BY WILLIAM BREIT
E.M. STEVENS DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS
The death of Walter Adams in September
1998, at the age of seventy-six removed one of the few fixed stars at the center of my universe.
When I attended Michigan
State University as a graduate student from 1957 to 1961, it had an outstanding economics
department. Among its luminaries were Abba P. Lerner, Martin Bronfenbrenner and Anthony
Koo. It was a golden age at Michigan State: psychologist Erich Fromm and anthropologist W.
Lloyd Warner also were then in residence. Unluckily for me, the person I most wanted to
study under, Walter Adams, was preparing to leave for a tour of duty at the Sorbonne,
frustrating my desire to take his famous seminar in industrial organization.
I had heard of Adams before
arriving in East Lansing. At my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Texas, Dr. Bob
Montgomery (a sage and Great wit in the Will Rogers mold), had recommended Adams'
co-authored book, Monopoly in America: The Government as Promoter, as one of the better
books on the subject of government regulation of industry.
My first impression of Adams
was that he had a singular personality. Today we might say he had "attitude."
Instantly upon meeting him he become my idol. Though only thirty-six he already had
produced one of the notable works of industrial organization, The Structure of American
Industry, (still in print today in various editions) as well as the aforementioned volume
My mind's eye can still see
Walter Adams when I first encountered him upon my initial visit to the Michigan State
economics office to check in and proudly announce myself as the newly arrived graduate
student from Texas. Urbane and cultured (he was born in Vienna and retained a slight
Viennese accent up until the end) he was supremely imposing, a characteristic that
emanated from his striking self-assurance. His attire at the moment I met him (a muted
argyle sport jacket, casual trousers and, what was to become his signature apparel, a bow
tie) made him seem more jaunty and less stuffy than the typical academic I had up to that
time encountered. A cigarette dangled from his bottom lip (cigarettes were replaced by an
omnipresent cigar a few years later) and he looked me over with a fixed gaze from
"So you're from the
University of Texas. Did you take courses from Dr. Bob Montgomery?"
"I was a student in two
of his courses and during my senior year became his research assistant." Adams's face
lit up. The squint was gone. His china blue eyes seemed to dance with delight. "I
once saw Montgomery testify before the Civil Aeronautics Board on behalf of Trans-Texas
Airways. A magnificent performance, the best I have ever seen. Are you available to join
me for a cup of coffee?"
Unluckily at that moment the
secretary announced that the department chairman, John Hunter, wanted to see me in his
"Hunter preempts any
claim I may have on you. We'll meet for coffee some other time." With that Adams
turned and exited, leaving me dazzled. "Preempts any claim?" Perhaps it was the
lawyerly formality of this locution not often heard in everyday discourse that got to me.
For whatever reason his words, slowly and emphatically enunciated in a slightly
distinctive accent, made a deep impression on this callow youth. In addition his buoyant
air and his friendliness to an obviously insecure newcomer endeared him to me. And
although I saw little of him my first year in graduate school while he was away in Europe,
to this day I retain a fond and pleasurable memory of that initial meeting.
Fast forward to 1988: A
failed search to fill the Vernon F. Taylor Distinguished Professorship at Trinity
University provided an opportunity to bring in someone on a visiting basis for one
semester. President Calgaard asked for a list of possible candidates. Naturally I
suggested a long shot: we include Walter Adams on that roster. Here was a slim chance to
realize my impossible dream of being his colleague someday. Impossible dream because after
I left Michigan State, Walter Adams had gone on to even greater accomplishments than those
for which he already had an international reputation. He had risen to the rank of
Distinguished University Professor, and had served with notable success as President of
Michigan State University during the university's most turbulent period during the Viet
Nam war. He was full of honors. He held honorary degrees from many universities. He had
authored literally hundreds of articles and many books, and (his favorite honor) had been
named one of ten best teachers in America by Rolling Stone magazine. Moreover, he had
achieved the presidency of the national organization of the American Association of
University Professors and of the Midwestern Economic Association. And this is the short
list. The probability of such an engaged and active scholar coming to teach a primarily
undergraduate institution for an entire semester (without the benefit of a research
assistant and grader) seemed low.
President Calgaard requested
I call Walter immediately and find out if he was interested in a visiting appointment for
the spring of 1989. To my delight and surprise Walter was encouraging in his response.
"San Antonio?" he commented. "I've never been there. It sounds
exotic." After discussing the matter with his wife, Pauline, he accepted our offer.
Thus it was that in the spring of 1989 Walter Adams, one of the nation's leading
authorities on antitrust and industrial organization, became Trinity's Vernon F. Taylor
Distinguished Visiting Professor. The rest is history.
That history is filled with
tales of the positive impact that Walter made on everyone (colleagues, staff, students)
with whom he came into contact that semester. It soon became clear that Adams was the
perfect visitor. Not only did he take part in departmental affairs, attending department
meetings and offering sought-after counsel on recruiting decisions, but he
enthusiastically joined into the life of the campus. Soon after his arrival he was
sporting a set of Trinity University suspenders and drinking coffee from conspicuously
displayed Trinity mugs. He and Pauline could be seen at every home basketball game
energetically cheering for the Trinity team. The Adamses attended most of the public
lectures, theatrical productions and other events that rotated on campus during that
spring. Soon Walter Adams, the Michigan Yankee with Brooklyn roots and Viennese
background, became the quintessential Texan. By the time he returned to East Lansing at
the end of that semester he proudly wore, much to the chagrin of his Michigan State
colleagues, a Stetson hat (presented to him by the economics department) and cowboy boots
(given to him by President Calgaard).
Two years later, Walter
returned to San Antonio in what ultimately turned into seven more years of spring semester
duties as the Taylor visiting professor. Through those years he continued his appreciation
for Texas culture, wearing an oversized lone star belt buckle and occasionally a Texas
flag shirt (a gift of some of his appreciative students.) But his signature accouterment
remained his ubiquitous bow tie and ever-present cigar.
The summer following his last
semester at Trinity was when I received the phone call from Walter with the shocking news
that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Shortly before his death I flew to
Lansing for what I thought might be our final visit together. The cancer had already
ravished him: he was blind, had to struggle to find words to speak and had no appetite.
Fortuitously I was present on his birthday when a stream of buses carrying 200 members of
the Michigan State University Spartan Marching Band (Walter was its only honorary member)
in full regalia arrived at his house. They serenaded him with instrumental renditions of
the MSU fight song, the alma mater song and, appropriately, "Happy Birthday." He
listened with delight, a cigar in his mouth and atop his head the feathered hat he wore to
all athletic events. Tears streamed down his cheeks, as they did upon mine and all else
present. The band finished just at the moment my cab arrived to take me to the airport for
my flight home. The band director asked Walter if he would like to say a few words. Walter
often boasted that he never passed up a chance at an open mike. True to form, he was up to
the occasion: in a voice barely above a whisper he found the right words: "All good
things must come to an end."
Within a few days he was