Every year, the State Historical Society of Iowa presents the Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award for the best Iowa history books published during the previous year. The award’s namesake served for 40 years as the State Historical Society’s superintendent, taught at the University of Iowa and vigorously promoted state and local history.
This year, former UI President Sandy Boyd won an honorable mention for his book, “A Life on the Middle West’s Never-Ending Frontier” (394 pages, University of Iowa Press), which award juror Timothy Walch reviewed below.
Willard Lee Boyd Jr. — better known as “Sandy” — faced a challenge in writing this book. How could someone who led two major institutions and collaborated on a limitless number of projects and programs capture his life in a few hundred pages?
The secret to Boyd’s success with this marvelous memoir is in his final paragraph. “Do not venture unsolicited advice or unsubstantiated opinions,” he writes, “but if you must — BE BRIEF.” Those words have been a touchstone for Sandy Boyd throughout his life and career.
So it’s no surprise that Boyd covers the details of his life expeditiously. He touches on his formative years in Minnesota, his military service and his legal education with efficiency.
He gives most of his attention to his time at the University of Iowa. Beginning in 1954 with his appointment as a professor of law, he held increasingly important positions, culminating with a momentous tenure as president from 1969 to 1981.
These were dynamic years for the university in general and Boyd in particular. His vision, wisdom and temperament were reflected in his commitment to higher education in turbulent times.
In 1981, Boyd began a 15-year tenure as president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Again, his patience and temperament guided him and those who worked for him to shape a vision for the Field Museum and other cultural institutions in the country.
He returned to the university in 1996 to take on the challenge of building a center on the leadership of non-profit institutions. In that way, he became a mentor for many leaders across our state. He also joined and participated in a variety of boards and initiatives that improved the quality of life for all of us.
This is an exceptional book about an extraordinary life, and the lasting value of both can be found in the wisdom he interlaces within every chapter. He begins with advice that he received in law school: “Where there is a right, there is a duty; where there is a privilege there is a responsibility,” he writes. “This correlative relationship is the key to my view of life.”
That Sandy Boyd shaped the quality of life in Iowa is without question. In this memoir he reminds us where we have been and where we are going. That is history at its finest.
– Reviewer Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Hoover Presidential Library and a volunteer at the State Historical Society of Iowa.