In 1938, with Hitler's ascendancy and Germany's march into Czechoslovakia, Bott's stepparents flew him to the safety of England and enrolled him in an English boarding school. Since they had only transit visas for England, the following year they headed for Canada, a country that to this day has been extraordinarily welcoming to refugees and immigrants from around the world.
In the fall of 1941, after a rigorous year of preparatory studies in Ontario, Raoul Bott found himself at McGill University in Montreal. Given his electrical know-how, he chose, not surprisingly, electrical engineering as his major. His grades were respectable, but as he recalls in [B4], he was more interested in upholding the ``engineering tradition of hard drinking, loud, boisterous, mischievous, and macho behavior.'' Mathematics was his best subject; still, it was mathematics in the engineering sense, not the kind of pure reasoning for which he became so well known years later.
With his European flair, his 6 ft. 2 in. frame, and the conspicuous fur cap he often wore, Bott stood out from the crowd at McGill. When friends asked him where he was from, he said from Dioszeg, Czechoslovakia, and he added facetiously, where he ``was a Count.'' After that, everyone called him the Count.
The Count sometimes spoke a very foreign tongue. In the streetcars of Montreal, Raoul and his roommate Rodolfo Gurdian would occasionally engage in a deliberately loud and animated conversation. Nothing they said made sense, for they were making up the language as they went along. From the corners of their eyes, they enjoyed watching the quizzical expressions on the faces of the surrounding passengers, who were trying hard to figure out what language the two of them were speaking.
Bott loved the opera, but as a penniless student how was he to afford it? One time the famous tenor Ezio Pinza came to sing in His Majesty's Theater, the opera house of Montreal in the Forties. For this occasion, Bott dressed up in his Sunday best and went to the theater. When the man at the entrance stopped him, Bott told him he couldn't do this because he was Ezio Pinza's nephew. Bott said it with such assurance that the man let him in. After that, Bott could go to all the shows at this theater for free.
Bott's roommate Rodolfo, equally penniless, also loved the opera. But Rodolfo did not have the nerve to sneak into the theater. When the opera Carmen was playing, Rodolfo was very eager to attend. Bott magnanimously invited him. By then, the ticket taker knew Bott very well, but he stopped Rodolfo at the entrance. Bott turned around and intoned in his authoritative voice, ``It's all right. He can come in.'' Without any hesitation the ticket taker obeyed the order of this ``nephew'' of Ezio Pinza.
One New Year's Day, Raoul, Rodolfo, and some friends went to Mont Tremblant, a winter resort north of Montreal. In the most prominent and expensive hotel, a big celebration was going on. Somehow, to the envy of his friends, Raoul sneaked in. A little later, Raoul was standing on the balcony, looking down contemptuously at his friends and showing them a chicken leg he was eating. After he finished it, he threw the bone, with disdain, to his hungry friends.
(Old habits die hard. In 1960 Bott, by then a full professor at Harvard, was in India with Michael Atiyah, both giving lectures as guests of the Tata Institute of Mathematics. One day, as they walked in the streets of New Dehli, they passed by a big celebration. Bott decided to slip in uninvited, dragging Atiyah along with him. Atiyah, a professor at Oxford who was later anointed Sir Michael by the Queen and elected President of the Royal Society, was at first discomfited, but soon joined whole-heartedly in the festivities. They had a rousing time, sharing in the general merriment of complete strangers.)
Upon graduation, Bott joined the army, but the atomic bomb at Hiroshima put an end to his military career after only four months. He entered a one-year Master's program in the Engineering Department at McGill. Gradually it dawned on him that his interest lay more in mathematics than in engineering, and he produced a very mathematical master's thesis on ``impedance matching,'' which he said, ``the department accepted with some misgivings and about whose mathematical rigor I have doubts to this very day.''
At McGill Raoul met his future wife, Phyllis, an English literature major from the West Indies. Today, Phyllis remembers Raoul's first marriage proposal. At the time he was doing his short stint in the army. In full uniform, he said, ``Would you marry me? Because if you do, the army will pay me more money.'' And then pointing through the window to his little room, he added, ``And we could be living there.'' The proposal was not accepted. But two years later, they married. The Botts have been together ever since, and now have four children and eight grandchildren. They celebrated their golden anniversary in 1997.