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By: Melissa Silmore (TPR'85)
The optimism is almost tangible. JFK is the United States' charismatic president, and Alan Shepard has just become the first American in space. It's a glorious day in Salem, Oregon-the kind when the spring sunshine lights up the capitol building across the street from campus.
As always, crowds are milling around in the quad, the heart of Willamette University. A particular group of young men flock around economics professor Richard Gillis. He's arguably the most popular teacher at school, with his quick wit and outgoing charm-a bit of a pied piper. Usually the professor can be found having a cigarette on the sidewalk leading to the capitol. It's just off campus and a popular spot, because smoking is prohibited on school grounds. But today is different. Gillis is in the center of campus-it's graduation day.
The group around him includes some of his best and brightest. One of the students blurts out, "Professor Gillis, what do you think will happen to us after we graduate from WilAMMit?" pronounced the appropriate Oregon way. Gillis turns to the budding attorney to say, "Well, I think you'll be a successful lawyer." Business major Stew Butler is next. Gillis can't resist a tease. "Well, Stew, you'll be governor, of course!" The others laugh at the lofty expectation. Then Gillis peers at Butler's roommate, Dale Mortensen. The professor smiles thoughtfully. ...
Mortensen, Gillis' top student and senior class president, was a kid from a town with a four-room grade school, a timber community up the Hood River Valley. He followed his childhood buddy, Russ Beaton, to Willamette, on identical merit-based full scholarships. They had both been crack math students in high school: Beaton, one year ahead, had gone on to study economics with Gillis at Willamette.
When Mortensen enrolled, Beaton spoke so enthusiastically about his economics courses that he wasn't a bit surprised when his friend also became intrigued with the subject. And he knew that whatever sparked his friend's interest would be something he would master. Beaton would never forget the football awards banquet in their packed high school cafeteria. His "brilliant" friend stepped up to receive the "Outstanding Lineman" award. Then, for the evening's entertainment, he sang "Ol' Man River" in his "beautiful" bass voice.
At Willamette, Mortensen made plenty of friends in his economics classes. What he didn't know, however, was that he quickly became the college student others measured themselves against. Certain their unassuming buddy had no idea, Butler and the others strove to beat him on any test they could, secretly congratulating each other if they managed to do so, even by a single point.
Beaton graduated and went on to pursue an economics PhD, committed to becoming a college professor like the boys' mentor, Gillis. Mortensen was similarly inspired that graduation day; he and his roommate Butler were heading east-Mortensen to Carnegie Tech, Butler to Penn's Wharton School. They made earnest plans to get together often, once they were settled. The Oregon natives didn't realize the two Pennsylvania cities were 300 hundred miles apart. In fact, Mortensen had never seen Pittsburgh, never been farther east than Chicago. Getting to "Carnegie" meant his first time on a plane, but as a social history buff, he was excited to be learning in "the center of the U.S. industrial revolution." He wasn't disappointed. He found the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, as Tepper was known at the time, to be a place of excitement and change. "It was different than the others," Mortensen recalls. "I didn't know what to expect. It turned out to be full of people with lots of ideas, not always consistent with each other."
He remembers it being a hectic time, not just because of his advanced academic study. Within four years, he met a young woman, Beverly Patton (A'62); married her; and had the first two of his three children-all while pursuing his degree. "We were crazy," he chuckles now. The young family eventually headed to Northwestern University, where Mortensen began his first real job while putting the final touches on his PhD long-distance, earning it in 1967. At Northwestern, he encountered faculty members interested in labor economics. He was fascinated, thinking he could find a better way to explain things. It was a topic that would become his life's work.(Continued …)