It is with much sadness that I learned of the recent passing of one of my favorite and most respected economists, Professor Walter Williams. Walter was a prolific writer, author, educator, and defender of freedom. He died on December 3rd at 84, having taught his final economics class at George Mason University the previous day.
I first met Walter in 1983 at the Regional Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Vancouver, Canada where we had invited him to be a speaker on the program. I was working at the Fraser Institute and was very involved in organizing the event. We were the host organization for the meeting.
My most recent visit with Walter and his daughter Devyn was at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation’s private reception for the 2019 Bradley prizewinners in May at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The three of us had a chance to reminisce and it was a terrific reunion. Devyn, who accompanied her father (his beloved wife Connie died in 2007) is an educator herself and a mother of a young son. She reminded me that as a young girl she had attended the 1983 MPS meeting with her parents and that my assistant Christa Biermeyer had taken such great care of her during the conference so her parents could participate in all of the MPS activities. They both had such fond memories of Christa.
Many of the wonderful tributes to this great free market economist have focused on his many academic accomplishments. I thought it would be interesting if I added a few personal anecdotes. He had a tremendous sense of humor. I found it amusing that Walter lived in Devon, PA on Devonshire Street, and named his daughter Devyn.
Walter grew up in poverty in Philadelphia and as a young boy spending money was hard to come by. In order to make some pocket money, Walter told me that he would sit on the pavement at the curb and ask people when they got out of their parked cars for cash. If they did not give it to him, he would, once they were out of sight, let the air of out of their tires! Thanks heavens Walter was both a gifted student and athlete and he was able to move on to a productive career as a free
market economist in the vein of his friends Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, who all specialized in letting the air out of liberalism’s tires!
When Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate in economics, gave an address to over 1,100 guests at Vancouver’s Hyatt Hotel in the early 1980s, I had to check the podium to see if the audience could see Milton over it. He was under five feet and the answer was they could not. Hence, I had the hotel staff bring out a wooden box so that Milton could stand on it to be seen. Walter, on the other hand, was over 6’5” so there was a different problem when he travelled to give speeches—would the bed in his room at the Bayshore Inn where the MPS meeting was being held accommodate a person of his height? The answer was no but the hotel was able to locate a “stretch” bed for his room. He was so grateful.
Following the release of his best-selling book The State Against Blacks in 1982, Walter came to Vancouver and addressed a Fraser Institute luncheon at the Hotel Vancouver. As always, the guests were spellbound by his remarks and when finished, he received a standing ovation. As a thank you, Fraser presented him with a Talking Stick that had been hand-carved by a local Indian native (now referred to as an indigenous person). Walter with his usual wit held it up in front of the audience and said, “perfect for beating my wife!” Everyone but the local media attendees laughed. As you can imagine, all the media coverage centered not on Walter’s great free market speech but on “Walter Williams is a wife beater”!
After his presentation, Walter had promised to take his daughter to Whistler to ski. Whistler was not as developed and groomed in the mid-80s as it is today. He found the slopes very challenging and the cold insufferable. He recalled it again at the Bradley reception. Years later, I was skiing with Milton Friedman at Whistler and the weather was very inclement and you could hardly see the tips of your skis. Milton who wore glasses underneath his goggles was not pleased with the conditions. I promised him they would improve (they did not) and he told me to stop being a Pollyanna! This reminded me of Walter’s thoughts on skiing at Whistler.
At the MPS General Meeting in 1986 in San Vincent in Italy, there was a clay tennis court at the conference hotel. When there was a break in the sessions one afternoon, Walter wanted to arrange to play doubles. I organized the game—Walter and me against, I think it was Jerry Jordan and Milton. I cannot remember
who won the match, but I will never forget being unable to figure out how to get down onto the sunken court. Walter was already on the court and he told me to jump down. It must have been a 10-foot drop. I was very nervous about jumping down but Walter convinced me he could catch me, and he did!
A couple of years ago in Pasadena, the local city council wanted to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. Several restaurateurs who knew Charles and me asked if I could provide some ammunition on why this would be a bad idea for the survival of their businesses and also harmful for the employment of young people and minorities. I was pleased to do so and sent the very best research by Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, and Milton Friedman concerning the detrimental effects of raising the minimum wage. They were so coherent in explaining why raising the minimum wage is harmful to the very people we are trying to help in our society.
Like so many of us, I am going to miss Walter and his wonderful articles, books, essays, speeches, and his marvelous sense of humor. The world is a better place because of his work defending liberty and individual responsibility. Thank you, Walter, for all you did for freedom. May you Rest in Peace.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute.