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. “I never even thought about it,” he says. As the condition is wont to do, symptoms had mostly vanished by the time he enrolled at Stanford in 1966.
With the Vietnam War raging half a world away, Roger emerged as a campus firebrand, excoriating America’s role in the war and lamenting the loss of innocent lives. He majored not in math, but in politics, and he had barely started his senior year when he was approached in a cafeteria line by a brash-talking freshman from La Cañada named Mandy Reynolds. “Can you do me a favor?” she asked Roger. “Would you mind kissing me under Memorial Arch in front of Memorial Church when the moon is full next week?”
Mandy laughs as she recounts the story. “My parents went to Stanford, and my mom used to tell me that the only way you became a Stanford woman in the ’40s was to be kissed by a senior under the arch in front of the church when the moon was full.” (It’s not the Memorial Arch—that one was damaged in the 1906 earthquake—“but my parents always referred to it by that name, and they kissed under it in 1944,” Mandy notes.)
Roger agreed on the spot, but the kiss wouldn’t play out for months to come. Roger and Mandy both were dating other people, and the photograph that Mandy hoped to get of the moonlit rendezvous—which she planned to send to her parents—was mostly a joke, she admits.
Roger didn’t see the humor: “I fell in love with her at first glance. I knew in an instant that I’d been looking for her all along. She was funny and smiling and energetic, and obviously smart. And beautiful, of course.”
“He would pass me every month and say, ‘Hey, Mandy, the moon is full.’ I’d laugh and tell him I had a big test the next day,” Mandy says. Eventually she agreed to the meeting, if not the kiss, and Roger arrived at the memorial arch in a coat and tie. A flummoxed Mandy backpedaled: “I said, ‘Oh, darn, it’ll have to be next month. It’s after midnight. We missed it.’ I was very nervous. What the hell am I doing with this boy?”
On the walk back to the dorms, the two talked about the Vietnam War and America’s military-industrial complex—typical first-date chatter—but before they said good night, Roger got his kiss. Five months later, they began dating in earnest. Seven months after that, they secretly married on the Stanford campus. Mandy’s father, businessman and Republican Party fundraiser Jim Reynolds, was up for an ambassadorship with the Nixon administration, and Roger was known widely for speaking out against the war at campus rallies. Disclosing their marriage would be impolitic, the pair decided.
Roger, meanwhile, faced a conundrum. He had been admitted to the doctoral program in politics at Harvard, but he refused to leave his new bride. He dashed off a letter to Cambridge saying there was a wrinkle in his plans. He asked to be deferred for a year because he’d met a brown-eyed girl, “and if you knew her, you would understand why” he was making the request.
A letter came back from the department head: “Dear Mr. Boesche: This is highly unusual, but we are going to defer you because somehow the department secretaries got a hold of your letter, and they thought it was so romantic that they would quit en masse if we didn’t allow this.”
For nearly 39 years, Roger Boesche has been a member of the Occidental family. He and Mandy, who teaches drama at The Waverly School in Pasadena, live on Campus Road, a holler from the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute. “I love Occidental,” says the 68-year-old Arthur G. Coons Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas. “I love my students and my colleagues. It’s a wonderful place to learn and teach.”
In 1990, a UCLA surgeon told Roger he wouldn’t be here, that the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis would kill him by his 60th birthday. Death by cardiovascular disease or respiratory infection was never out of the question. But the lion of Oxy’s politics department had other plans. Bowing to the chronic condition that’s left him mostly wheelchair-bound for the last three years was never part of his life’s prospectus—then or now.
Countless alumni, including one sitting president, speak about a man who champions debate and engagement, who is hopeful about the future of the world and his students’ place therein. Barack Obama ’83, back when he was known as Barry, took two of Roger’s political theory courses, saying in 2010 at the White House that they “sparked my general interest in politics.”
Janette Sadik-Khan ’82, a transportation consultant and former New York City transportation commissioner, credits Boesche’s political theory classes with fueling her own passion for ideas. (In 2009, she used a White House contact to arrange an Oval Office meeting between Boesche and Obama.)
“What Roger did was stimulate my hunger for political theory and get at where these ideas came from and what they meant,” she says. “It’s the clash of different points of view, looking at everything from funding the country to governing the country, to public participation in the country. They’re fundamental issues that are still being called into question. He gave me this rich library of ideas that I’m grateful for today. I can still see him with a corduroy jacket, that brown tie slightly askew, and his Einstein-like hair, holding forth in front of a classroom with everybody to a person completely engaged.”
