17 Jan 2024

Robert Booth Fowler 1940-2024


Scholar, Professor/Teacher, Author, Enigma, Beloved Friend

This truly whole, devout, charming, self-effacing gentleman quietly exited on a Saturday afternoon in mid-January. His hearty laugh and rapier wit silenced by an auto immune disorder with no known cure. We came to know Booth and his wife, Alice Honeywell, less than four years ago. Like many in retirement, they found their way to the delights of Ventana Canyon in Tucson’s Catalina foothills.

An avid bridge player, Booth and I immediately hit it off — I knew instantly he was “one of us.” And when it turned out our wives hit it off — AND — played bridge, we quickly became a weekly foursome…a fivesome really as our bichon Missy was always frolicking nearby.

I was soon to learn there was more, much more, to my affable new friend than an affinity for cards. He indirectly poo-poohed his career at the University Of Wisconsin by dismissing inquiries, “We don’t need to talk about that.” And his authorship of multiple books on community, political thought in America, religion and its role in politics, “That’s old news.”

Perhaps so, but his tenure at UW is a record of rare accomplishment, glowing accolades from students and peers and the singular honor of a named chair in the Political Science Department. The Robert Booth Fowler Professorship was established and honors this outstanding scholar and teacher. His instruction to underclassmen and graduate students alike included his personal characterization of such historic figures as Socrates, Edmund Burke, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others. Students and non-students alike who experienced these (yours truly included) described them as “spellbinding.”

Last spring he was cajoled into presenting his Henry David Thoreau to residents of our Tucson community –spellbinding! He was the recipient of multiple awards and accolades for his achievements and scholarship, his wife reports. A number of his presentations can be found on the University of Wisconsin website where they continue ro receive multiple views and plaudits. A number of these are available via internet search on Wisconsin’s Public Broadcasting System.

He fed his intense intellectual curiosity by consuming volumes of reading material, books, newspapers, even blog posts by this writer. He would read a book and give it away, then search for more. He looked forward to the annual Tucson Festival of Books and would return with volumes of new material to devour. I acquired a number of his authored volumes and when I timorously requested he sign them, he grimaced, then with a sly grin asked, “How should I sign?” I replied, “To someone I know…” He snickered and signed, “To my Friend Jack.” I treasure these like no others.

He describes his own intellectual perspective as a combination of diverse perspectives, “part Enlightenment liberal, part Burkean conservative, part Emersonian anarchist, and part religious existentialist.” A devout Catholic, he blanched at ribald observations and humor. He rarely drank alcohol and was an avid hiker usually striding well ahead of his companions on frequent treks through nearby Sabino Canyon. He was no fanatic however, as he would grin and shake his head when he encountered me on the way to the community fitness center. Mimicking the military press exercise, he would grin that impish grin, shake his head and move on.

Having engaged Booth in many political and religious discussions, I leave it to Dan Conley, a Class of 1981 graduate, who wrote this testimonial to his experience as Booth’s student:

“I smile more than thirty five years later at the depth, breadth, intensity and sometimes sheer joy with which he lectured.   Not to mention the occasional twinkle in his eye, practiced smirk or outright sneer.  But most of all, what an experience to swim lecture after lecture in the ideas from a parade of thinkers he channeled and fairly represented.   He could all but convince you as to the rightness of whatever position he lectured from on a particular day (maybe Jerry Falwell actually had a point?); only to start the next lecture with a brief attack on the last lecture’s position (how could I have been so foolish and to have been empathetic to that nut two days earlier?), before bringing you down yet another path  — sometimes diametrically opposed to that the day before —  of a thinker whose views made sense for the first time (or at least till the next lecture).  What a delight, what a gift, what a pleasure, what a fine mind and how challenging and how much sheer fun to be his student.”

Much more may be found here.

A podcast featuring Booth with the UW History Department can be found here.

This great friend was truly a whole man anyone would be inspired to emulate. When he encountered negativity, he chose to remain unengaged, or, he would gently probe the provocateur, seeking to engage only to inquire, never confront. On one joint occasion a mutual acquaintance became belligerent with another party. Booth merely shrugged his shoulders.

As for being an enigma, here’s his wife, Alice Honeywell, in her own words, “Booth loved being a puzzle to people throughout his life — never being predictable — and that’s a quality he maintained right up to the end of his earthly existence.”

That impish grin was never far away, he would confound his opponents at the bridge table, often making unlikely contracts and defeating seeming lay-downs. He participated in an ongoing Hearts contest with friends in which score was kept of every match — for 25+ years!

We were honored with a Colorado visit by Booth and Alice in November. He remarked, “It’s wonderful to see you in your natural habitat.” That’s Booth. The crowning element to that visit was when our bichon, Missy leaped into Booth’s arms — they enjoyed the reunion immensely. They had established quite a mutual admiration society on our many visits over the past several years.

When we learned of Booth’s departure, we immediately went to see Alice. After Missy greeted her and we did as well, Missy searched and searched for Booth. Then stopped, and settled at Booth’s son’s feet. Ben had traveled to be with his father in his final hours.

As recorded previously in posts here several years ago, truly beloved friends are life’s treasures. It is wrenching when these pieces of your life are subtracted. When the tears disappear, the vivid memories are shared and experiences retold (and likely embellished!), we celebrate the unexpected joys of such relationships, our lives enriched by the depth and warmth of the one-of-a-kinds that bring rare kinship, insights and deep meaning to our lives.

It’s been mere days, the tears fall as I express gratitude for Booth’s life and his role in mine and ours.

I will never forget you my friend — I and we love you Booth…

2 Responses to Robert Booth Fowler 1940-2024
  1. Comment *I knew Booth from Jr High to graduation in 1958. from NFHS. He was always the studious student. He and Joe Colossi, we’re the smartest kids in school. I remember predicting that either one could be President.one day. He had a sense of humor that camouflaged his intellect. He was characterized as a neat-nick nerd. Booth was the ultimate gentleman,. He was polite, and helpful to anyone who approached him with homework questions. He was quite the the ladies man. Quiet but nevertheless, known by everybody. Adored by all his teachers. Aced every class. After school you might see him back in Science or Social Studies, in deep conversations with his teacher.

    • Thank you, Jean. A treasured friend, engaging and self-effacing. I truly loved the man — and that laugh! The world is a lesser place…


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