Craig Boise working as a Kansas City police officer
Craig Boise became the first black dean of Syracuse University's law school last year.
(Michael Greenlar / firstname.lastname@example.org)
By John O'Brien
February 9, 2017
Syracuse, N.Y. Craig Boise was a rookie Kansas City police officer in 1986, working in the predominantly black inner city.
He learned how to be black. He had to talk differently. The food and music were new. He was introduced to a new way of shaking hands - grabbing the thumbs, hands at an angle, then kind of snapping each other's fingers as you pull away.
He started peppering his conversations with "brother" and "sister."
The fact that Boise actually was black didn't help. Up till then, he didn't know it. At birth, he was adopted by white parents who thought he was Native American.
His new job as a cop was like moving to Spain or Mexico, Boise said.
Boise, Syracuse University's new law school dean, grew up in a white family, in an all-white farming community, unaware he was black. His unique experience of having lived in two worlds makes him a better dean, he said.
Growing up in a white family
Boise jokes that his upbringing was akin to that of Steve Martin's character in the movie "The Jerk."
"I was the opposite," he said. "I grew up a poor white boy."
His biological mother gave Boise up for adoption shortly after he was born in 1963. She placed him at a children's home in the Kansas City area. A month later, the home told Boise's adoptive parents he was Native American. His white birth mother didn't tell officials at the home that his father was black.
"She was afraid that if she told them I had a black father that I wouldn't be adopted," Boise said.
His adoptive mother's relatives were farmers and ranchers in Kansas and Nebraska. He spent his summers during high school riding horses, branding cattle and fixing fence. He learned how to cut and bale hay and cultivate corn.
As a Kansas City cop from 1986 to 1991, Boise realized the truth, he said.
"I picked up on the nuances" of watching his fellow black officers, he said.
His suspicions would be confirmed a few years later when he tracked down his birth mother.
It's only one unusual bit about Boise's background. You might never meet someone with a more diverse life behind him. He's a former Kansas City cop, a classical pianist, an accomplished sailor, and a salsa dancer.
"A modern renaissance man," said Gerald Korngold, a law professor at New York Law School. Korngold was dean of Case Western's law school in 2003 when he hired Boise for his first job as a law professor.
Korngold said he saw an extraordinary person in Boise, with an uncommon background suited for teaching and writing about the law.
"The law's about human nature and having rules of engagement for human beings," Korngold said. "Craig was somebody who had that depth as a person and would be a great teacher and scholar."
Boise (rhyme with "voice") set out to be a farmer. All through high school he planned to major in agriculture in college. But he'd started playing the piano in second grade. He'd become so good that he ended up getting a music scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He left college after two years and took odd jobs, including one at a law firm in Kansas City. It was there that he met a paralegal who was a reserve police officer. She told him about the job benefits, and Boise joined the Kansas City Police Department.
Learning to be black
He found himself thrust into a dramatically different environment.
As a Kansas City cop from 1986 to 1991, Boise realized the truth about his race, he said.
"I picked up on the nuances" by watching his fellow black officers, he said.
In his five years on the force, Boise joined the Special Weapons and Tactics team as a sniper. He also worked undercover in one operation, making 10 to 12 arrests of prostitutes. He remembers chasing criminals through back yards.
As a cop, Boise was around other black people with frequency for the first time.
"That was the first time I had any contact, other than one or two, with black people my entire life," he said. "I had to learn how to be a black guy."
That entailed learning a new language, new music, new food, even a new way of shaking hands.
He grew up listening to classical and country music. He didn't know anything about R&B and hip-hop.
"When black guys on the street talk to each other, they have a certain way," he said. "They greet each other with a different handshake than two white businessmen use."
It was all a little daunting, he said. But he had one thing going for him: he looked like he fit in to the inner-city population he was policing.
The police officer who trained him was black, and had grown up in the city.
"It was interesting to him," Boise said. "He'd never met anyone with that kind of background." Boise took in everything the officer did.
"I initially felt intimidated, like a white person going into an all-black neighborhood," he said. "It's made for an interesting perspective on a lot of things."
As a child, he was exposed to subtle racism from relatives and people in the community because they all assumed he was not black, Boise said.
"I would hear someone make a comment about blacks, like they're all on welfare," he said. "You grow up and absorb that - as a kid you're not in the position nor do you have the context and perspective to question what you hear and what your family says."
It wasn't until he was 4 or 5 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws banning interracial couples from marrying. His birth father, who's black, got kicked out of high school for dating Boise's white birth mother, because it was a mixed-race relationship.
Becoming a lawyer
Boise got interested in the law when he was training to be a cop. He'd gone back to college and got his undergraduate degree in political science. One of his professors suggested he go to law school.
Boise had a hard time finding time to study for the law school admittance test. So he did it while on stakeout with another police officer, he said.
Boise studied by flashlight in the car while his partner kept watch on the burglary stakeout, he said. He used the flashlight so no one would spot the officers.
He did well enough on the exam to get accepted at what were then the top three law schools in country: Yale, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, Boise said. He still has the admission letters.
Boise chose Chicago, where he would walk past a visiting lecturer of a similar racial makeup in the halls every couple weeks. Boise had no inkling the man was headed for greatness. It was Barack Obama, who like Boise is the child of a black father and white mother.
Boise had Elana Kagan as a labor law professor. She's now a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He hopes to lure her to SU someday for a speaking engagement.
"Wicked smart," he said of Kagan.
In law school from 1991 through 1994, Boise found a niche that most people would run from. He became enamored with tax law.
"Tax has its own sort of internal logic that made sense to me," he said. "Understanding how to work within that environment really appealed to me. It was completely something I didn't expect to be doing."
He landed jobs as a tax lawyer at big firms in New York City and Cleveland from 1995 to 2003. Before that, he clerked for a federal appeals court judge in Kansas City.
In 2009, Boise took a job as director of the tax graduate program at DePaul's law school, where he chaired a faculty recruitment committee.
"There was a lot of managing of personalities and different agendas," said Deborah Teurkheimer, a DePaul law professor who was on the committee with him. "He was a cool cucumber."
Boise's mild manner stands out in Turkheimer's memory. He speaks so softly that the listener has to lean in to catch what he's saying. He likes that people have to quiet down to hear what he's saying.
"He goes about achieving his goals in just a very low-key, pleasant way," Turkheimer said. "He's a real inspiration in that way -- for those of us who like to get things done in the world without making a whole lot of noise."
Along the way, racial issues would crop up. Boise was in a unique position to chime in with his soft voice, having lived on both sides of the color line.
His unusual background taught him the importance of seeing issues from the other's perspective, he said.
"My background brings credibility to conversations about race," he said.
It wasn't until he became a cop that he first had a good idea he was not Native American but black, he said. It was the first time he started checking the box for "African-American" on applications, he said.
He identifies as black. But he doesn't think it really matters.
"I'm just a guy," he said.
Boise, 53, has two children of his own who are mixed-race. He also has two stepchildren. His third wife, Marina, is a physician assistant still living in Cleveland. She plans to move to Syracuse this summer.