Remembering Walter

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 on monopoly.

    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 squinting eyes.

    "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 office.

    "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 gone.