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Noozhawk Talks: Living and Writing History with Eric Boehm

Family traditions, heritage run deep for founder of ABC-Clio and Boehm Biography Group

Eric Boehm is still at the center of his life’s work with biography and history in one of the family’s newer ventures, Boehm Biography Group. Boehm jokes about his salary of $1 a year but thinks he’s richly rewarded by the opportunity to work with son Steve, at right, and grandson Jeff.
Eric Boehm is still at the center of his life’s work with biography and history in one of the family’s newer ventures, Boehm Biography Group. Boehm jokes about his salary of $1 a year but thinks he’s richly rewarded by the opportunity to work with son Steve, at right, and grandson Jeff.  (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

At 93 years young, Eric Boehm has made history through both his life and his work.

In 1934, just before the beginning of World War II, his German-Jewish parents were concerned about their son’s future and decided to send 16-year-old Eric from Hof, Germany, to live with his Aunt Blanche and Uncle Jake in Youngstown, Ohio. He didn’t remember meeting them prior to coming the United States, but he adjusted to his new surroundings quickly.

Boehm twinkles at the memory of his early life in America.

“When you’re 16 you are young enough to adapt and old enough to be looking for adventure,” he said.

He studied English at his German high school and within his first year in Ohio he wrote a column for the school newspaper.

“I adapted easily,” he said. “A 16-year-old is really perfect time for it to work — at the same time you’re very anxious to learn.”

Boehm received his bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster and was working on his master’s from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy when his parents and brother escaped Germany in 1941.

He entered the military because he “felt like I had to do something for my country. ... I remember guarding a reservoir and spending very precious graduate school time doing my duty, as I perceived it, my patriotic duty. ... We were all so anxious to do something for our country.”

Boehm’s diplomatic skills came into play as a soldier, and he served in a critical role as the Allies dismantled the Nazi Luftwaffe’s leadership at the end of World War II.

“In terms of my own life, being the officer who dissolved the Supreme Command of the German Luftwaffe, that was really a highlight,” said Boehm, whose work as an intelligence officer and interrogator was detailed in a book, The Enemy I Knew, by Steven Karras.

Not one to sit still for long, 93-year-old Eric Boehm's latest entrepreneurial dream includes plans for a distance-learning degree program in biographical studies.
Not one to sit still for long, 93-year-old Eric Boehm’s latest entrepreneurial dream includes plans for a distance-learning degree program in biographical studies. (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

Boehm’s commanding officer was unavailable to do the interrogation, “so of the over 34 officers, he selected me.”

“I had done a few things right,” he said. “I still remember the colonel saying to me, ‘We need a more senior rank for that job.’ I said, ‘I’m willing to accommodate you, just promote me.’ (Laughs) I said it with a big smile. He said ‘That’s not the way it’s done.’”

In addition to the Karras book, Boehm has published his own book on Nazi history, We Survived: Fourteen Histories of the Hidden and Hunted in Nazi Germany.

“(During the Luftwaffe interrogation) I was the only one who was an officer and the only one who spoke German, so I had all the tools of the trade that I needed, whereas they didn’t,” Boehm said of his colleagues. “It was one of the sensitive events of my whole interrogation career. But it was a lot of fun. I had very good training.”

After serving in the military, Boehm continued to work for the U.S. government in Germany as part of the media scrutiny board, reviewing German newspapers to glean information. That was also where he met his wife, Inge Pauli. The couple married in Illinois in 1948, in a double wedding ceremony with Boehm’s brother and sister-in-law. The couple worked side-by-side until Inge died a decade ago.

Together, the Boehms founded a historical bibliography company in 1955 in Munich, Germany, prior to settling in Santa Barbara in 1960. The young couple “cleaned out their cash reserves” to afford the spacious Upper Eastside home where Boehm still resides.

“It was a very daring thing for me to do at the time,” Boehm said. “I have no regrets, though.”

The property also became the first Santa Barbara home to ABC-Clio, which was named for Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology.

“My wife and I worked together, and between us we were able to just barely make a living out of it,” Boehm said. “But we never would have been able to do it if it hadn’t been for her huge commitment of time and her ability to relate well to the people we hired.

“When we got this property, I went to my neighbors and I said, ‘Please understand this is a temporary situation lasting only a few years. We can’t afford offices right now; we have to use the space we have here.’ They were very understanding.”

At the time, Inge was pregnant with their son, Ron, who now runs the large Goleta-based ABC-Clio, which has grown to become an international academic publishing enterprise.

Continuing with tradition, the family home is now home to another business, Boehm Biography Group, which brings together three generations of Boehms — Boehm’s son, Steven, is the CEO and grandson Jeff (Steven’s son) is the COO — to help others preserve their heritage and create meaningful legacies through the telling of stories. The company has two divisions, providing both personal and business biographies for clients.

All three principals take part in the interviewing process.

“Usually it takes two or three times as much time as people think,” Boehm said. “If you do a thorough job it can be the equivalent of something like three months full time. It’s really very substantial.

“You can do it in a sloppy way, but that’s not our style.”

He continued, “if you do the job right you have to sometimes go into subject matters that are not very palatable to people, and that’s where my interrogation skills come in handy. You have to be very perceptive about some of these matters that people try to shy away from. You become in some respects a little bit of a psychiatrist. It’s not that we put people on the couch, but it’s somewhat analogous. It can be cathartic and we have to be very much aware of the fact that it can also be damaging. We instruct our biographers in this kind of awareness of what territories we should not get into and why, and how we can be comprehensive and truthful in a biography, and touch them and not do any harm in the process. It’s very, very important.”

Incredibly spry at 93, Boehm shows no sign of slowing down. He and his “sweetheart,” Judy Pochini, travel frequently, including a month-long tour of Germany and Austria last summer.

When asked how he keeps himself so healthy, Boehm says genetics play a role.

“My father died at 98; I had a great grandfather who died at 98,” he said. “Longevity runs in the family, particularly my father’s side of the family. In fact, the name of one of my ancestors is very appropriate, his name is Liverecht. Liverecht translated to English means ‘live right.’”

Boehm is definitely an example of someone who lives right, making history through both his life and his work. A big proponent of education, Boehm completed his doctoral studies at Yale, and generously supports many schools and foundations related to education. Boehm Biography Group plans to create a degree program in biographical studies.

“Biography is under-taught, it’s embedded as part of history and various other subject matter but academically it’s not, it doesn’t have a genuine presence,” he explained. “Most universities will hide it in either history or various other subjects.

“It will be a distance-learning program with a particular inference of my particular bias — mainly that nobody should get a degree without having been in a class, a seminar environment,” he said. “So we probably will have a distance-learning program, and before they get their degree they have to come to Santa Barbara, suffer the time in Santa Barbara, and get to know each other and present their paper for critique, and at that time we can also attend to the social aspects of human behavior.

“It’s an article of faith of mine that we don’t grant a degree without a capping seminar of a week in Santa Barbara,” he laughed. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to attract students here.”

Boehm is clearly delighted with his life, as well he should be.

“What greater thing could you have than having a grandfather working with his son and grandson?” he remarked. “It’s such a joy, it’s so much fun for me — and I get paid what I’m worth. I get $1 a year. “

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.

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