Walter Adams, Spartan extraordinaire.
Typically sporting a fedora hat, cigar and Marching Band jacket, Walter Adams was the most recognizable, if not most beloved figure on campus for more than four decades. He served MSU as president, distinguished professor, friend, counselor, statesman, and ubiquitous fan.
Shortly after his 76th birthday, Walter Adams died September 8 of cancer in his East Lansing home.
In 44 years, Walter Adams never missed a class, recalls Pauline Adams, his wife of 55 years. After every game--win or lose--Walter stood by the north goal post of Spartan Stadium to salute the football players. The Spartan Marching Band made Walter one of a handful of honorary members for his loyal support, and serenaded him on Aug. 27--one of his last memories. The naming of Langdon Field in his honor is a fitting tribute, given the area's use for band practice and its proximity to Cowles House.
Walter wore many hats, none prouder than as a U.S. veteran. A war hero, winner of the Bronze Star, Walter landed in Normandy with the 83rd Infantry and fought bravely in the European Theater from 1943-45. He loved to regale others with stories from that era, revealing his admiration for heroism and patriotism.
Few academics are as respected both for teaching and research as was Walter, a consensus "master" teacher. After graduating from Brooklyn College and Yale, Adams joined MSU's faculty in 1947, became a professor in 1956, and a Distinguished Professor in 1960. His Econonimcs 444 class was legendary; it produced a cadre of future leaders that include governors, presidents, and CEOs (see sidebar). He also produced voluminous research, often provided expert testimony on economics in Capitol Hill, and served as special advisor to three U.S. Presidents--Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.
"Most of all, Walter was a teacher, indeed the model master teacher," says President McPherson. "To Walter, the classroom was where the university best met its obligations to the future. He did more than teach, he inspired. From the
post-war years through the Vietnam era and into the 1990s, Walter Adams' classroom was an invigorating place of rigor, discipline and mutual respect."
In 1969 Walter served MSU as president for nine months--a period of social tumult recounted in his book, The Test. He followed legendary president John Hannah at a time of social turmoil, and by sheer force of personality and intelligence, gave MSU the transition it needed. While President, Walter shunned many of the trappings of power--preferring, for example, to sit in his regular Stadium seats rather than the press box.
Adams was active in national affairs, serving as a consultant to the Small Business Committees of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and to the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the Eisenhower Administration he served on the Attorney General's National Committee to Study the Antitrust Laws.
In 1961 he was appointed by President John Kennedy and reappointed in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson to serve on the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs.
"It was a great honor and privilege to be a student of his," says former U.S. senator Don Riegle, adjunct professor at The Eli Broad College of Business at MSU. "He was truly an inspired teacher in the sense that he provoked you to think. He was respectful of other's ideas, he would challenge your thinking and invite you to challenge his. He had a powerful influence in that he helped his students get to a higher level and that's an extraordinary talent.
"He assumed the presidency at a time when college campuses were being rocked by student unrest. He was able to navigate that period with all the deftness and intellectual integrity that one would hope to see from an administrator at a time of crisis."
An astute observer of the business world, particularly regarding his specialization of anti-trust economics, Adams wrote a number of books, including Dangerous Pursuits: Mergers and Acquisitions in the Age of Wall Street, The Structure of American Industry, Monopoly in America and The Test, an account of his nine months in the MSU president's office. His latest book, co-authored with former student James W. Brock, now professor at Miami University (OH), is titled, The Tobacco Wars.
The Bigness Complex, also co-authored with Brock, was named by Business Week as the of the 10 best business books of 1987. The book blasted carmakers for what he considered their inept handling of the foreign auto import crisis.
"There are few that have been larger in my life," says fellow economist John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard University. "He was a diversely intelligent and articulate economist, a wonderful teacher and, of course, a greatly effective university administrator. Few have combined so much, so well, in one lifetime."
At a personal level, Walter was a charming bon vivant, a man of extraordinary wit and wisdom, and one who never wavered from his love for his country, for teaching and for Michigan State University. He was the supreme patriot-teacher, as well as the supreme Spartan.
"In Walter, we lose someone who was known to virtually all alumni, many at a personal level," says Keith Williams, executive director of the MSU Alumni Association. "Walter symbolized the university, and was always available whenever called upon to do something. In many cases, his participation made the event. We will really miss him."
The MSU Alumni Association has initiated a new award, the Outstanding Lifetime Service Award. The first recipient was Walter Adams. In the future, the award will be named the Walter Adams Outstanding Lifetime Service Award. "We will award it only when we find someone of Walter's stature and lifetime dedication to the university," says Williams. "It will not be awarded every year."
Adams is survived by his wife, Pauline, a former MSU faculty member, and a son, William James, who teaches economics at the University of Michigan.
By Jim Brock, '81
Students who signed up for Econ 444 knew that they were going for the educational adventure of their lives.
Dr. Adams' legendary course in American enterprise and public policy was not required for any major. It was an elective. Yet it drew students of every geographical, academic and ethnic background. They came from accross campus for one reason--they heard via word-of-mouth that this was an absolutely superb course. Tough and demanding, but a challenge they'd never forget.
When Dr. Adams took the first roll, he already knew the students' names, their majors, and where they were from. He assigned a seat to each student. Although 150-200 students were enrolled each semester, he knew each student and where he or she sat. No one could hide in anonymity. Attendance was not optional. Each class would develop its own esprit de corps.
Professor Adams challenged us to think--to think originally, to think imaginatively, to think on our feet, and above all, to think for ourselves. He challenged our ideological biases. He challenged the "conventional wisdom." "Learning," he stressed, "is not a spectator sport."
In every class, professor Adams randomly selected a "victim" for the day (sleepy students were lightning rods for his attention). In the ensuing dialogue, he would unleash a series of questions that steadily zeroed in on the core issue at stake. No interruptions allowed. He never ridiculed students--unless one was unprepared, or absent. As he pursued his quarry, you could see and feel the learning taking place, with up to 200 young people immersed in education of the highest order.
Periodic emotional releases were necessary. Humor and wit kept the process from bogging down. At the sound of the closing bell, you could hear some audibly exhale.
Yet time flew. You were transferred somewhere else--to the realm of the intellect; to the arena of epic public policy debates; to the Supreme Court; to the 18th century world of America's Founders and their Constitutional debates of power and its control in a free society.
For me, then a Ph.D. candidate, it was a three-day-a-week, virtuoso performance in "applied pedagogical theory" by one of the nation's master teachers. Veterans of Econ 44 over the last four decades shared one common experience. We learned.
WHAT IF BOBBY KNIGHT HAD TAKEN ECON 444?--Since the early 1980s, Walter Adams and Bobby Knight, Indiana basketball coach, always exchanged gifts prior to each MSU-Indiana game at MSU. The tradition was initiated by Knight to appease Adams and his vociferous cohorts, who sat behind the opponents' bench in Jenison Fieldhouse. The first peace offering, recall economists Carl Liedholm and Byron Brown, was an exchange of ties. Thereafter, Knight and Adams exchanged caps, sweaters, and other spirit paraphernalia. The tradition caught on and became a pre-game media ceremony.