Obituary — Wallace C. “Wally” Peterson

Apr 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Obituaries

Wallace C. “Wally” Peterson, George Holmes Professor Emeritus of Economics died April 15. He was 91.

A reception for friends of Peterson is 1 to 3 p.m., April 20 in the Schorr President’s Suite at Hewit Place, 1155 Q St.

Jerry Petr, also a professor emeritus of economics, described Peterson as a “campus giant.” Peterson chaired the department from 1965 to 1975; he hired a number of faculty, including Petr, and expanded the graduate program.

Economics professor Craig MacPhee, who was recruited by Peterson in 1969, credits Peterson for “building an economics department that is nationally recognized today.”

Petr said Peterson was “non-dogmatic and non-ideological” in his hiring, which resulted in a “rich department of ideas.” Peterson was tolerant and supportive of faculty who wished to dabble in cross-disciplinary activities focused on teaching, Petr said. “He was open to diverse points of view in the discipline, which is not usual for economists.”

Peterson was a “prescient prophet” in his belief that the declining income of the middle class was a growing problem in the United States, Petr said. Peterson was honored in 1992 for an article, “The Silent Depression,” which said that average family incomes stopped growing in 1973, resulting in most families requiring two wage-earners to support a standard level of living.

“It’s a subtle change,” Peterson said in a 1992 interview with the Omaha World-Herald. “I would liken it to economic cancer, a slow growing insidious thing that we really don’t mind very much.”

Peterson was a proponent of Keynesian economics, Petr said. He was personal friends with economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Hyman Minsky. “I think he was recognized as being ahead of his time, ahead of the crowd among the economists of his time,” Petr said.

Peterson was born in Omaha and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He continued his love of flying well into retirement. In 1990, the year he retired, he and his wife attempted to fly to all the capitals of the 48 contiguous United States in an antique 1946 Piper Cub. They didn’t quite make it to all the states, but they did land in an aviation record book for flying into 17 state capitals in the western U.S. He recounted that when he was six, he saw Charles Lindbergh in Omaha and that made a deep impression.

Tom Winter, professor of classics, was a long-time friend of Peterson, who introduced Winter to flying.

“I wouldn’t be a pilot; I wouldn’t own a plane if it weren’t for Wally Peterson. I think there must be hundreds of Nebraskans who could say such sentences ‘I wouldn’t… if it weren’t for Wally Peterson.’ I’m one,” Winter said.

Winter won a ride in Peterson’s antique plane at a charity auction, and the friendship grew with Winter earning his pilot’s license. Eventually, the pair bought a plane together, a plane Winter still flies.

They often flew Peterson’s antique Piper, but it got hard for Peterson to climb into the plane, Winter said. “So for some time, we just flew in the Cessna 150. I had a policy about it. He was a generation ahead of me, a WWII veteran, and if he wanted the plane, he had the plane. Never argued. Never quibbled. Finally, he offered me his half at a generous best-friends price, and so I became, sadly, sole owner of our Cessna 150. And of course, flying our plane, I can still hear his voice advising. What a gift!”

Petr said Peterson also took up painting and his favorite subjects were antique airplanes.
Peterson also built a sailboat in his garage, Petr said, and the “darn thing did float.”

According to MacPhee, Peterson earned his master’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1948 and he received his Ph. D. in 1953, writing on “Economic reconstruction in France: 1946-1952” under Professor Clarence E. McNeill. He first became an instructor in the Department of Economics at UNL in 1951. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1954, associate professor in 1957 and professor in 1962. In the 1960s he was a Fulbright Scholar in France. In 1966, Peterson was appointed the George Holmes professor of economics. He also served as president of the Academic Senate, received the Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award from the University of Nebraska in 1981, and the Outstanding Teacher Scholar Award in 1987. He was the 2005 recipient of the Doc Elliot Award given by the Nebraska Alumni Association to faculty whose exceptional caring made a difference in the lives of students

Peterson’s textbook on macroeconomics was widely adopted in colleges and universities through eight editions. He is the author of another economics textbook, five specialized economics books and over 60 articles. He was elected president of the Association for Evolutionary Economics, president of the Association for Social Economics, president of the Midwest Economics Association and was the 1992 recipient of the Veblen-Commons award. He was a member of the Nebraska Economics and Business Association and president of the Missouri Valley Economic Association in 1988-89. He was an inaugural member of the Department of Economics Hall of Fame.

He twice ran for United States Senate in the 1970s.

Petr said one of Peterson’s proudest accomplishments was winning the $5,000 first prize in 1981 in the Champion Media Awards for Economic Understanding. Peterson wrote a weekly lay economics column for Maverick Media in Syracuse, Neb. The national competition was administered by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. The year he won the prize, the runners-up were columnists in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

“Wally was really proud of that,” Petr said.

“He was a great man, my mentor and friend,” Petr said.

Peterson is survived by his children, Cary and Shelley, and grandchildren.

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