John P. Powelson, 1920-2009
It seems strange to be writing one's own obituary, but that's the way life and death go. When I was in college I chauffeured an elderly retired judge who wrote his own obituary for the newspaper. The least I can do is write mine for The Quaker Economist, the journal I founded eight years ago.
Yes, this is an obituary. I died on January 1, 2009, after a brief illness. I had a good life, and it had to end sometime. My greatest regret is leaving all you friends, whom I love very much, and especially my dear wife, Robin. A friend of mine, whose wife predeceased him, said he had given her the ultimate gift, in that he, not she, was the one left behind. I am sorry to inflict this hardship on Robin.
I was born September 3, 1920 and after a year followed my parents to Syracuse, New York, where my father founded a business school known as the Powelson Business Institute. It is still very much alive, but became incorporated into Bryant & Stratton College in 1976.
My father died in 1933, when I was almost 13. My mother, a Scottish farm girl who had had to leave school after the sixth grade, wanted her three children to have the best education possible. In her mind that meant private schools: Pebble Hill (near Syracuse), Andover, and Harvard. I'm not sure that going to the "best" private schools was good for me, since I did not belong to the same social class as my classmates, and I was frequently harassed (see TQE #2). Harvard was more cosmopolitan, and I found a niche there.
My father died bankrupt and in debt; he had lost everything in the crash of 1929. My mother worked as a registered nurse to finance our educations, and all three of us (one brother, one sister, and I) got scholarships. In the first fall mid-term at Andover I was flunking four courses, so my scholarship was reduced, and I had to work in the kitchen. Starting from a low base, I won the improvement prize.
At Andover I was a socialist and a pacifist. I gave up my socialism when I studied economics (see TQE #78), but my pacifism continued until the day I died. Since World War II was coming on, I debated my fellow Harvard students who gradually slipped into believing that only a war would stop Hitler.
I wanted to be an accountant, like my father, but Harvard College offered no courses in accounting. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania would allow me credit for my undergraduate courses in economics, so I could get the M.B.A. in one year if only I had accounting principles before entering. Harvard Business School would not do that. I was sure I would be drafted before the two years for an MBA at Harvard. So, during my senior year I walked in to Boston University to study first-year accounting. While I was at Wharton (Penn), Pearl Harbor occurred, and the United States was at war.
I got the MBA and went to work in New York for the same accounting firm as my father. While there, I was called up for CPS camp (for conscientious objectors). The physical exam was administered by the army. The receptionist sergeant stamped IV-E (conscientious objector) in BIG LETTERS all over my papers, so no one could fail to know. The sergeant who received my urine specimen purposely spilled part of it on my papers, so I had to go through the line with urine-soaked papers. The psychiatrist had never heard of a CPS camp, and I didn't tell him. He thought that as a conscientious objector surely I must be homosexual. "Do you like boys?" he asked me. "Sure I do." He rejected me as "psychoneurotic severe, not to be returned." I spent the rest of the war as 4-F (rejected).
One day as I was doing an audit in downtown New York, I received a letter from my accounting prof at Wharton. "I remember you once said you might teach," he wrote. "Would you like to teach at Wharton?" I immediately walked to the flat roof of the building and delivered my first lecture, to an audience of thousands of ant-like people on the streets below. I began teaching at Wharton (Penn) the following fall (1944).
I started my teaching career in accounting. To be a professor, I was told, I would need a PhD. But Penn had no PhD in accounting, so I started studying economics. One weekend I hitch-hiked to Boston to see an old girl friend at Wellesley. While in Cambridge, I stopped in to chat with the chairman of economics at Harvard (a former prof of mine). He thought I had come to see if I could transfer to Harvard the last thing on my mind but before nightfall I had applied to Harvard anyway. As soon as I had transferred there, the war ended, and more students were pouring in than they could accommodate. So I was awarded a teaching fellowship after only one semester.
For the next several summers I was on the faculty of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) summer institutes in international affairs, where I called square dances, gave lectures in economics, and led the singing.
After finishing my course work and taking my prelims at Harvard, I taught accounting for a year at the University of Buffalo. All my friends in Buffalo were married, and I found no single women. Since I was looking for a wife, when I returned to Cambridge for my oral PhD exam, I asked my professors about working in Washington.
For the next two summers I led student groups to Europe for the Experiment in International Living. Living in families in France and Germany, I felt more internationally-minded than ever. We traveled on student ships (no airplanes in those days), where I participated in an AFSC "orientation" program. I called square dances, lectured on the economics of postwar Europe, taught the Irish how to play baseball with a ping pong paddle and tennis ball ("Over the ship's railing is out!"), and put out the ship's newspaper.
In a tent camp in Paris in 1948 I met Robin, who was about to spend several years in Quaker service. At an AFSC reunion at Westtown School five years later, we re-met and were married five months later (May 31, 1953). Her service with Quakers was the strongest point in making me believe she would be a good mother to our children (which indeed she was, and still is!).
