Doug and I
It was just a little red and white paperback book.
It was only one hundred and fifty two pages long.
But, it changed my life.
I devoured it in days. I didn’t understand it all. Still don’t. But, I knew I had to find a way to be around you, to learn from you. So, Kyra and I packed our bags and headed down interstate 64 to St. Louis in the Ford Ranger.
On the first day of classes, I bounded up the stairs to your office (Eliot 305). Your door was open. I took a peek. Oh my God, you were at your desk. I gave a little gasp. My heart began to race. I gripped your book tightly between my hands, rushed in, and blurted without taking a breath “Hi! My name is Shawn Humphrey. I loved your book. I read your book. If there is anything you need done let me know. Bye!”
Having rushed in, I rushed back. I’m not even sure I made eye contact with you. The rest of my first year was dedicated to walking back and forth in front of your office hoping for a “chance” encounter.
I passed my prelims (first try even!). And, at the start of my second year, you invited me to join the “North Group” (well, that’s what we called ourselves) – a weekly seminar in which graduate students could propose, discuss, and refine their research agenda with you.
Your holistic vision of the world, one that considers neo-classical economics as a tool with explanatory power and not the explanatory tool, was an inspiration. While my classmates were bulking up on their econometrics, you encouraged my meandering through the Geography, Philosophy and Anthropology departments. You held a safe, yet critical environment, in which I could creatively explore social patterns.
When it came time for me to “create new knowledge”, I asked you to be my dissertation advisor. You were hesitant. Years had gone by since you last chaired a dissertation committee. Elizabeth (your wife) was not happy. She was very protective of you. She didn’t want you taking on the additional workload. But, somehow you convinced her to say “Okay.” And, you said “Yes”.
As your teaching assistant, I attended every class you taught. I never missed a lecture. And, I was forever taking notes. I wanted to (I needed to) capture everything you said. You sparked your students’ imaginations by taking the tools of economics and applying them to history, political science and other disciplines.
In your freshman seminar, I witnessed you lightly touch one of your students on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry”. You were concerned that you may have cut him off during class discussion the day before. Your humility, your patience, and your willingness to say “I do not know” were refreshing.
I walked along your side for five years. And, along the way you gave me many gifts. Here’s a couple:
- When I asked you for ten recommended readings, you gave me a list of seventeen.
- When I was hungry for something different to read, you gave me books from your library. You told me to keep them. And, in their margins, I found your hand scribbled notes. They are an historical record of the evolution of your thinking.
Now, I don’t have a lengthy record of publications like your other students. And, boy have you created some incredible scholars. But, I have found a way to take your gloriously complex work and make it accessible to young people.
Like me, it infects them. It transforms them. It separates their intellectual lives into two epochs: before and after their introduction to your work and New Institutional Economics.
Before their introduction to your work, they are bombarded with data, stories, accounts, and ideas from multiple disciplines. It can be overwhelming. It’s hard to make sense of it all. But, after their introduction to your work, they glimpse the patterns, connections, and linkages that make our interconnected world so intriguing. They share my intense passion for your work. They share their intense passion for your work with others. Your work has even inspired one of my students to write a rap (see below).
Sharing your work with others is some of the best work I do as a human.
You know…one of the most memorable things you taught me was that in trying situations you can always use the word “Apple-Butter” as an expletive.
Douglass C. North was a Nobel Prize winning economist.
He passed away on November 23, 2015 at the age of 95.
He was my mentor. He was my teacher. He was my friend.
I am going to miss him.