In Memoriam: Robert Dewitt Tollison
Robert D. Tollison, renowned professor of economics at Clemson since 2003, died Oct. 24. He was 73. His obituary lists funeral arrangements and information on memorials.
Following is a tribute to Bob Tollison penned by Bobby McCormick, dean, College of Business.
Robert D. Tollison’s life began and ended in Upstate South Carolina. After attending Spartanburg High School and graduating Wofford College, Bob began a career that carried him to great international academic acclaim and all across the country. However, to those of us at Clemson who had the great privilege and delight of interacting with him as friend, colleague, and student, Bob’s most welcome career choice was to return to his home state for good.
As scholar, Bob played a key role in the development of the emerging fields of public choice, the economics of sports, and the economics of religion. Early in his career he was a leading contributor to the study of the organization of industry. In each of these fields his research was innovative, important, and frequently seminal. He contributed to the academic enterprise not only as one of the profession’s most prolific authors ever, but also as a long-serving journal editor and as a mentor to generations of students. He served as president of the Southern Economic Association and the Public Choice Society.
Bob’s influence extended well beyond the academy. Early in his career he served as a senior staff economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, followed a decade later by his appointment as Director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the Federal Trade Commission. In Washington, he interacted with policymakers as a scholar, bringing his characteristic independence of thought and expression to a realm that was not entirely accustomed to candid and penetrating policy analysis. In turn, his practical experience informed his research, which was never detached from the world beyond the campus. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that his research helped his fellow academics understand far better a world that was otherwise unfamiliar to them.
Bob’s influence extended past academics and government. He was engaged with the real world on a regular and powerful basis. His active role and legal testimony helped shape our business environment. He played a critical role, for instance, in partial dismantling of the NCAA cartel on wages so abhorrent to virtually every economist. It is almost certain that the NBA would not have added a third referee when it did without the research, advice, and opinion of Bob Tollison.
Bob saw economics everywhere in everything. His vision, insights, and creativity combined with his intellectual capacity and memory made him a rare bird in the halls of the academy. You could never guess what was going to come next, but you were confident it would be interesting, thoughtful, and stimulating. And, you were almost sure to say both “wow” and “why had I never thought of that?” Simple yet elegant.
To know Bob Tollison was to appreciate not merely his intellect, but his character as well. He was, in every interaction with colleagues or students or anyone else, kind, considerate, helpful, and patient. As one of his friends and colleagues said upon news of his passing, “Bob was the favorite professor of many students, including two of my kids. Although he had a huge intellect and was highly accomplished he never talked down to anyone.”
His humility and presence made him an inspirational teacher of graduate students and undergraduates alike, from his days as a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia to his years at Clemson as the J. Wilson Newman Professor of Economics. He was kind and gentle, even when you were stupid and arrogant. But it wasn’t just his intellect and easy going nature that made you want to walk into his office. Bob taught us that hard work was a virtue not just on the farm but in our offices as well. He believed in structure and discipline and that whether you were picking blackberries or developing a massive new database you should get to work early and often, but it was okay to take a break to play basketball at lunch. Bob’s educational tree is long limbed and many leafed, having signed more than 150 Ph.D. and Master’s theses.
Bob was slow to judge, and rarely if ever cared whether you judged him or not. A devout libertarian he earnestly believed that unchained human capacity was virtually unlimited and that free thinking, free people, acting responsibly (most of the time) and working hard (all of the time), could solve or fix almost any problem, human or physical. He was the consummate rational optimist.
Perhaps above all else, Bob was fun and funny. In so many ways, he never really ever had a job. Everything he did, and asked you to do, he did or wanted you to do because it made life easier, fun, and most especially exciting. When he called you on the phone, or met you in the hall, or came to your office, you put down your work because you knew you were either about to learn or laugh, and usually both.
Bob was not just a student of sport, he was, too, an avid athlete. He was a basketball star at Spartanburg High (#40) and loved to play not only hoops but tennis and golf. In sport as in life, he was cool and objective. In many ways, tennis showed his character best. He did not have great form or a powerful game, but he was cagey and played with finesse. He quickly recognized his opponent’s weakness and played to capitalize on it. He never gloated in victory, nor was he particularly dejected in defeat. He loved to play but knew there would be a game the next day.
Bob Tollison’s passing leaves a void in the halls of Sirrine and in our lives not to be filled, but our memories of him will endure as his inquisitive spirit, love of life, peaceful pleasantness, and smiling presence reminds us just how wonderful economics can be when lived to its fullest. RIP.
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