Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Tribute to My Friend, John Wicks, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Montana

It is often those we care about the most who elude us. Even now, when I look back on the Montana of my youth, I long to understand what happened there… and why. Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it…On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters. Norman Maclean – A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Regrets naturally occur over one's lifetime, but one of the greatest is the missed opportunity to see and visit with a friend one last time.  So it is with the recent death of my friend, Dr. John Henry Wicks. Dr. Wicks was an economics professor (a fixture, really) at the University of Montana Economics Department for well over 40 years and his indelible influence has infected many friends and students over that time.

I arrived at the University in the fall of 1976 a naïve, rambunctious and (perhaps at best) only half serious freshman.  It was the noxious seventies where the counter culture was still alive, an 18 y/o could drink legally, and the fallout from the Vietnam War was still fresh.  The campus social atmosphere was ripe for fun and like many of my peers I had few solid aspirations of what kind of work I might actually do when and if I graduated.

In the third quarter of my freshman year in March 1977, I found myself sitting in John Wicks’ Econ 201 class listening to the good professor digressing into all things economic.  I was more fascinated and mesmerized by his style and quirkiness than by the subject matter. I was especially amused by his insolence towards those who used the irritating idiomatic phrase “you know” at the end of spoken sentences.  He would simply say “Ding!!”  At first, I (and others) could not relate the phrase to his penal utterance, but soon it resonated with us and our amusement and delight grew with its frequency.  Of course, some of those victimized by the experience exhibited resentmen towrds himt, but the good professor never wavered.  Immediately, I found a growing fondness of him!

On the first Friday of class, John invited all students to FART.  You could hear a pin drop as he surveyed the class intensely and as I looked around, it was apparent that everyone was waiting for his follow-up punch line.  He appeased: “That stands for Friday Afternoon Recreation Time, which will start promptly at 4 pm at the Press Box Pizza and adjourn when in it is Pumpkin Time.”   “My god,” I thought, “I have to see this.” 

And so it was by accepting his invitation to FART that I commenced a friendship with this enigmatic man for the next 35+ years.  I was  increasingly intrigued and impressed by John’s ability to relate to everyone and to make economic principles relational to almost everything in life.   For the next many Fridays that quarter, I participated in FART and came to know this man well.  Eventually, the weather warmed enough that we moved FART to the Clark’s Fork River on rafts in a version deemed “Sea Duty” where we routinely landed our rafts on “Wild Asparagus Island” near the UM campus (the name and discovery of said island attributed by John to Greg Ingraham) where all who needed to exercise biological relief could do so among the island's high weeds. To my knowledge and John's, wild asparagus was never actually found on the island.

Ironically (and perhaps subliminally on purpose), I received a D in Econ 201 that quarter.  I did retake the class the next school year from John and received a B, much to John's pleasure. I then took a number of other Econ courses over my tenure at the school from the good doctor.  Our friendship evolved over that time and we shared a passion for hiking and fishing.  I stayed in Missoula the summers before and after my senior year and John and I took numerous outings to some of his favorite fishing haunts.  We always rode in John’s “empirical cruiser” – an early 70’s Chrysler if I recall correctly.  His peculiar habits always made me smile – one was to tap the horn as he was passing another car, noting to me that such a signal was part of the law of the Montana Code Annotated (which I confirmed years later.) 

My last class in college was the incomparable 2-credit “Edible Wild Plants” (in which, incredibly, I received a B.)  For my class project, I brought in John’s home brew he christened “PP” (its origins traced to John’s stint at Western Colorado College.)  This was 1980 and home brewing was certainly a rarity.  John brewed PP in a garbage can in his kitchen and it tasted…well, rather bitter to be polite.  But, it was a novelty and a hit with all in the class except the instructor, which is probably why out of 20 students, only one B was given and the rest received A’s. However, John beamed in pride at the warm reception given to PP by the class.  Seeing his pleasure was worth the B.

After I (surprise!!) evntually graduated, John and I stayed in touch.  I set off to become a Major League umpire and I lived and worked in Missoula for a few weeks in the fall of 1984.  I frequented FART again, this time as an alum, and I enjoyed hearing familiar things I had heard 8 years earlier. and John and I also managed a couple of weekend fishing excursions.  I saw John intermittently over the next dozen years after that – mostly at Grizzly homecomings - and we always traded Christmas cards where hs affinity for riding trains was a persistent theme in them. 

