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Landrum Bolling, college president, peace activist and presidential go-between, dies at 104

Landrum Bolling, a former president of Earlham College and adviser to President Jimmy Carter. (Earlham College)

Landrum Bolling, a Quaker who preached nonviolence in the world's trouble spots, helped free a CNN journalist taken hostage in Beirut and became a backstairs adviser and go-between for President Jimmy Carter on Arab-Israeli issues, died Jan. 17 at the home of a daughter in Arlington, Va. He was 104.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said a son, Dan Bolling.

Mr. Bolling, a former president of Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Ind., had no government credentials. But he was widely connected throughout the Middle East with Arab and Israeli leaders through his work with Quaker organizations and foundations committed to non­violence, human rights and relief for the suffering.

In the 1990s he was in Bosnia, working with government officials, foundations and religious organizations to curb the slaughter, or "ethnic cleansing," of Bosnian Muslims. He accompanied civil rights activist Jesse Jackson to Belgrade in 1999 on a successful mission that resulted in the release of three U.S. soldiers captured in military operations.

Mr. Bolling was probably best known for his role as an unofficial messenger between Arab and Israeli officials and Carter.

"Landrum was one of my heroes," Carter told Mr. Bolling's family in a condolence call. The former president's office confirmed the statement.

On Mr. Bolling's 100th birthday, Carter emailed a tribute to the local newspaper in Richmond. "Knowing of his personal acquaintance with Israeli and Arab leaders and his experience in the region," Carter wrote, "I turned to him for advice and assistance while negotiating the Camp David Accords while I was president."

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Mr. Bolling described for Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author now working on a Carter biography, a typical mission for the president. He would visit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Cairo, write up a one-page memo about the meeting and pass it along to first lady Rosalynn Carter.

"Rosalynn would give the memo to Jimmy at night so we bypassed all the official channels," Mr. Bolling told Bird in 2016. "Arafat wanted to convince Jimmy Carter that he was a man of peace. I guess I passed about a dozen messages. President Carter would often write his answer in his own handwriting on the memo and have it returned to me."

When Jerry Levin, CNN bureau chief in Beirut, was taken hostage in 1984 by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Mr. Bolling called Levin's wife and offered to accompany her to meet with Syrian officials who he sensed could use their influence to help orchestrate Levin's release.

"Our own government could not do what a private citizen could accomplish," said Levin, now 86.

One night he found that the chain that had always been attached to his ankle had been left unfastened, but he decided not to risk an escape. A month later, it happened again, which he took as a clear signal. He tied three blankets together, lowered himself out a second-story window and found a Syrian army unit, which eventually got him to the U.S. Embassy.

"The Syrians in one way or another got to one jailer to make it happen," said Levin, who had spent almost a year in captivity. "I think they were serious about creating the conditions by which I could escape. . . . I don't think I would have been able to escape" without Mr. Bolling's intervention.

Landrum Rymer Bolling was born in Parksville, Tenn., on Nov. 13, 1913. His father was a heavy-crane operator. He graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1933, then went to work for the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority.

In 1936 he married Frances Morgan, the daughter of his TVA boss. His new wife was a Quaker, and Mr. Bolling, who came from a Baptist family, converted. He received a master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1938, taught at several universities and served as a combat correspondent in the Mediterranean for Wisconsin newspapers during World War II.

He joined Earlham's faculty in 1948 as a political scientist and was the college president from 1958 to 1973. While at Earlham, Mr. Bolling was asked by the American Friends Service Committee to head an international group to study the conflict between Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The study group's findings were published in 1970 as "Searching for Peace in the Middle East."

On leaving Earlham, Mr. Bolling was executive vice president of the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. In 1978 he came to Washington as chairman and chief executive of the Council on Foundations, a support organization for philanthropies.

In 1985, Mr. Bolling moved to Jerusalem as president of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a center for advanced study of Christian, Jewish and Muslim beliefs and traditions. He retired three years later, at 75, but remained active in other foundations and humanitarian organizations such as Mercy Corps until shortly before his death.

His marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include four children, David Bolling of Glen Ellen, Calif., Becky Pollack of Arlington, Va., Dan Bolling of Bethesda, Md., and Sarah Chell of Fairfield, Iowa; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A son, Brian Bolling, died in 2016.

Mr. Bolling played tennis into his 80s. While president at Earlham, he pitched for the faculty in faculty-student baseball games. In those years, Dan Bolling said, his father lived in a rural neighborhood with a pond on the property, where he enjoyed skinny dipping on hot summer nights.

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