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Citadel News Service


The Post and Courier
Sunday, September 30, 2001

Story reprinted with permission.

Generations of cadets go far to remember The Boo

The Post and Courier

     His voice stopped an entire generation of the Corps of Cadets dead in its tracks.

     "Halt, Bubba" is all it ever took. He didn't even bother to take the cigar out of his mouth.

     They feared him, they avoided him, sometimes attributed almost supernatural powers of detection to him. But they also respected him, trusted him, loved him.

     They called him The Boo.

     For most of the 1960s, Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie was The Citadel's assistant commandant of cadets, the man who dished out the discipline. He was also an unofficial guidance counselor to cadets, even a father to some. He took his job home with him -- he once paid for a cadet's emergency surgery, kept others out of trouble with the police.

     When he was taken out of his high-profile position in 1968 and moved to the college's supply warehouse, he became a military role model -- he accepted his assignment with dignity, without question.

     There, The Boo grew into a larger-than-life figure, a legend, a literary character. And now, nearly 20 years after he retired from the school, his voice once again is a common sound echoing between the buildings on the quadrangle, from the stands at Johnson-Hagood Stadium.

     In the last year, The Citadel and its alumni have bestowed an honorary degree on Courvoisie and, earlier this month, named the Alumni Center's banquet hall in his name.

     A movie version of Pat Conroy's book "The Boo" is in the works, a well-known actor eager to play the Citadel legend.

     Today, The Boo jokes that he's like Lazarus, back from the dead, but modestly suggests that he's maybe getting too much attention. "I've had enough acknowledgment," Courvoisie said. "I'd almost say it's more than I deserve. Some would agree with me."

     That's how it is with The Boo -- he tells it like it is. His candor won him a legion of fans and cost him a job. But, facing his 85th birthday next month, Courvoisie has survived it all in good spirits.

     The uniform is retired, the cigar 10 years gone, but the commanding, charismatic presence remains, the sentences still punctuated with "Bubba."

     For nearly 70 years, his friends say, The Boo has represented the ultimate Citadel Man.

     "The Citadel is all about character and developing it in the men and women who go here," Citadel President Maj. Gen. John S. Grinalds says, "and he embodies character. That is why I respect and admire the man so much."

Watching the Corps march by from the new alumni center library on a recent afternoon, The Boo notes with satisfaction that his alma mater is in great shape.

     "Definitely The Citadel is in the best condition it's been in in a long time," Courvoisie says. "There are top-notch people here, our academics are in good shape. We've gotten over (admitting) women -- there ain't nothing we can't beat. That's my opinion."

     It is a decidedly informed opinion. The Boo has a historical perspective on the military college going back to 1934 -- his plebe year.

     The son of a Savannah bookkeeper and filling station owner, Courvoisie grew up attending a military high school run by monks before moving on to The Citadel. After three years, health problems forced Courvoisie to withdraw from college. He joined the Georgia National Guard, worked on a freighter, sailed to Europe.

     When World War II broke out, Courvoisie watched it from European battlefields. There, he met an Army Nurse named Elizabeth Cosner, whom he married. By 1950, he had worked his way back as close as Georgetown, where he got permission to re-enroll at The Citadel. He commuted and graduated with the class of 1952. Then came Korea. He landed there the day the war ended.

     In 1959, the Lt. Col. Courvoisie came back to The Citadel as an assistant professor of military science. It was while he was teaching that he caught the eye of the commandant's department. In 1961, after retiring from active military duty, he took over discipline for the Corps.

     Courvoisie was the picture of military ferocity: Dapper in a pressed uniform, a stern look on his face as he gnawed on a cheap cigar. He could pass out demerits, confinements and tours -- a form of punishment that requires a cadet to march back and forth across the quadrangle -- as fast as a gunslinger.

     But the cadets soon learned that beneath that gruff exterior there was a gentle, fair heart. He called members of the Corps his "lambs" and he protected them fiercely. When you were in his bad graces, you were a "bum."

     "I guess you'd call it tough love," says David A. Bornhorst, class of '68. "He showed warmth and compassion to the cadets. He had a unique gift of knowing when a cadet needed some special help or a night out with his parents. If a situation was too tense, he could lighten the mood with his humor."

     Perhaps it was because they felt so close to him, so at ease around him, that escaping The Boo became almost a sport for cadets who wanted to sneak out for a night on the town. Courvoisie worked the Corps like a detective, and sometimes even caught AWOL cadets by feeling car hoods to see which ones were warm.

     The story of his nickname's origin came from one alleged chase. A cadet bragged to members of his company that he had snuck out the previous night and had been chased by the colonel. He ran into the marsh and Courvoisie followed, but the cadet got out of the muck quicker.

     Wading through the marsh, the cadet remarked, the colonel looked like a giant, hulking caribou. The moniker stuck, and was eventually shortened to "Boo."

     That's the story, and even The Boo repeats it -- although he doesn't believe it. "I didn't do that," he says. "I ain't going through the marsh for no cadet. I could catch him the next day."

     And he often did.

     According to his lambs, The Boo often gave out evening passes to the cadets who had the most inventive -- and ludicrous -- stories about why they needed a free night. His sense of humor was one of his most compelling, and most appreciated, traits.

     He felt he needed something to break the tension. The Boo was watching over a Corps that kept one eye on war; saw classmates shipped off to be killed in action, struggled with vicious hazing. They needed someone to talk to.

     "In the heat of all the emotion of Vietnam, the colonel was a very human side to the military," says Chuck Eiserhardt Jr., class of '68. "It was the human touch that meant so much to us."

     The Boo's influence and guidance stretched beyond the gates of The Citadel. He visited cadets in the hospital and bailed them out of jail. Eventually, local police just turned cadets who had gotten in trouble over to The Boo. The judges said they would go along with whatever punishment he thought was appropriate. That likely saved the careers of some of his cadets -- an arrest record can hurt someone trying to become a military officer.

