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Remembering A Nobel Laureate

Dale Mortensen memorial drew colleagues, friends and family from around the world

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February 3, 2014 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Around 200 people attended the memorial on the campus where Mortensen spent most of his career.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The memorial last Friday (Jan. 31) for Nobel laureate Dale T. Mortensen, who died Jan. 9 surrounded by family and friends, reflected the joy and genius of a man who lived a very full and meaningful life.

Esteemed colleagues, friends and family from around the world gathered for a tribute, colored with wit and warmth, to Mortensen, who was the Board of Trustees Professor of Economics at Northwestern University in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Around 200 people attended the memorial at Northwestern’s Alice Millar Chapel on the campus where Mortensen spent virtually his entire career working on the research that has left an indelible mark on labor economics and other fields.

The speakers -- including leading economists, former students, Northwestern colleagues, family members and friends  --talked about both Mortensen’s pathbreaking scholarship as well as the rich life the world-renowned economist led outside the academy. 

Mortensen’s deep love of and pride in his family, especially his wife, Beverly, were mentioned often, and Mortensen’s son, Karl, in turn, focused his remarks on the central role that Northwestern played in his family’s lives.  

During his remarks, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said that when he became the 16th president of Northwestern five years ago he was thrilled to also become “a member of one of the world’s great economics departments” and finally get to meet Mortensen. An economist who specializes in the economics of higher education, President Schapiro had read Mortensen’s articles in graduate school and thought of him “as this great sage.”

“When I met him, I was shocked, because, sure, he was a great economist, but he also was a great guy, a humble, fun-loving guy,” he said. “And, I didn’t expect that.” 

President Schapiro also recounted the celebration of Mortensen as he stood on the football field waving enthusiastically during a Northwestern game soon after the low-key economist won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics -- officially known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

“Everybody was cheering, and I have this great memory of his wonderful, beautiful smile and how much fun he was having,” Schapiro said.

Mortensen received the Nobel Prize based on his pioneering new approach to studying important economic problems now known as search theory. Utilizing the theory, Mortensen developed an original approach to investigating the labor market, revolutionizing how economists and policymakers view labor market matters and the role of government policy and regulation. 

That approach can, for example, explain why it takes so long for job seekers to find acceptable jobs even in good economic times, when vacancies are plentiful, or why firms with vacancies fail to fill positions quickly even though large numbers of people are unemployed.

Search and match theory has since been applied to a host of other major areas of economics such as monetary theory, housing markets, marriage markets and many others.

Robert Coen, professor emeritus of economics at Northwestern, talked about the many moments he shared with Mortensen and his family over four decades and the significance of his dear friend’s research both for Northwestern and the world.

“Dale’s groundbreaking work on search behavior and unemployment laid out mathematical models now widely used to study markets with adjustment frictions,” he said. “He elevated economics at Northwestern not only through this research but also through the personal qualities that set the tone of the department.”

“Mild in manner, mild in language, modest in temperament, methodical and fair minded, Dale made a perfect mentor, collaborator and faculty leader,” Coen said.

Coen also offered his rapt listeners a glimpse of the legendary Sunday brunches and dinners that routinely were held at the Mortensens’ home, where “guests congregated to savor delicious food and enjoy a wide range of conversation.” 

“The crowd was usually quite eclectic, including students and scholars from around the world -- even U of C faculty -- neighbors, musicians and artists,” he said.

The gatherings at Mortensen’s home built community among economists in the Chicago area, Coen said, and “created a greater awareness of Northwestern economics locally and internationally.” 

Coen also stressed that an important, if somewhat underappreciated, part of Mortensen’s legacy is the work he did with undergraduate students. He cited Mortensen’s many years of service as director of Northwestern’s undergraduate honors program titled Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences.

“Dale himself was inspired as an undergraduate to turn his mathematical interest to economics,” Coen said. “He saw this program as a way to attract top-rate mathematically inclined undergraduates to Northwestern and to advance the use of quantitative methods in all of the social sciences.”

“He was the perfect leader for such an interdisciplinary program because the methods that he [was known for] could be applied in so many areas to study so many different social phenomena,” he said.  

But, as a number of the speakers noted, Mortensen’s life wasn’t only about work. He was rarely happier than when wading a river to fly-fish, rod in hand, preferably sharing the experience with a child or grandchild, Coen said. 

“Mortensen often spoke reverently of magical moments during his boyhood, fishing in rivers and lakes of the Pacific Northwest,” he said.  

“He found peace and deep meaning in life at an early age and built on it,” Coen concluded. “He taught us about searching for jobs and mates, but more importantly, he showed us where to search for a good life and how to lead one.”

Robert E. Lucas, the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College at the University of Chicago, talked about working with Mortensen at Carnegie Mellon University, where Mortensen earned his Ph.D. and Lucas was a professor at the time.

Lucas said the novel work that Mortensen was doing way back then is considered basic today and has had enormous influence on economists’ work. “Dale draws talented economists like honey to flies,” Lucas said.

After Mortensen won the Nobel Prize, he worked just as rigorously to advance research that he started in the 1970s, Lucas stressed. “We had a conference at Stanford in September, and Dale gave this great talk. He was still going strong.”

“So we’re here to celebrate Dale’s scientific career, which was extraordinary,” Lucas concluded. “But we’re not here to sum it up. This project started in the 1970s is still going forward. And there’s going to be many more returns in the future.”

