Thursday, January 30, 1997
The Boothes:
a death and a promise kept


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nancy Janes Boothe died this week, after an unusually brave life. Cancer, multiple sclerosis. Sometimes it must have been tough just to summon up enough breath to smile. Her wheelchair became a fixture at charitable events, receptions, VIP dinners, at her church.

The wheelchair, of course, didn't get there by itself. Leon Boothe, her husband of 37 years, was behind her. Fitting, when you think about it, because she was behind him for so many years.

She taught school while he earned his master's and doctorate degrees, then was a full-time mom when he went to work. He came to Northern Kentucky University in 1983 as its third president.

Not yet 30 years old, this college in Highland Heights with its beigy poured concrete buildings and low foliage looks like the upstart it is. Orderly, practical, it's a campus with few dormitories and a lot of cars. Buildings are named for people still living.

The President's House overlooks the college the Boothes built. Both of them.

Habit of helping

As their three daughters grew and left home, Nancy Boothe stepped from behind her husband and took her place at his side. During the Boothe years, which ended when Leon retired last June, the size of the campus doubled and 75 percent of its total alumni were graduated.

NKU's ''first lady'' sampled cafeteria food and rescued wallflowers. She chaired committees and served on boards. This was a woman, after all, who had registered black voters in Mississippi during the early '60s. Goodness, I suppose, is a hard habit to break.

Although she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just before they came to NKU, for many years she was unimpeded by the disease. Then she became a little wobbly. She told her husband she thought it was time to tell people about her MS.

Then, she more or less ignored it, determined, her husband says, ''to live life to its fullest and to be with people.'' The Boothes traveled. They worked. Nancy helped more people from a wheelchair than most of us will ever do on two legs.

You saw them everywhere. There was an unofficial drill. Leon would push his wife's chair into a room, and find a good spot to park it. Then he'd troll the room, letting us know where to find Nancy. He did that for our benefit, not for hers.

Indelible image

Toward the end, Nancy lost the use of her arms, but never her voice or her mind. Her husband would feed her. Sometimes at the head table, sometimes in front of a thousand people.

And this lovely and dignified woman would let him.

The Boothes liked me enough to invite me to their daughter's wedding a few years ago. And I liked them enough to go. It was a beautiful ceremony. I especially liked the music by from A Midsummer Night's Dream. And I remember wondering if the kids in the wedding party, including the bride and groom, really understood the pact made that day.

Because there were two people in that church who did.

For richer, for poorer.

In sickness and in health.

Leon and Nancy memorized the traditional vows for their wedding, and he spoke those words again to his wife as she lay dying on Monday. The last sound she heard was her husband's voice repeating that promise kept.

When I hear Mendelssohn's wedding march, the picture I will always have is not of lace and a bridal veil, young men in rented tuxedos. It is an indelible memory of a woman in a wheelchair, her head cocked to smile at the silver-haired man behind her.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.