When Dr. Leon Boothe became the third president of Northern Kentucky University in 1983, his top priority was to raise the reputation of the state’s newest institution of higher learning.
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – When Dr. Leon Boothe became the third president of Northern Kentucky University in 1983, his top priority was to raise the reputation of the state’s newest institution of higher learning.
“When I came here, I’d go across the river (to Cincinnati) and say, ‘I’m the new president of Northern Kentucky University,’ and I’d be lucky if I got a yawn,” Boothe recalled with a chuckle. “The school was just totally unknown, even on the Kentucky side of the river. People would say, ‘Oh, is that the community college over there?’ They didn’t have slightest idea of what it was.”
Boothe, a Classi of 1956 graduate of Carthage High School, changed all that. During his 13 years as president of NKU, there was a 50 percent increase in enrollment as his administration raised the money needed to expand academic programs, create new colleges and build residence halls on campus.
Boothe’s impact on the growth and development of NKU was recognized during the 2014 spring commencement ceremonies. He received an honorary Doctor of Educational Leadership degree from current NKU president Geoffrey Mearns.
“To be recognized by the institution you served as a leader as well as a colleague is pretty magnificent,” Dr. Boothe said. “A lot of times you get those honorary degrees for what you’ve done in the community, but this was institutional, and that’s what makes it so special.”
Boothe resigned as NKU president in 1996 and eventually returned to the classroom. He taught history classes on U.S. diplomacy until his retirement in 2006.
When he looks back on a career in education that spanned more than 50 years as a teacher, college dean and university president, he has a lot of rewarding memories.
“I loved teaching, and I was pretty good at it if I do say so myself,” he said. “I still hear from students I taught 50 years ago. That’s why I say you really do touch eternity as a teacher, there’s a ripple effect that just goes on and on.”
Boothe grew up in a family with limited income. He had to work his way through college and graduate school during the early 1960s.
He grew up in a fairly prominent family in Carthage and lived in a home on Sycamore Street. His parents were Harold and Merle (Hood) Boothe.
His mother came from one of Carthage's pioneer families. Her father, David Boothe, was a landowner in Jasper County and was related to the last Jasper County.
His brother, Howard Boothe, was a football player at Carthage High School and worked at Leggett and Platt for many years. He died in 2012 and Leon Boothe still returns to Carthage frequently to visit his sister-in-law and other family.
Leon Boothe got his bachelor and master degrees from the University of Missouri and his doctorate from University of Illinois-Urbana.
“I was bound and determined that I did not want to live a life of poverty, and I knew the key to escaping poverty was education,” he said.
A firm belief in the value of education was a driving force for Dr. Boothe during his presidency at NKU. He served on countless boards and commissions in the community to raise awareness of the university.
His tireless efforts were rewarded when NKU conducted its first capital campaign fund-raiser while he was president and it surpassed their $10 million goal.
“You normally have to be established for a long time to do something like that, and we still weren’t the most well-known university,” Boothe said of the capital campaign’s success. “But, you know, the one thing I heard time and time again was, ‘You’ve done so much for us, either service on boards or other things, it’s time that we do something for Northern.’ So that was the catalyst for it all.”
Boothe’s engaging personality undoubtedly had a lot to do with his remarkable success at NKU. He said the most important thing he learned from his parents was to treat everyone with respect.
While he was president, Boothe would often send notes to NKU faculty and staff members congratulating them if they did well or offering his support if they had a problem.
“I have people to this day say to me, ‘You know I had that letter you wrote to me framed and it’s still on the wall in my office,” he said.