Weekly Local Biography

 Dr. Boonthong Poocharoen Ph.D.

The president of Payap University is a sprightly 60 something man, Dr. Boonthong Poocharoen, who embodies a successful meld of Chinese work ethics and the Christian philosophy of acceptance of changes in life as God’s will. He is also a man who managed to come from a small country village and overcome all the disadvantages that that normally would bring. He is also a fighter.

The young Boonthong was the third son and the tenth child in a Chinese merchant family. He was born in the (then) small village of Mae Chai and went to the local primary school and then to the government school, where his natural aptitude really began to show through. This was a boy who worked hard and topped his class each year.

To further his education he was sent to Lampang to study at a Christian College there, staying with one of his sisters and her tailor husband. He earned his keep by helping his brother-in-law in his tailor shop - a skill that was to be to his advantage later in life. “I was kept very busy, but I always enjoyed learning,” he said.

The next step in his personal education was to enter Junior High School, and he set his sights on the Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Mai. This was not going to be easy as in those days, this school was full of students on a Fulbright scholarship, and there were only 20 places left for others.

He passed the entrance examination, but needed financial assistance, and he experienced one of his first turning points in life. He met an American Christian missionary, a Dr. Konrad Kingshill, who took him into his home to be part of the family, arranged a scholarship for him and even paid him B. 3 an hour to help mail out the missionary newsletter. Young Boonthong also became a Christian while at the Prince Royal’s College.

After this he set his sights on studying medicine, and went to Chulalongkorn University to do the two year pre-med science course. However, he did not go on to join the medical faculty, but continued on in Science for another three years to gain his B.Sc.

Dr. Konrad Kingshill was again a catalyst for his next career move. The missionary had come to Bangkok to teach at a Christian college there and asked Boonthong to join him to teach Science. In some ways, he was trapped. He had actually wanted to be a merchant with the family, but felt that his debt of gratitude for what Dr. Konrad had done for him previously had to be repaid. He spent the next two years teaching Science.

Being a firm believer in the advantages of education by this time, Boonthong looked at going to America to study Chemistry. There was a scholarship available, with an American sponsor family, but part of the conditions were that he would have to return to Thailand and teach at Chulalongkorn University. Not being able to see into the future, this seemed a great opportunity, so he went to America, gaining his Masters in Analytical Chemistry in two years. His wife also joined him in the US, winning her own scholarship to study there too. They had to live frugally and Boonthong even made their clothes, using his tailoring skills learned as a child. However, he looked forward to returning to Thailand. “America didn’t need me, but Thailand did,” was how he described it.

With both their degree studies completed, he returned, ready to work at Chulalongkorn, but fate (or God’s will) stepped in again. Dr. Konrad had come to Chiang Mai to set up a Christian institution called Payap College. Boonthong received an invitation to join him in this new venture. He wanted to help Dr. Konrad achieve his dream, but there was a problem - he was indentured to Chulalongkorn. However, there was a way around this problem - he had to get the permission from his sponsor family in the US, which they granted. So in February 1973, Boonthong came to Chiang Mai to join Dr. Konrad at Payap.

Unfortunately, it was not plain sailing - Payap did not receive permission to open from the government, and in fact, it seemed averse to the idea of private higher educational institutions. He could have turned away at that point, but he did not. The provisional committee hired him to put their case to the government and hopefully get the required permission.

The next year of his life was spent on busses between Chiang Mai and Bangkok and return, repeatedly presenting the case for Payap to a government that had an inherent distrust of students and universities. His committee began to see Payap as a lost cause and gave Boonthong the opportunity to quit, but he did not. “It was probably my Chinese nature, but I would not quit. I would try my best.”

His perseverance paid off, and 13 months later, Payap received the requisite permission. Payap and Boonthong were up and running. At that stage in his life, he did not see Payap as his future, “I intended to work for three to five years and then go and work for a chemical company, but after the opening, I came to love the college, so I decided to stay on.” In return, the board sent him back to America to gain his Ph.D., which he took in Food Technology, a subject that he felt would be important for Thailand.

Again perseverance paid off, with Payap becoming the first private university in Thailand, and a few years later, Dr. Boonthong was offered the position as president, the post he still has today.

The final words spoken during the interview probably went right to the crux of this remarkable man’s life. “As a country boy, if you live in a small village the chances to go abroad for education are very slim. As a Christian, I consider that (what has happened to me) is God’s will.”