Boesche boils down his accomplishments to one enviable aptitude. “I think the key to my success as a teacher is the fact that I have an ability to organize and put into clear terms philosophical texts that are often obscure,” he says. “I can make what’s difficult more easily understandable. I believe that’s my singular talent.”
Before he could peddle his influence, Roger first had to find a job, not always an easy proposition for a freshly minted Ph.D. He sent out scores of applications, drawing interest, but no job offer, from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Then his department chair shared a letter he had gotten from Larry Caldwell (who retired in 2014 as the Cecil H. and Louise Gamble Professor in Political Science Emeritus) about an opening at Occidental.
Roger improvised a trip to Los Angeles the following week, when he went out to lunch with Caldwell and fellow politics professor Jane Jaquette. “We just hit it off,” Roger recalls. “I told them a story of how in Oklahoma people do what is called noodlin’, where you put your hands under a rock and you get a big carp or something, and the key is to know what’s the difference between a carp and a snake. And Larry was just laughing uproariously.”
In a follow-up letter to Roger, Caldwell wrote: “Thank you for coming down, and P.S. That’s a great story about noodling.”
To which Roger wrote back: “You can’t say noodling. You say noodlin’ with an apostrophe.” “So we had a little joke going,” he adds.
From a field of 250 applicants, Roger won the job. In 1981, in just his fourth year at Oxy, he won the Loftsgordon Award for Outstanding Teaching, selected by the senior class. He won the award again in 1997. Roger also was recipient of the Sterling Award, the College’s most prestigious faculty honor, and the Linda and Tod White Teaching Prize. “When I read his first set of student evaluations, Roger’s just blew us all out of the water in his very first quarter,” Caldwell says. “It was clear that he was going to be one of our top teachers, and he never let us down on that since.”
It’s a sentiment shared widely among thousands of former students. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime teacher,” says politics major Jessica Greenlick Snyder ’09, who today is a public defender in Portland, Ore. “I still have hundreds of philosophy books on my bookshelf from the classes I took from him—about Hegel and Nietzsche and these rather tough-to-access thinkers. But with Dr. Boesche guiding you, it felt easy to get to the core of what they were talking about. It was an intellectual coming of age for me to take his courses and start using my brain in a different way.”
In the 1980s, and later as Faculty Council president, Roger led College efforts to divest from businesses doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government. Academically, he was at the forefront in encouraging greater faculty diversity and rethinking how job searches were conducted and how courses were taught. “Roger was very good at pulling people together,” says David Axeen, professor emeritus of American studies and former dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs.
But they were tough days for Roger’s health. His rheumatoid arthritis symptoms had flared “with a vengeance.” The disease had eaten away the lining of his knee joint, and then continued ravaging the bone. Just three years after arriving at Oxy, he required his first knee replacement surgery.
Through the 1980s, Roger endured 10 operations, including having his right hip replaced. Doctors also fused his C3 to C7 vertebrae. As a result of the surgeries, Roger, who once stood 6'1", now measures a full foot shorter. (Not once, Mandy says, did her husband ever miss teaching a class because of the treatments. He never scheduled surgeries during the academic year.)
Today, he is confined to a wheelchair, and Campus Safety, with squad car lights flashing, escorts him down Campus Road to the College. Through it all, he hasn’t once complained. “Almost all of Roger’s joints are astonishingly dislocated,” Mandy says. “Doctors won’t stick a needle in him because they have no idea where his nerves and veins are.”
But a new class of drugs that came on the scene in the 1990s has given Roger new life. The treatment, called biologics, is comprised of proteins and enzymes that hold many of the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis at bay. “You can’t say it’s cured or is in remission, but it’s pretty close,” Roger says.
The treatment has allowed him to pursue his abiding passion: travel. Often accompanied by their daughter, Kelsey, he and Mandy have voyaged to 120 countries, most of them in the third world. Roger chooses his destinations by poring over maps and reading brochures. “I always want to know what’s around the next corner,” he says. Six months before 9/11, the couple ate freshly slaughtered goat with the Taliban in a remote Pakistani outpost. (Because of anti-American sentiments in the region, their guide told their hosts they were Swiss doctors who were in the area to build a hospital.)
