As a boy, I wrote letters to famous people, asking for their autographs. The first one I received, which prompted me to continue my autograph requests, was from New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. Some years later, when he was running for president in 1948, I waited in a reception line to shake his hand. Although the Chicago Tribune mistakenly heralded his victory, I cannot say I ever shook the hand of a US president.
Why this fascination with the famous? Likely it would take a psychologist to explain, but the allure is widespread.
The economist Erwin Hexner is not someone you’ve probably ever heard of but through him I learned a little more about two other famous people. Hexner was once an Austrian pilot in World War I who dropped bombs by hand from his open cockpit airplane. During the war on a train trip to Vienna, he shared a compartment with Sigmund Freud. Freud found him the most obstinate young man he’d ever met. He was eager for news from the front; all Hexner wanted to talk about were Freud’s new theories. Hexner, who was Jewish, left Europe in 1938 as it was falling under the shadow of the Nazis. In 1944 he attended the Bretton Woods Conference, in New Hampshire where representatives from 44 countries discussed a series of new rules for the post-World War II international monetary system. At the conference Hexner had long walks and conversations with John Maynard Keynes. I met Hexner when I was working in the economics department at Penn State Business College where he was director of research. Through his wonderful story-telling, I had the opportunity to “meet” two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.
I stood a few feet away from Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he made brief remarks at a West Point Academy dedication. I can’t remember why I was there, what the ceremony was about, or what the general said. His voice, I do recall, was sonorous. And, incidentally, he was one of the famous people who sent his autograph to me.
I flew to Pittsburgh in a small Penn State airplane to pick up Herbert A. Simon, the 1978 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and accompany him back to State College where he was the featured speaker at a program sponsored by the Business College. I remember him as the most widely read and erudite person that I’ve ever met.
At a forecasting conference in New York, Wassily Leontief, the 1973 recipient of the Nobel Prize, was one of the keynote speakers. His talk covered nothing new, but it was a brilliant summary of the input-output analytical tool that he developed. Later, at a large reception, I observed him standing alone. I greeted him and spent a delightful half hour or so talking with him.
At a meeting of the American Economic Association, I encountered Milton Friedman, the 1976 Nobel recipient, in the hotel men’s room. Although we were standing close together, we did not exchange greetings. I did, however, spend some time with Jan Tinbergen, who shared the first Nobel Prize in Economics in 1969. He was visiting Tripoli (Libya) and took that opportunity to visit a longtime friend and colleague, with whom I was then sharing an office .
In 1985, I was in Shanghai with a Penn State colleague. We were there to offer a course in quantitative methods and assist in the development, under Indiana University auspices, of a new, perhaps the first, MBA program in China. There I met and had several long conversations with Dai Ming Zhong. He had taken his doctoral degree in Berlin in the 1930s and was especially pleased with the 1920s map of Shanghai I brought with me, and subsequently, presented to him.
On a celebratory Yangtze River cruise, Dai introduced me and my colleague to his longtime friend, the mayor of Shanghai. We had a brief but pleasant conversation with Jiang Zemin, who would later become general secretary of the Communist Party and president of the People’s Republic of China.
The most enjoyable encounter I’ve had with a famous person was at Kinkead’s Restaurant in Washington. The tables were closely spaced, and a man was sitting alone at the table next to where my wife and I were seated. Likely he overheard our discussion about the choice of a wine. He leaned over, handed me the glass of wine that he was drinking and offered me a taste, with the comment that he thought it was a pleasant and reasonably priced wine. I ordered a bottle and we had an enjoyable, in passing, conversation. After he left, the server asked if we knew the person with whom we had been talking. We had no idea. It was Sander Vanocur, who had been a prominent television newsman and White House correspondent during the Kennedy years. If you’re not of a certain age, you’ve likely not heard of him.
In quiet repose, it is often pleasing to remember the famous people that you encountered along the way. Ah, you may say that you’ve heard of only a few of the people that I’ve mentioned. As with beauty, fame soon fades.
George Heitmann is professor emeritus of management science at Penn State (University Park) and professor emeritus of economics at Muhlenberg College.