By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
If you think American history is something to sleep through during high school, Steve Boga’s students might shout you down. Boga teaches weekly U.S. history classes for seniors that are lively, often humorous, opinionated (both teacher and students) and energetic.
Ralph Pierotti, who usually attends classes at the Petaluma Senior Center with his wife, Tecla, loves them. “He makes it so interesting,” he said of Boga’s lectures. “He does a lot of research. When he covered Lewis and Clark, I felt like we were on the trail with them.”
Boga, 65, majored in history at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to teaching history, he’s an editor and writer and currently teaches memoir writing classes in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
He began offering history classes at Sunrise of Petaluma a number of years ago when a friend’s mother moved there, “my second mother,” he said. Currently he offers four Wednesday classes in Petaluma. Three are for residents of Sunrise, Valley Orchards and Springfield Place. The fourth is at the Petaluma Senior Center. He teaches four more history classes in Santa Rosa.
After so many years, “I have about 80 to 90 lectures,” he said. “I could just pull out my file folders, but I enjoy improving my notes. It takes about a year and a half to complete the cycle, but each time I add three to five new lessons. For example, there’s a new Amelia Earhart segment. So I’m learning, too.”
In mid-December, the class reached the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Boga sketched FDR’s early life and marriage and how polio seemingly shattered a promising political career, following the path of his distant cousin, Teddy Roosevelt.
“This is a crossroads in the story,” Boga explained. “His mother, Sara, says they will take him home to Hyde Park. But Eleanor, his wife, stands up to her mother-in-law for the first time, and says, ‘He will walk again. He will get into politics.’”
The lesson paused here and class members briefly discussed the scourge of polio before Boga continued with the story of how FDR, who never again walked unaided, concealed his disability and became president.
“That is the goal for seven years,” he said. “The doctors tell him he will never walk again. He tries everything, including hanging by a harness from the ceiling. Even in the last weeks of his life, he’s still seeking treatments.
“Finally he realizes that if he can’t walk, he has to look like he’s walking. He believes he must appear able-bodied to succeed politically: a wheelchair is a no-no.”
While he used a wheelchair in private, in public Roosevelt generally stood, supported by one of his sons, an aide or, if speaking, leaning on a lectern. And the news media of the time, Boga said, did not mention the disability.
The classes aren’t only about the past. During the FDR lesson, Boga highlights how “eerily similar” the Hoover-Roosevelt presidential campaign was to the Romney-Obama campaign, “austerity versus stimulus.”
Boga is a political liberal, and his classes reflect that. Class members may not always agree – and that’s fine with him. Bowman, for example, was troubled about some of his opinions on the Mormons, touched on during the westward expansion segment.
“I thought he shouldn’t be allowed to teach,” she said frankly. “But I’ve stuck with it, and it has grown on me.”
Class member Janet Mobley, who’s also the editor of the Petaluma Estates newsletter, wrote about the class in this month’s edition, saying that “as a high school student, I was bored by my history classes: boring lectures, memorizing dates, tests etc. I was more interested in that cute boy across the room or … what my girlfriends were planning for the weekend.
“I told Steve how much I am enjoying his classes and how I felt about history in high school, and he said that I’m a different person than I was at 16.”
Mobley has gotten so interested she now watches the History Channel and subscribes to a DVD series on ancient civilizations.
Back in the classroom, Boga is explaining Roosevelt’s personality. “By all accounts, he loved the job of president. He was naturally ebullient, with an eternal smile and a jaunty tilt to his head.” The American public, he says, “regarded him as a cross between Santa Claus and God.”
Boga’s lectures draw from a wide assortment of sources. On this day he quoted Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the New Lost City Ramblers, Saul Bellow, Alistair Cooke and Orson Welles, to whom FDR once said, “You know, Orson, you and I are the best actors in the country.”
For those interested in taking a fresh look at the history of this country, Boga’s Living History classes are from 10:45 to noon Wednesdays at the Petaluma Senior Center, 211 Novak Drive. Cost is $4.