I never saw John after 2001 when I stopped  in Missoula and visited briefly with him on my way moving from Seattle to Bloomington, IL.  I never returned to Missoula thereafter. but we emailed each other occasionally and always traded Christmas cards.  Children came into my life and the activities of family and the labor of work made time fly.  I mentioned to him in a 2009 email exchange that I had done some work at the University of Illinois and he was excitedly recalled to me that he had earned his PhD there some 47 years earlier. He also talked of still hosting “seminar” – an exploratory quarterly (later semesterly) independent study which he had perpetually held since the 70s (regrettably and despite his frequent invitation, I never participated in it.)

John will be sadly missed by many of us who called him friend.  Though he was a life-long bachelor and lived in the same small house on South Higgins the entirety of his life that I knew him, he was never without his many friends.  He was an anomaly at the University – politically conservative and almost absurdly practical and rational.  If economics did not satisfactorily explain something in life, then fishing, hunting or hiking (or something related to them) did.  However, personal differences never stood in the way of John liking someone and he liked most every everyone as far as I could tell.  I was never as close to him as people like Greg Ingraham, Bob McCue, John Bulger, Otis McCullough, Nick Kaufmann, and many others. 

Bob was there for John throughout his life and especially in his final days.  Their friendship represented the unending bond John formed with many students over his years.  Bob established a Facebook site for John, The John Wicks Club, and many people have been added to it.  I smiled when I read that a celebration of John’s life will be held on April 28 at the Doubletree in Missoula.  I suspect that was planned intentionally to give people sufficient time to find the time, plan their travel, and find reasonable airfares.  It helped me and I will be there. 

A few professional tidbits about JW (a fairly detailed profile was done about John in the summer 2011 UM Dept of Economics newsletter.)  His “Official Biography” in 2004):

John Wicks  is Professor Emeritus in the Economics Department of the University of Montana. During his career, he has specialized in household economics and state and local taxation. Wicks received his undergraduate degree in Government from the University of South Dakota in 1957 where he graduated summa cum laude and was a Phi Beta Kappa member. He received his masters and doctorate (1962) from the University of Illinois in Economics. Professor Wicks has taught at Augustana College, Western State College of Colorado, Ohio State University, and since 1964 at the University of Montana. Although officially retired, he may be found at his university office and teaches undergraduate and graduate seminars in empirical research design each semester. He has been an author of nearly 50 publications, primarily articles in academic journals such as the National Tax Journal and the Review of Income and Wealth. In addition, he has been president of the Western Social Science Association and the Missoula, Montana City-County Planning Board and a director of First Citizens Bank of Polson, Montana. When not working, he rides trains on as many lines as possible throughout the world. Like most Montanans, he also hikes and fishes a lot.

Field Of Study: Household Production and Leisure
Published Works Include (partial list):
·         “An Application of a Stated Preference Method to Value Urban Amenities” Urban Studies, 2010, vol. 47, issue 2, pages 235 - 256
·         The Marginal Effects Of Consumer Characteristics On Internet Channel Choice” Journal of Applied Business Research  2007 Volume 23, Number 1 pages 43 – 54
·         Mothers' time spent in care of their children and market work: a simultaneous model with attitudes as instrumentsApplied Economics Letters, 2006, vol. 13, issue 8, pages 503 - 506
·         How Much Is Leisure Worth? Direct Measurement with Contingent ValuationReview of Economics of the Household, 2004, vol. 2, issue 4, pages 351 - 365
·         "Valuation of Household Production at Market Prices, and Estimation of Household Production Functions," Review of Income and Wealth, June 1996, 165 - 180.
·         "Market Valuation of Household Production," Journal of Forensic Economics, 5(2), 1992, 115 - 126.
·         "Measuring the Value of Household Output: A Comparison of Direct and Indirect Approaches," Review of Income and Wealth, June 1990, 129 - 141.
·         "An Empirical Comparison of Government and Private Productive Efficiency," National Tax Journal, December 1974, 653 - 656.
·         "Administrative and Compliance Costs of State and Local Taxes," National Tax Journal, September 1967, 309 - 315.
·         “A Model of Commercial Bank Earning Assets Selection” Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis
1966, vol. 1, issue 02, pages 99 - 113
·         “Discussion” Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, 1966, vol. 1, issue 01, pages 53 - 55
Your friends are what will matter in the end and when you die, if you’ve got five real friends, then you’ve had a great life.

John had many friends. RIP my friend

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