I spent a year in Paris (1948-49), to live in a French family, learn French, and write my doctoral dissertation on France. But I had to work, and my accounting firm (Price Waterhouse) sent me to Frankfurt for three months. There I taught folk dancing in an AFSC neighborhood house ("Nachbarschaftsheim"), lived with a Quaker family in a half-bombed-out building, and started learning German. I still have German friends that I met on that occasion.
My Harvard professors helped me become a research economist at the International Monetary Fund. While there, I wrote my first book, Economic Accounting, which happened to be seen by professors at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. They invited me to teach a new course on economic development, for U.S. foreign aid officers. One of these officers invited me to Bolivia as economic advisor. "Come and see what the real world is like," he said. From then until retirement, I divided my time between foreign assignments and university teaching.
Thus began my international career, which took me (on longer assignments) to Bolivia, Kenya, Philippines, and Mexico (all with Robin and children), and shorter ones to lecture in universities in all the Latin American capitals except Cuba, plus several in Africa, and in the Philippines and China. Economic Accounting, translated into Spanish, was used widely in Latin American universities, where I was frequently invited to lecture (in Spanish). I also finished several more books (see my vita for a list), and these got me other assignments, and finally via the University of Pittsburgh to the University of Colorado, where I taught for 39 years and happily retired.
All of our five children brought us great joy. The saddest part of our marriage was the death of our eldest daughter, Cindy, of stomach cancer (see TQE #79). But our other four Judy, Ken, Carolyn, and Larry kept on bringing us joy.
In 1955 the American Friends Service Committee asked me to review their new pamphlet on Latin America. I thought that it contained serious biases and exaggerations, and asked them to withhold publication until we could talk it over. They would not do that, but they invited me to Philadelphia to consult anyway. Then, as on many later occasions, I felt concern that unprogrammed Quakers had turned themselves from a personal religion into a political religion.
I wrote several articles for Friends Journal, Quaker Life, and Friends Bulletin on this theme, and traveled around the country to speak at Yearly Meetings, as well as to New Zealand and Australia. My economic views were generally ignored or rejected by Quakers everywhere, even though my positions were quite mainstream among economists.
Despite my frequent political differences with Quakers, I still firmly believed in the three fundamentals of unprogrammed Quakerism: that of God in every person (the Inner Light), the Meeting for Worship, and sense-of-the-Meeting decisions in Business Meetings. So I began to write an electronic journal, The Classic Liberal Quaker, to communicate some of the basic ideas of economics to Quakers. Later it was renamed The Quaker Economist. The initial responses from readers were negative, but as the years have passed it has broadened its scope and gained an international readership.
I now leave you in the hands of Loren Cobb, a longtime independent Friend who knows his economics and social theory. He has replaced me as the editor of The Quaker Economist.
With that, Friends, I bid you a fond, final farewell,
P.S. I am sure Robin would like to hear from you. Her address is: 350 Ponca Place, Apt #465, Boulder CO 80303.
Other published obituaries for Jack Powelson
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I would like to add my two cents to Jack's obituary. One of the things Jack did throughout his life was to visit the slums and ghettos of the nations where he went to consult on economic development, or to teach, or whatever other purpose brought him there. He told me many stories of these adventures. One opinion he shared: everywhere he went, when he asked people want they wanted from economic development, the most common answer was simply, "a job". Sounds so simple doesn't it?
Jack was a dogged optimist and idealist. He believed that the world is actually getting better in many ways, and that a free market economy would lead to the greater good. Talking with him was an uplifting experience for me.
For the last several years my family has had the honor of transporting Jack and Robin to our annual Quaker gathering. My children have benefited not only from his wit and stories and many songs, but from participating in the twilight years and steady decline of a feisty old guy who lived one hell of a life. I am so glad we had the opportunity. Too often in this day and age the young have little to no contact with the aged. My family appreciates the gift we got traveling Highway 285 with the Quaker Economist. I am a superstitious soul, and I choose to believe that one day I will go to that great square dance in the sky, and do one more do-si-do with my hero, Jack Powelson.
Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
I am deeply saddened to read that my dear professor has passed away. Jack's life was an inspiration, and he managed to do so much and touch so many in his time here. I was his student in the fall of 1997 at CU Boulder. He taught me more than I'll probably ever know. He always had time for his students, well beyond the coursework and gave me advice for years. When I met the man who would be my husband, Jack and Robin wanted to meet him.
Jack Powelson will be deeply missed. I hope his economic theories will gain more footing in the world. I hope and believe the work Jack Powelson will continue to touch people's lives. Anyone who lives as he preaches is someone to be admired. Jack Powelson was a truly admirable man.
Jack will be missed by me. He spoke truth to power and to Quakers, too. I imagine he is still doing that, no matter where his soul has moved on to.
Let's all remember his wonderful book, A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why a Few Nations are Rich and Many Poor, which is now online at http://tqe.quaker.org/wealth-and-poverty/ (and in Spanish, too) where he answered the question: "Why are some nations materially well off, while others are so poor?" This book reached a conclusion that Friends can readily understand. When I asked Jack if his Quaker values may have biased his conclusions, he looked startled. "No, it had not occurred to me that was the conclusion I reached, but now that you mention it..." Blessings,
Free Polazzo, Douglasville (GA) Atlanta Friends Meeting/Carrollton Worship Group.
Thanks, Jack, for your wonderful insights, and for being a wonderful friend. I sure enjoyed chatting about the world, and particularly about the peculiarities of unprogrammed friends state of denial regarding the outcomes of politically enforced economic behavior.
As I have said before, when one accepts that there is the Inner Light within each of us, then one has to accept that each person will have to follow their own choices based on the Light they contain. And the more open the choices available, the more Light in the spiritual world. Hurrah for lightly regulated markets, free trade and open borders, and the wonderful world we enjoy as a result!
I sure miss you, Jack!
Christopher Robin Viavant.
The fondest memory I have of Jack is when I asked him to speak to the First Day School boys about being a conscientious objector in WWII. He told a great story and felt he was doing something important by sharing his story with the kids. This was confirmed to me later, when he took me aside and told me that if I wanted him to come to some local schools and tell his story to the kids, he would love to do that. Sadly, I never put anything together for the schools, and therefore did not take him up on his offer. The kids really missed out on that one, and I think Jack would have really enjoyed interacting with them. Jack will be missed.
Barbara Eversole, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
Condolences on the loss of your good friend. I am a decade-long attender of the Durham Friends Meeting and found my way to TQE for the first time this morning. After reading an older post and then clicking to the home page, I was shocked to see that I missed "reading the words of a live writer" by only days.
Peace to you. I look forward to reading much more on TQE, which is clearly speaking to questions I have had about living a Quaker life in the American and global economies.
Phil, Durham (NC) Friends Meeting.
How saddened I was to hear that Jack had died on the first day of this new year. He was one of my true heroes shining light into this world of chaos and confusion we all live in. A giant tree in the forest has fallen, and it is now up to us to make sure there are many to hear the sound of his message.
I first learned of Jack's work from J.D. after returning from a World Bank/Anglican Provinces week-long conference on "Alleviating Poverty in Africa," in Nairobi, in March 2000. (This was a follow-up on the 1998 Lambeth Conference which James Wolfenson, then president of the World Bank, had attended at the invitation of Archbishop Carey.) My assignment in Nairobi was to talk on "Establishing an Investment Climate in Africa." I think my audience was a little surprised when I suggested that creating a hospitable investment climate was the most important topic on their agenda, because the poor need and benefit from the same climate desired by investors and they were even more surprised when I suggested that God might even be the ultimate entrepreneur/risk taker because he delegated power so completely when he created man. I stressed particularly Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
A few days after telling J.D. about my talk, a copy of Centuries of Economic Endeavor arrived in my mail and I realized that Jack Powelson had really peeled away the onion of world problems to get to the heart of the issue of living successfully together. He showed us all that genuine diffusion of power is what we must strive for in our efforts to help other nations, as well as to protect our own country's well being. Without genuine diffusion of power in a nation's economic and political systems, other efforts to increase GDP, or to teach a man to fish, or to help micro-entrepreneurs launch new businesses, all will fail to have lasting benefits because powerful elites who control the system will gain most of the benefits. Jack revealed why our foreign aid programs have had so little real impact: We have been strengthening and entrenching the power-holding rich and their cronies in the countries we have tried to help.
I did revise my talk after reading Jack's book, calling it "The African Conundrum, What Would God Have Us Do?" and in case any readers are interested, it was posted on the World Faith Development Dialogue website (click here).
Since then I have myself purchased and given out a number of copies of Jack's book to those I felt could benefit from it and still have three left waiting to be put to best use. (There are currently eight used copies available from different bookstores at abebooks.com.)
Frances and I traveled to Colorado from time to time in the past, and had some wonderful visits with Jack and Robin in Boulder. Jack leaves a big gap in the forest with his passing. It is now up to us to continue his quest.
That reminds me of a story Governor Linwood Holton used to tell about a former governor here in Virginia, where a governor cannot be re-elected to a second term. Holton told the older governor that he felt he had started so much and now was terribly frustrated by having to leave the job before it was finished. As Holton told it: "Governor Battle put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Lin, that's the way it's supposed to be. If your ideas are good ones, they will get carried on; if they're not so good, then they probably won't.'"
It is indeed up to us to be sure that Jack's ideas do get carried on.
Gordon O.F. Johnson.
Copyright © 2009 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for the unrestricted reproduction of the autobiographical material in Jack Powelson's obituary.