The remarkable life of William F. Hellmuth exemplifies the ways an academic can directly affect millions of people at home and abroad by enabling them to make their governments smarter and more responsive. Bill Hellmuth, our colleague and former dean of the college, died at the age of 93 in Sacramento, California, but not before he used his interests and talents to make the world a better place for people, regardless of circumstances, who wanted fuller and richer lives. His work and deeds bettered not only those in his adopted city of Oberlin, but those in this entire country and, more, the emerging and developing countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Bill received his Bachelor of Science degree from Yale in 1940 but, before he could complete his graduate work in economics, he entered the U.S. Army for three years. He was a captain in the historic landing at Omaha Beach in June 1944, and later served on battlefields throughout Europe. He was promoted to the rank of major and received awards and medals, including the French Normandy Medal in 1994. On occasions, though he was uncomfortable with heights, Bill flew Piper Cub spotter planes over the front lines of battle.
Thereafter, Bill returned to Yale and was awarded his PhD in economics in 1948, the same year he joined our faculty. From the outset, he was continuously involved in significant and groundbreaking research on how various governments taxed and spent their funds. Results of his always careful and considered research were published in the most highly regarded economics journals. His analysis of Cleveland’s problems in “Financing Government in a Metropolitan Area” remains a starting point to understanding today’s urban economic problems. His chapter on the economics of the movie industry was closely read by generations of economists and their students.
Bill was elected to three terms on the Oberlin City Council, each time with especially strong support from neighborhoods with large blocs of faculty and large blocs of African American families. He was a leader in writing and passing Oberlin’s Fair Housing ordinance, the first such law to be finally upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court. In fact Bill worked throughout his personal and professional life to establish fair treatment for those, regardless of gender or race, burdened by inequities. With a few friends he organized Oberlin’s Unitarian church.
During his academic leaves at the Federal Reserve’s Division of Research and Statistics, he provided Congressional testimony to explain the economic effects of different taxes and later co-authored a book analyzing personal and corporate income taxes. He also spent a leave at the University of Wisconsin, where the economics faculty members were loudly interested in the policy implications of various taxes. On another occasion, Bill went to Tanzania as a visiting professor at University College in Dar-es-Salaam and even became a founding director of the Tanzanian Economic Research Bureau. A few months ago, an economist at the still-functioning bureau wrote how helpful Bill had been to her in her career and described him as a kind and gracious man.
In 1960 Bill became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin, though his professional interests remained grounded in economic policies. He continued to serve the department often as host to distinguished economists including John Kenneth Galbraith and Martin Bronfenbrenner and Nobel Prize winners such as Milton Friedman—an occasion I well remember. In 1968 he returned to Washington to serve as deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for tax policy, and a year later took the position of vice president of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1975, Bill accepted an appointment in the expanding economics department of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he continued his research on taxation. Naturally, he soon took a leave to help the government of Saudi Arabia understand the relation between its inflation and the need for rapid economic development to improve Saudi living standards.
Back in Virginia, where they remained for the next 20 years, Bill and his wife were as involved in community issues as they had been in Oberlin. There was little difference between their nearby neighbors and those thousands of miles away when it came to helping people enjoy better and richer lives. That may be Bill’s best lesson.
Along with Larry Gladieux, Peter Rothschild, and Judy Schechter Lasko of our Class of ’65, I had the good fortune to attend both high school and college with the incomparable Ed Schwartz, who died last November 28. The word polymath must have been invented for Ed. He was a serious student of applied political philosophy, an exceptional jazz pianist and clarinetist—and one of the most ingeniously comic people who ever lived.
Ed and I were part of the WOBC satire show of the mid-1960s that anticipated Saturday Night Live by a decade. One of our utter joys was dividing up the task of writing scripts, convening a quick rehearsal of the company, which included Stuart Rubinow ’65 and Ann Gundersheimer ’66, and comparing guffaws. (Ed didn’t quite have a guffaw so much as what one high school classmate called a snorfle.) Who can forget Oberlin’s alma mater done as rap, the Boys’ League to Achieve Secluded Toilets (BLAST), or Ed’s airplane ride through literature? We also co-wrote skits for reunions at both Oberlin and Scarsdale High.
Ed used humor in pursuit of serious things. He was a relentless civic idealist and political activist. He was very serious about democracy. Ed came from an affluent family. His father was a successful New York publisher, and they lived in a jaw-dropping Frank Lloyd Wright-style ultra modern home in the Murray Hill section of Scarsdale. But Ed chucked the comfortable life to work as a community organizer in Philadelphia. After earning his doctorate in political philosophy at Rutgers, where he worked with his former Oberlin teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, Ed created the Institute for the Study of Civic Values. He married Jane Shull, the daughter of a progressive political family, who became Ed’s lifelong partner in community work.
In 1984, he managed to get elected to the Philadelphia City Council, running citywide for an at-large seat. As an elected official, he maintained his regular weekly jazz gig. In 1987, Ed was appointed director of the city’s office of housing and community development by Philadelphia’s reform mayor, Wilson Goode. Along the way, he found time to write several books, including one volume that was a decade ahead of its time, the 1996 book, NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet.
My own life and Ed’s criss-crossed in countless ways. We served together on student councils both in high school and at Oberlin. He did me a huge favor in 1966, sparing me an ordeal I’m not sure I could have handled as well as he did. In that year, we were both running for posts as officers of the National Student Association. But Ed knew something that I didn’t. The NSA was a CIA front and would likely soon be exposed. I would like to think that I had the votes, but shortly before the election, Ed looked me in the eye and he said, “Bob, you don’t want this job, it could ruin your life.” So I withdrew. And Ed went on to be part of the group that broke the tie and made public the documents, at some risk to himself.
Nearly three years ago, Ed was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease. What could be more cruel for one who had such a way with words? He became withdrawn and taciturn. But it turned out to be something of a misdiagnosis. Nothing about Ed was ever simple. Only in the last months of his life did his doctors realize Ed had a more complex condition that responded well to medication. He began sitting in on his old jazz group, attending city council and political meetings, and resuming something close to normal life, only to succumb abruptly to a heart attack.
He is survived by his wife, Jane, and his daughter, Ruth. Ed Schwartz lived life to the fullest and made our world a better place. He was one of a kind.
Bob Kuttner’s latest book is Debtor’s Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility (Knopf 2013)