W. Jeffrey Bolster

Award for Excellence in Public Service

Associate Professor of History
College of Liberal Arts

Boats, books and academe


Jeffrey Bolster

If he was a Boy Scout, Jeff Bolster would have earned a public speaking merit badge several times over.

As one colleague put it, "no group is too small, or in too remote a corner of New England, for Jeff to agree to head out in the evening, slide projector under his arm."

Bolster has been at UNH for 14 years now, and he still puts great value in the public service piece of the land grant institution's mission.

"Our relationship to the community is different than that of a private institution," says Bolster. "Engaging with the public, either as a speaker or in making our research accessible is important. I've said yes to a lot of things because I felt like it was the right thing for me to do. I also found it increases my connection to place."

Boats and books have been the foundation of Bolster's life for as long as he can remember. Raised on the Connecticut coast, he read all the classic maritime histories, including Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s account of his life at sea, while still in grade school.

"I got my first boat when I was 12, and I can't remember a time when I wasn't captivated by the idea of going to sea," Bolster said. After graduating from college, he bought a one-way ticket to the West Indies. He spent the next 10 years as a ship's captain on all manner of boats from tall ships, to charters, to oceanographic research vessels out of Woods Hole. There was only one nine-month break, the time it took for him to earn a master's degree in history at Brown University.

"I knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life on ships," Bolster said, "and the idea of being in the academy had been with me for years. I just knew I wasn't ready at the age of 22."

But when he was ready, Bolster earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. "It was a sink or swim kind of program," he recalls, "and it allowed me to do my best work. I decided then that I wanted my work in the history field to be accessible to an educated public, versus only for specialists in the field."

The result was Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. It began as his doctoral dissertation and was published in 1997 to critical acclaim, including recognition as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year.

That commitment to sharing his research with the general public never wavered. Bolster collaborated on a photo exhibition and book with the New Hampshire Historical Society. As editor of Cross-Grained & Wily Waters: A Guide to the Piscataqua Maritime Region, he explored the history of the river he can observe, ebbing and owing, right from his study window in Portsmouth. It's a book that speaks to readers about a deeply felt sense of time and place.

Recently, Bolster and other UNH historians teamed up with biostatisticians, marine ecologists and policy experts to study the historical dynamics of the cod population in the Gulf of Maine.

The results of their study, published this past winter, will help policy makers develop effective strategies for the sustainable management of marine resources. Their study made news around the world in a matter of days, especially in regions where fisheries are a concern.

"Interdisciplinary work like this is hard, but everybody on the team believes in the importance of the work we're doing," he said. "The assumptions and training are so different in every field, and we live in a world where generalists are not appreciated. Specialists are rewarded, and for academics that means staying in your own discipline and working to fill a gap in the academy's knowledge."

The hard work has paid off. Their findings didn't disappear in an academic journal, but quickly became part of the bigger policy discussion. At the end of the day, that's what matters the most.

—Erika Mantz