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Professor applies wisdom on and off ballfields

 MIT’s Paul Lagace has been known to apply his knowledge of aeronautics to Red Sox pitching.
MIT’s Paul Lagace has been known to apply his knowledge of aeronautics to Red Sox pitching. Lenny Megliola for the boston globe/Globe Staff

It is not unusual for Boeing, the third-largest aerospace and defense contractor in the world, to call on Paul Lagace at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the 54-year-old Wilmington resident is a tenured professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

“He’s in the genius category,’’ said Jack Grinold, the legendary sports information director at Northeastern. Lagace is married to Grinold’s niece, Robin.

It would be misleading to assume Lagace is just another brainiac at the famous Cambridge fountain of profundity.

For his part, Lagace is happy if he works a good game on a Friday night as a high school football official.

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“The thing I love about sports is the team factor,’’ said Lagace. Working those games “is like being on a team again. They work hard. The players get our best game. You can’t do that alone.’’

In 2001, he was named high school football official of the year by the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Interscholastic Football Officials.

“He was zebra of the year,’’ Grinold quaintly put it.

It doesn’t always go smoothly. Lagace has heard it all from disagreeable fans.

“A couple of times I’ve had to be helped off the field,’’ said Lagace. “One thing officiating has taught me is you can’t please everybody.’’ Pass interference, he said, is the primary penalty fans don’t fully understand.

After graduating from MIT in 1978, Lagace started officiating sub-varsity and Pop Warner games. “I needed extra money to support myself.’’

As an undergrad, he officiated at intramural sports. He also ran a softball league.

“MIT has a very participatory environment,’’ said Lagace. “It’s not about winning, it’s about doing the best you can.’’

Lagace even worked with former Red Sox star Wade Boggs. Accustomed to hitting .330 or better, the future Hall of Famer dipped to .259 in 1992. He couldn’t figure it out, but a few people thought it had something to do with changing wind patterns caused by a new press box - higher than the old one - at Fenway Park.

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It seemed like a good project for an MIT aeronautics expert. Lagace jumped in and supervised his students, who built a model of the park. “We did a scientific technique,’’ said Lagace. His students created a smoke trail to check the direction of the wind.

The wind often blew out at Fenway.

A big Red Sox fan, Lagace painfully recalls Bucky Dent’s homer that beat Boston in the infamous 1978 playoff game.

“It was a pop-up.’’

When the project was done, the conclusion was that “Boggs was right,’’ said Lagace. “The wind was blowing in.’’ Maybe it was just a fluke that season, although home runs were down.

“But we didn’t hit home runs on the road that year, either,’’ noted Red Sox historian Dick Bresciani of Wellesley. “We didn’t have [Jim] Rice. We didn’t have [Dwight] Evans. I think Tom Brunansky led us with 15 home runs.’’

After the season, Boggs signed with the Yankees and hit .302.

Lagace is quick to tell you that the last Boston manager to win a World Series before Terry Francona was Bill Carrigan, from his hometown of Lewiston, Maine.

Not a lot of TV sports were broadcast in Lewiston, so Lagace listened to games on the radio: “A lot of Bruins-Canadiens games. There were a lot of Canadiens fans up there.’’

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Lagace played baseball and skated on backyard rinks. “It would get to 25, 30 below zero. We had no problems keeping the rinks going.’’

His passion for aeronautics and astronautics was triggered by “watching the space boom in the 1960s, when I was a kid,’’ he said. “At MIT, I became even more interested. I started working in the laboratory.’’

He wound up teaching. He had missed the personal touch of working with students. In 1982 he became an assistant professor. He was 24, a member of the faculty. “It was a different world,’’ he said.

He thrived in it. “The students’ energy and enthusiasm drive you,’’ he added. “They always have a question. Always thinking.’’

Lagace has toured the world, lecturing and attending conferences. He often scheduled business trips when the Red Sox were playing in that city. “On our first date,’’ said his wife, Robin, “he took me to a Red Sox game. I’d never been. We sat in the bleachers. I was a cheap date.’’

Soon she was as big a fan as her future husband (they were married in 1983). “I fell in love with Fenway, the Red Sox, and Paul, not necessarily in that order,’’ she said with a laugh.

Once Lagace started officiating high school football “the only reason I went to the games was to watch the officials,’’ said Robin, who is an elementary school teacher in Needham, specializing in reading. She’d usually stand behind the end zone to distance herself from any criticism of the officials.

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Her husband’s best traits? “He’s incredibly fair and has a great sense of humor,’’ she said.

“I love the guy,’’ said Grinold. “Paul’s very thorough when something needs to be done.’’

In the classroom, in the board room, on the football field. Heck, the guy could even ease the mind of Wade Boggs.

He has never been to Wrigley Field, but now that Theo Epstein is the head of baseball operations for the Cubs, it’s probably a pretty good bet Lagace will line up a lecture in Chicago this summer.

“It’ll be interesting to see what Theo can do out there,’’ said Lagace.

And it’s the Windy City. He might be able to find a project at Wrigley.


Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.