Rasmus Lentz, associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former student of Mortensen’s and co-author, also shared his special relationship with his former colleague and mentor. 

“If it had been just about the work, I would do it all again, every single thing,” Lentz said. “My best work was with Dale. Dale made me better. Dale made people around him better.

“But working with Dale also meant spending time with someone who was funny, warm, who was wise about life and who was curious. That made him very special,” he said.

Kenneth Burdett, James Joo-Jin Kim Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, talked about how the unexpected demands that Mortensen made of him as a graduate student carried over through all their years as colleagues.

Once Mortensen let graduate students in, he expected them to engage in the give-and-take of scholars going at problem-solving, Burdett said. “I didn’t criticize Dale enough,” Burdett said he was told by Mortensen at the time.   

That wasn’t a problem in later years during Burdett’s many summer visits with Mortensen in various locales, including at Northwestern. Criticism was central to the two scholars’ problem-solving during the day, even sometimes including throwing chalk at one another, Burdett said.

After one such discussion in Mortensen’s office on the Evanston campus, the two of them continued to challenge each other on the walk to Mortensen’s home in the evening.

“By the time we got to Dale’s house, we’d smooth into a pleasant conversation and an evening with wine and food,” he said. Afterward, as usual, the two colleagues looked forward to getting up in the morning and going at it again, he said.

“It wasn’t that we had work and play,” Burdett concluded. “It was just all one thing. And I look back to those years as the happiest years of my life.”

Guido Menzio, associate professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, also shared his experiences of Mortensen advising him and the sheer happiness he found from the guidance.  

Mortensen taught Menzio to move beyond the somewhat typical crippling doubts of a scholar to pursue the research that engaged his passion.

Menzio said he finally started doing his research with “joy, freedom and light.” 

“I realize now not only how much economics Dale taught me, but how much Dale taught me about being a happy economist. He taught me to love research.”

Karl, Mortensen’s son, began his remarks saying that he decided to talk about Northwestern and its great impact on the entire Mortensen family. He cited the music classes he and his two sisters, Lia and Julie, took as children, the tennis summer camp that presented him with quite a challenge and the computer classes he took during high school, all at Northwestern.

The sabbaticals that his father took allowed the family to live for extended times in various countries around the world -- for example, spending six months in Israel -- and greatly influenced his and his siblings’ perspectives, Karl said.

Besides, most of his family bleed purple as official members of the Northwestern family.    

“Northwestern accounts for a total of six degrees in our family,” he said. “My sisters and family members have four bachelor of arts degrees, one bachelor of science and one Ph.D., thanks to my mom,” Karl said. “Of course, that was not enough so it continues with Sarah, who currently is a junior at Northwestern, in econ, of course.” 

Mortensen intended to donate his Nobel Prize medal to Northwestern to motivate students, and Karl said that he will be sure to carry out that intention.

Karl also shared an anecdote about the stir he and his father caused last November while Mortensen was in intensive care in Evanston Hospital. The two were  watching Nebraska’s “Hail Mary” play and odds-defying win against Northwestern in football. With four seconds left, Northwestern called a timeout. Nebraska had the ball on the Wildcats’ 49, trailing by three. Barring a miracle, Northwestern was supposed to win, but Nebraska made an improbable game-winning touchdown.

“When Nebraska got the call, we yelled ‘Nooooo!,’ causing quite a few floor nurses to come running at a very high speed. We were both embarrassed because they were very confused.”

A few speakers spoke eloquently of Mortensen’s love of the great outdoors, stemming from his upbringing in Oregon. His affinity for music was brought home by the beautifully rendered spirituals that punctuated the service as well as a stirring rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” a favorite song that Mortensen had been singing, with his rich baritone voice, since he was a teenager.

The familiar tune from the 1927 musical “Showboat,” performed by baritone Nicholas Ward at the memorial, has particular meaning for Mortensen’s wife, Beverly, also a musician. A few years earlier during Nobel Week in Sweden, a television program there ran a feature on Mortensen that included him singing “Ol’ Man River” at home, accompanied by Beverly on piano. Beverly wrote the arrangement for the vocal quartet performance of “My Lord, What a Mournin’” at the memorial. 

In her remarks, Mortensen’s wife, Beverly, recounted the various stages of their life together, their meeting while Mortensen was a student at Carnegie-Mellon University, and their marriage soon afterward, shortly followed by the birth of their three children. 

When a young mother, she asked Mortensen, somewhat jokingly, to tell her about the outside world. He instead encouraged her to find out for herself, she said. She then became director of a church choir, which lasted for 25 years, and pursued other music-related endeavors. Later when the children were in high school, Beverly returned to school to complete a Ph.D. in religious studies and since 1994 has been teaching at Northwestern. 

The lifelong partners lived mostly happily beside each other -- for 50 years -- she said, and Mortensen was always there when she needed his always highly thoughtful support. 

When Beverly first met Mortensen, he easily fulfilled the two requirements she had of a mate. “He had to be honest and attractive,” she said. 

“Beyond my original list, Dale brought to me humor, imagination, creativity, loyalty and abiding love. That love was central during his last few months for friends, family, children, grandchildren, especially grandchildren,” she said. 

“I’m grateful to have traveled with Dale for 50 years,” Beverly said, paraphrasing the great Sufi poet Rumi: “When I die, I will soar with the angels, and when I die again I will soar to places I can’t imagine."

“So I say to Dale, fly, my darling, fly.”