Hip, cool, kind and genuine: A tribute to my teacher, Paul Bolenbaugh


Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt | Special to the JT

Paul Bolenbaugh (Courtesy)

Mr. Bolenbaugh was my teacher at Pikesville Senior High. He was more than a teacher. He was a role model who took a personal interest in his students.

I worked closely with him when he was our faculty adviser for the “All Activities Nite,” which I chaired, as well as for a club I started called the Student Involvement Committee. In response to indifference about suffering caused by the Nigerian civil war from 1967 to 1970, in which hundreds of thousands died from famine, as well as apathy over other social issues, a few of us asked the administration if we could form a club and call it the Student Action Committee.

We could think of no one better to serve as our adviser than Mr. Bolenbaugh. The principal was concerned about a committee with the word “action” in its moniker. We submitted an alternative and got permission to call it the Student, or S.I.C. (pronounced “sick”), which allowed us to say on the morning announcements that there would be a meeting of all “sic” students. Mr. Bolenbaugh loved the joke.
He had a wonderful laugh and showed us that even in life’s darkest moments, we can find hope, joy and laughter.

It is hard to capture and put into words for those who did not know him what he meant to us.

This teacher who was hip and cool, who looked like Art Garfunkel, would sit perched on his desk, and engage and challenge us in discussions about important controversial issues facing our society during the tumultuous 1960s. He inspired us each and every day, and showed what a noble profession it is to teach. He epitomized Christa McAuliffe’s profound observation: “I touch the future. I teach.”

I still remember his classroom — the walls were filled with pictures and colorful posters with provocative sayings, sayings that made us think and reflect on our role in society, and on our obligation and responsibility to work to improve the lives of others. He was teaching us the importance of tikkun olam before anyone knew it was a thing.

I still vividly recall one of those posters on the wall. It was the first time I came across a particular verse from the Bible, which I have loved ever since and which helped to inspire me when I started my congregation. The verse was from the book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And how appropriate, for he was a man guided by his vision of what the world could and should be.

He was so beloved that when we were recently planning a reunion of the class of ’70, we were all excited and looking forward to his attending. Sadly, he did not make it. He passed away on Oct. 13 at the age of 84.

Over the years, Mr. Bolenbaugh and I exchanged emails. Once he responded to a sermon I sent to him and he wrote back something like, “You get an A” or “You pass.” It didn’t matter; I was just so happy and touched that he read, acknowledged and was proud of what I had written.

We tried to find a time when he could come to visit me at my synagogue in Potomac. His email typifies what was so endearing about him. In response to my invitation, he wrote:

I will let you know (if I can make it.) I may even take a “mental-health” day from B.T. Now, that I have said that in an email, I have compromised my integrity. Anyway, I really look forward to visiting you.

Unfortunately, that visit never happened.

But if there is any one thing he had and did not lack, it was integrity — integrity and authenticity — along with all the other wonderful adjectives that one would use to describe a teacher who influenced so many of us, and who taught us to believe in ourselves, our world, and our power to change it and make it a better place.

Our world, and the lives of all those he touched, is a better place because of him. I hope each and every person will be fortunate enough to have a Paul Bolenbaugh in your life.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.

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