Northwestern remembers economics professor Dale Mortensen in memorial service


Source: Northwestern Department of Economics

A memorial service for Prof. Dale Mortensen was held Friday at Alice Millar Chapel. Mortensen was a Northwestern economics professor and recent Nobel laureate.

Ally Mutnick, Campus Editor

Friends and economists from around the world gathered Friday morning to remember Prof. Dale Mortensen as a pioneer in labor economics and a proud Northwestern faculty member. 

Mortensen, a Nobel laureate who taught at NU for nearly 50 years, died in January at age 74 after a battle with cancer. Guests nearly filled Alice Millar Chapel during the public memorial.

University President Morton Schapiro gave a welcome address with a story about how he had admired Mortensen since graduate school. After becoming president of NU five years ago, Schapiro, an economist himself, said he was most excited to meet “the great Dale Mortensen.”

“It’s amazing when you’re a grad student, you think Dale is writing along with John Maynard Keynes in 1936,” he said. “I was reading it in 1976 and I just thought he was one of the great sages along with Aristotle, Socrates and Adam Smith. But actually he was a young guy and he had just written it a couple years before.”

In 2010, Mortensen won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on the labor market and unemployment. The University honored him that year in its homecoming celebrations, even bringing him onto Ryan Field before kickoff in the Homecoming football game — something Schapiro said Mortensen greatly enjoyed. 

NU was a “cornerstone” of the family, Karl Mortensen, Mortensen’s son, said at the memorial. The Mortensen family has earned a combined six degrees. Mortensen also helped found the Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences program.

Even from the intensive care unit, Mortensen was a loyal football fan. When Evanston Hospital did not carry the Big Ten Network on its cable, Karl Mortensen brought a computer so they could watch NU’s game against Nebraska.

“Needless to say when the wide receiver from Nebraska caught the ball on the Hail Mary pass, my dad and I just went, ‘No!’” Karl Mortensen said. “We caused quite a few floor nurses to come running.”

As an economist, colleagues say Mortensen changed the way they look at labor economics. Taking into account the preferences of workers and employers, Mortensen created mathematical models that can explain and predict the duration of unemployment.

Economists at the memorial called him brilliant, saying his mind never turned off. He would often have an epiphany while eating dinner and rush off to work on a new idea. Many remembered him as a pleasure to collaborate with, noting he encouraged peers to take risks but would never find flaws in the work of others to strengthen his theories.

“With his words and with his examples, Dale painted for me a beautiful picture of life as an economist,” said Guido Menzio, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Musical selections were performed in between the 10 speakers who gave tributes. All had a personal connection to Mortensen and his wife Beverly Mortensen, who directed the church choir where the two sang.

When a camera crew came to film Mortensen for a documentary to be shown ahead of the Nobel Prize ceremony, Mortensen was persuaded to sing “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Show Boat.”

By the time he arrived in Sweden, his rendition of the song had become very popular. While giving a speech at a banquet for Nobel winners, Mortensen joked he should sing the song instead of making remarks.

Beverly Mortensen spoke at the end of the service with stories from their 50-year marriage. She described him as loving husband with high intellectual standards in all aspects of life, who often made her “think like an economist.”

She recalled her frequent trips with her husband, traveling with him as he went to different countries for his work.

“His intellect made it fascinating. His humility and honesty made it beautiful,” she said. “I’m grateful to have traveled with Dale for 50 years.”

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