In Pakistan and en route to the Chinese frontier, Roger and Mandy came upon a landslide that had taken out a major road. There was only one way over. Roger would have to be carried by local villagers.
“They were barefoot and kept changing their grip,” Mandy recalls. “I’m watching Roger almost get spilled over a 100-foot drop. He just started to laugh. He said, ‘You know what I was thinking? What a beautiful day it was.’ If Roger fell in one of these countries, there’s nobody who could put him together again, but he doesn’t care.”
His voyages are decidedly off the beaten path. On a trip to Vietnam, Mandy pulled Roger and his chair through an old Viet Cong tunnel. Joining Roger and Mandy on some of their travels—to India and domestically—is Heidi Johnson, head of school at The Waverly School. She’s known the pair for more than 25 years, calling them the happiest couple she knows. “Mandy always jokes that she doesn’t know where they’re going until they get on the plane,” says Johnson, who is also part of a quartet of women, including Mandy, who has accompanied Roger on a different getaway every year since his 50th birthday.
Roughly a decade ago, the Boesches started work on a book, Around the World With Roger in a Wheelchair, which Mandy insists they will eventually finish. The work is part travelogue, part inspirational treatise on how to face down disabilities, no matter the obstacles. On March 15 in Keck Theater, Roger and Mandy will present a program to the Oxy community highlighting their travels and the challenges they’ve overcome.
Just outside his Johnson Hall office, Roger keeps a lifesize cutout of President Obama, who famously chided his former professor for giving him a B in his political theory course. The young Obama even confronted his professor about the mark when the two encountered each other in the Tiger Cooler.
“He said, ‘Why did I get this grade?’ and I said, ‘Well, frankly, I think you’re really brilliant, but you don’t work hard enough,’” Roger says. “I found out from his circle of friends that they were all so happy I did that because they’d been trying to say the same thing, but it’s harder when you’re a friend.”
Obama might be glad to know that Roger holds his presidential tenure in higher esteem. “I’d give it an A,” he says. “He’s been up against too many people who hate him. Something like 30 to 40 percent of the Republican party thinks he’s a Muslim. They’ve never tried in any way to cooperate with him.”
As he has since 1993, Roger continues to publish Insight Into Democracy, a quarterly newsletter (circulation: 300) which he describes as “cool, calm analysis” of the political world. He’s also published five books and more than 20 scholarly articles.
With retirement looming, Roger has given thought to his future pursuits. “There’s actually some apprehension,” he admits. “If I had good legs, I could go out and play golf, I could go hiking, I could take up birdwatching again. But I can’t do all of those things.” He plans to work on his book, follow his beloved Atlanta Braves, and plot new trips. Next summer, the Boesches will travel to Berlin, where Kelsey, now 27, is an aspiring opera singer.
But Roger also plans to branch out beyond Earthly bounds. “I’ve bought my first course on the Great Courses—96 lectures on the universe,” Roger says. “It makes the universe so much more beautiful to realize how big it is and how small we are.”
There’s one other indispensable activity: swimming. He credits the exercise for saving his life. Every day, Roger straps a buoyancy belt to his waist, fits himself with a mask and snorkel, and swims six lengths in his backyard pool. Prayer flags from a Tibet sojourn festoon the backyard fence. He hasn’t missed a day in the pool since anyone can remember, and he’s even been known to swim during thunderstorms. Despite Mandy’s concerns that her husband could be struck by lightning, Roger is blithe at the very notion: “Ah, what are the odds?”
Soon after that first kiss under the arch, when Roger first told Mandy about his rheumatoid arthritis, she was undeterred. The disease affected a single finger at the time, but it didn’t impact their budding affections. No obstacle—be it a landslide or a chronic disease—has ever stopped them.
A year after their secret nuptials, Roger and Mandy exchanged their vows a second time before friends and loved ones—a charade, to be sure, but a necessary one for their families’ sake. They made sure that the same Stanford chaplain who wed them earlier reprised his role—so he could discreetly dispose of the marriage license. In sickness and in health, Roger for decades has uttered the same seven words at bedtime to Mandy: “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
Says Mandy: “He is such a keeper.”
Faught wrote “Onward and Upward” and “Elder Scare” in the Summer 2014 magazine.
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