     Shortly after he arrived on campus as a knob, Pat Conroy remembers a very useful piece of advice someone passed along to him.

     "The first thing I was told, 'If you're ever in trouble, go see The Boo. Make it bad trouble -- don't waste it,' " Conroy recalls. "I remember I was terrified of him."

     As a result, Conroy and Courvoisie were not especially close in those days. But that changed a year after Conroy graduated in 1967. During a chance meeting with The Boo, Conroy learned that Courvoisie had been kicked out of the commandant's office, moved to the central supply warehouse and told not to have any contact with the Cadets.

     Officially, The Boo had been declared bad for discipline.

     On that day, a writing career was launched and the seeds of legend were planted.

     "The Boo" was published in 1970, while Courvoisie was "handing out toilet paper" in The Citadel's supply warehouse. It was not an immediate hit. Even though Courvoisie and Conroy put profits from the book into a scholarship in the colonel's name, the book was banned on campus.

     Although the book did criticize the reassignment of The Boo -- "The Boo became expendable. The new advisors did not admire The Boo's work, felt he was too personal with the cadets, and felt he was not tough enough to be an Assistant Commandant," Conroy wrote -- it was mostly filled with humorous anecdotes of cadets trying to outrun, outsmart and outguess The Boo in their never-ending quest to get away with something.

     Many cadets, Conroy included, say that the men in charge of The Citadel were jealous of the popularity of the relatively low-ranking Courvoisie. Most people say that it was the affection of the Corps that cost The Boo his job. Others believe an outraged Courvoisie spoke out about a rash of amnesties given to cadets, an erasing of punishment that he felt undermined his authority.

     The Boo refers to those times as when he was in "purgatory." But he continued to do his duty in the warehouse, and the book honoring him continued to sell.

     If he thought he was forgotten, he was wrong. Two scholarships were set up for him -- one in his name, the other in his wife's -- and money for them came from his former lambs and sales of Conroy's book. Then, in October 1973, some former cadets say one of the most remarkable things in The Citadel's history happened: The entire Corps broke rank to march by The Boo's house to sing happy birthday. 

    Courvoisie was getting over a heart attack and could barely make it outside, but he put on his uniform, walked outside and saluted a Corps that had respect for him even though they had almost no contact with him.

     In the warehouse, The Boo was underemployed and ignored. He had six hours of work to fill his eight-hour day, and that's when he started tracking Citadel graduates. He was torn; he loved the school, but didn't know if he should. Sitting in what he considered exile, he began to wonder if he should stay. Is The Citadel worth it? He wondered.

     He began to chart the careers of Citadel graduates, beginning with the class of 1846 -- the first to finish four years at the school -- and working his way forward in time. He spent his extra two hours a day researching former cadets.

     "We have turned out 160 generals, too many lawyers and 300 ministers -- and there ain't nothing in the barracks that encourages them to be good," he says. "I decided it was worth it."

     The Boo stayed at The Citadel warehouse until 1982, taking occasional jaunts -- on the school's dime -- to promote the military college. His popularity was on the rise, especially after Conroy's novel "The Lords of Discipline" -- featuring a Boo-based character called the Bear - was published and filmed.

     After he retired, The Boo came back to campus whenever he was asked, which was not very often. It seemed his relationship with the college was over.

     As The Citadel struggled with admitting women in the 1990s, some former graduates thought of Courvoisie and how he could have made things better. The Boo had helped make The Citadel's one of the smoothest integrations of all military colleges.

     But The Boo wasn't a particularly welcome sight on campus, even as he lived just across the river in Mount Pleasant with his third wife, Dot, whom he married after Elizabeth died.

     When Grinalds took the reins at The Citadel, however, Courvoisie found himself invited to come around more often. The general had read the book on the colonel and believed he stood for the kind of character The Citadel tried to instill in its cadets. Grinalds and the school's Board of Visitors began making strides to bring Courvoisie back into the fold.

     Ultimately, The Boo was awarded an honorary doctorate by The Citadel's Board of Visitors in 2000 -- along with Conroy, who had been in worse graces than The Boo ever thought about being.

     So when Eiserhardt and some other alumnus approached Grinalds about naming the banquet hall in the new alumni center after The Boo, it was no surprise that they not only got the college's blessing, but its encouragement.

     A few solicitations later, about $370,000 has been raised for the hall in Courvoisie's name. Eiserhardt said that many of The Boo's lambs had been trying to come up with another way to honor the colonel, to show him how much he meant to them during their four-year stays at The Citadel.

     "It's just something very important to us, to have the opportunity to honor him and help The Citadel at the same time," Eiserhardt said.

     Nowadays, people clamor to The Boo when he makes one of his frequent trips to the campus. Copies of "The Boo" signed by the colonel fly off the shelves at the alumni center bookshop, some of them inscribed "Welcome Lambs" to the children of the flock he watched over.

     There's a buzz about a possible cable TV movie based on the book. Actor Brian Dennehy is enthusiastic about portraying Courvoisie.

     And Conroy promises more Boo anecdotes next year when he publishes "My Losing Season," an account of his senior year playing basketball for The Citadel.

     More than anything, The Boo seems to enjoy just staying in touch with his lambs, the people who have honored him with their donations and tributes, the people who helped him through the death of his second wife earlier this year.

     Looking back at a long career, The Boo says the thing he is most proud of is that, between the scholarships and the banquet hall, more than $590,000 has been raised for The Citadel in his name. "I don't think I deserve all that, but I'm glad The Citadel got it. We stress character here," he says.

     The Boo says "we" as if he and the college are one in the same.

     For a lot of people, they are.




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