Paul Boyer’s Life’s Work Brought Joy To Others

By Deb Hadachek Telescope News
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A Belleville icon died last week, but the legacy of laughter and wonder he brought to thousands of people around the world lives on.

Paul Boyer, 89, died February 10 at home with his daughters by his side. They said his last thoughts were of “smiles and laughter”, something his artwork has inspired for nearly 25 years for visitors at the Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings at 12th and M ST in Belleville.

Boyer’s art pieces are miniature engineering marvels. Handcarved wooden figures are brought to life by the push of a button. Old electric meter gears send ball bearings racing around brass mazes. Windmill wheels, eight in a stack, turn opposite directions. His pride and joy is a wooden calliope named “Pipes” that plays the themes from Chariots of Fire and Mockingbird Hill.

“Dad had offers from people to buy pieces, but he wouldn’t sell,” says Ann Lewellyn, Belleville, who with her sister, Candy Sanford, has operated the museum since 2007. “What he did was about more than money. Dad had his heart and soul in each and every piece. He wanted his collection to stay together.

“Sometimes someone would ask him to build a piece for them,” she adds. “But he said, ‘When you’re paid to do a job, it takes the fun out of it.”

“He just wanted to build things he’d never built before,” says Candy.

The museum will open for the 2020 season in May. Funeral services for Boyer are pending. The sisters and their brothers, Paul and Jim, hope to also have a reception in their father’s honor at the gallery, surrounded by the products of his imagination. “There is nothing like Dad’s art anywhere in the world,” says Ann.

Talented Family

Boyer outlived his doctors’ expectations by 55 years. Despite several life-threatening illnesses, Boyer continued to bounce back. Ann said her father’s last year was one of his best in recent times.

“Last summer he was at the gallery at least once a week,” she said. “He still had things he wanted to do.”

Paul Boyer spent the last half-century in a wheelchair, disabled in an accident in Michigan that cost him not only his leg, but his health when he contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion. Doctors gave him five years to live. Paul returned to Belleville with his wife, Cecilia, and four small children.

To fill his time, he painted and began to create the motion machines that the public first saw in the Floral Hall at the NCK Free Fair. The intricate inner-workings of his machines astonished viewers; his sense of humor shone through in the loose-jointed antics of his carvings of golfers, dancers, bicyclists, and birds. He paid tribute to his brothers, who operated a local roofing company, in one piece.

“He loved to spread laughter,” says Candy.

In 1997, his brother, John and wife Linda, together with the other Boyer brothers, worked to create a permanent display for Paul’s motion machines in the former Harbers Ice Cream Plant on M St. The building contains 25 lighted display cases, each wired with a timer, so visitors can push a button and see them work. The museum was a finalist for the Eight Wonders of Kansas Art.

The gallery was operated by John and Linda until 2007, when Ann and Candy took over its operation. In late years Paul began to teach Ann the secrets to keep the gears and timing in the motion machines moving.

“He really didn’t grasp the effect his work had on people.”

Candy Sanford, Paul’s Daughter

Even when his health prevented him from leaving home, his family would often find him tinkering with new ideas.

“He really didn’t grasp the effect his work had on people,” says Candy. “He was just trying to keep busy. He was very humble.”

The sisters say that Paul’s talent runs in the family. While his work became well-known–he laughed off any comments about being famous–his seven brothers and two sisters all show unique mechanical skills and creativity. The Boyers parents, Edward and Delia, didn’t give them many toys while they were growing up, but did allow them free access to their shop, junk pile and tools. The Boyer brothers learned to carve and build and make motors of all kinds work.

Paul never strayed from that scavenger spirit. His later pieces are sometimes operated by motors salvaged from old VCRs and DVD players residents left on the curb for trash pickup.

One of his great joys in late years was sharing coffee with his brothers, his daughters say. With Paul’s death, five siblings remain.

“We just thought all dads were like this and could fix and build things,” laughs Candy. “We didn’t know differently.”

In a 1997 interview Paul said: “I’ve got so many ideas, I’m at least 10 years behind schedule. This is what has kept me going. You’ve got to have the determination to figure out what you’re going to do the next day, and keep doing it. You’ve got to forget you’re sick, and do what you want to do.”