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Who Do I Want to Be Like When I Grow Up Professionally?

When I consider that classic question from a professional academic perspective I am amazed that my answer has not changed in over 40 years. To understand you have to go back to my graduate school days at Purdue. The entire time I was there from 1980-1985 there was a group of highly distinguished retired ag econ professors who were regulars in the life of the department: Earl Butz, former US Secretary of Agriculture, J. Carrol Bottum, one of the first members of the Purdue ag econ faculty, Dick Kohls, former Dean of the College of Ag, and Don Paarlberg, former USDA official and a leading figure in farm policy. They held court nearly every day in the 5th floor break room of the Krannert Building. They did two things: #1 debated every economic and social issue you could imagine with anyone brave enough to engage them, and #2 played a card game called sheepshead.

I was fortunate to get to know each of the four retired profs and engage in their debates regularly. Huge fun. I have missed that ever since I left Purdue. But one stands out. Don Paarlberg. He had an enormous impact on my life both personally and professionally. When I left Purdue in 1985 I definitely would have said Don was my model professionally and I would still say that today. I don’t want to diminish the role my other mentors have had professionally, which were very significant, but for some reason Don became my model of an ag econ professor. No surprise that he wrote one of my all-time favorite papers.

Why did he have such an impact on me? First off he was a person of the highest personal integrity and kind and decent to everyone. Second, he was incredibly widely read and conversant on an amazingly wide array of economic issues. Third, he has to rank as one of the best writers in the history of the ag econ profession. Fourth, he was an outstanding public speaker. He gave TED talks before there were TED talks. Fifth, he loved agriculture but was not afraid to challenge entrenched ag interests when he thought it was justified.

I will end with the story that I cherish the most about Don. We were walking to lunch one day and he said, “You know what my professional objective is Scott? I want to draw down my professional political capital to zero on the day I die. My only problem is I don’t know the date!” I never forgot what was behind that hilarious comment (at least to an economist). Don never planned to quit working and he wanted to use up all his professional influence on important topics along the way. That is who I want to be like when I grow up professionally.

Don’s entry on Wikipedia is perfect: Donald Paarlberg (June 20, 1911 – February 14, 2006) was a farmer, author, professor of agricultural economics, and a coordinator of the Food for Peace program.

If anyone else has any stories about Don they would like to share in the comments that would be great!

#agriculture #economics #school

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