Via Economic Policy Journal

Richard Timberlake

By George Selgin

I don’t think of myself as an especially lucky fellow. I’ve never bought a lottery ticket, or wagered more than a few bucks at a time (and that only in my impetuous youth) on horses, slots, or roulette. So far as I’m concerned, I can no more escape Murphy’s Law than defy gravity. Yet I don’t doubt for a moment that I’ve been lucky in my friends, and never more so than when Dick Timberlake befriended me.

That lucky event happened sometime in 1982, when I was a grad student at NYU. I got a call from the late Elizabeth Currier inviting me to give a talk on the real bills doctrine at the annual meeting of the Committee for Monetary Research and Education at Arden House.

In those days I read just about every book about money or banking I could lay my hands on. One that I very much liked was Dick’s book on The Origins of Central Banking in the United States which, if I recall correctly, had a photo of Dick—it may be the very one shown here—on its fly-leaf. If you either know Dick or glance at the photo you’ll understand why I might have recognized him at once among the other conference participants. In fact, since Dick was well over six feet tall, and almost always wore the same seersucker suit and some sort of tartan tie, I’d have had to be blind to miss him!

Naturally I introduced myself, and we small-talked for a bit. Then I asked the inevitable question, “What are you working on these days?”

“I’m writing about bank clearinghouses, and the emergency lending they did before the Fed came along,” he said.

From that moment, Dick and I were best buddies. Later that day Dick heard me go after the real bills doctrine. Good Chicago product that he was, Dick thoroughly detested the real bills doctrine, so I suppose that helped to cement our friendship. (It did not endear me, alas, to some others at the CMRE. But that’s a story for another time!) Some months after, having written a paper on the same subject, I sent a copy to Dick for his comments. Before long it came back in the mail, red ball-point markings throughout. Dick’s advice was like gold—he was a fantastic writer. But I especially remember his reading me the Riot Act when it came to “unsubstantiated” thises and thats. To this day, I cannot see either in an MS without breaking-out my own red pen.

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Dick and I stayed in touch as I completed my work at NYU and went on to teach at George Mason. There I managed, after just three years, to be promoted to professor non-grata and granted an indefinite (albeit unpaid) sabbatical, which I decided to spend at the University of Hong Kong. For all I know, I might still be languishing there, if not in some dismal Chinese “re-education camp,” had Dick (and Larry White, my NYU mentor) not come to the rescue.

My deliverance came just a couple of weeks after the Tiananmen massacre. My then-wife Joanne and I had only recently come back from a harrowing visit to Shanghai, which convinced us, if Tiananmen itself hadn’t, that once the Chinese took it back, as they would in less than a decade, Hong Kong might not be the best place for a libertarian-leaning academic with a big mouth. In fact the whole faculty was thinking the same, and seeking opportunities abroad accordingly. So when the call came from the chair of UGA’s econ department asking me if I’d like to visit, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Since both Dick and Larry were then teaching at UGA, I knew the invitation was their doing.

During my first weeks in Athens, Georgia, while I was looking for a home for myself and Joanne (who joined me later), I stayed with Dick and his lovely wife Hildegard. There Dick and I found we had a lot besides economics in common, including a fondness for old cars. I learned there Dick’s secret to longevity: a long jog and 50 pull-ups every day, followed by bacon and eggs! I managed the bacon and eggs OK, but not the pull-ups.

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My visit to UGA was only supposed to last for a year. But Dick wanted me to stay on. So… he retired just to make a space for me. The vote was a near-run thing, but I got on the tenure-track, and then managed (believe me, it was no milk run!) to hang on at UGA for another 25 years. Although Dick had retired, we saw each other often, attending conferences together and even spending most of one summer together in a program in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Speaking of milk runs, one memorable day during that stay in Ohio, Dick and I clambered through one of the few still airworthy B-17s. In fact it was the second time we’d done so, the first having been in Athens, with a different plane. What made it so fun was the fact that Dick had been a B-17 co-pilot during “the” war. Twice wounded, the second time ended his war, and left him with a souvenir that never failed to set off metal detectors. Unlike some veterans he spoke freely of his experience, but never with the least suggestion that there was anything romantic about it. In fact he considered the whole business a rotten one, and said as much in a wonderful memoir he eventually published with the typically Timberlakian title, They Never Saw Me Then. That two of Dick’s three sons ended up becoming pilots says a lot about how they must have looked up to their father despite (or perhaps because of) his thoroughgoing modesty. He was, in fact, the most unpretentious man I ever knew.

Yet Dick was far from having “much to be modest about.” Not that he was good at everything: a brief foray into local politics (he ran for Commissioner of his district) was an utter failure. (That Dick’s campaign slogan, inspired by his libertarian worldview, was “Nothing for Anybody,” didn’t help.) But Dick’s scholarship was of the highest quality—thoroughly researched, extremely well written, and unfailingly interesting. Anyone who read his work could count on coming out of the experience safely in the black. Nor, to judge from the hundreds of encomiums Dick’s youngest son Tommy and I received after we made people aware, first of Dick’s illness, and then of his death, were there many scholars in Dick’s field who failed to take advantage of those profit opportunities.

And there were so many profit opportunities! If I’m not mistaken, Dick’s first academic journal article was “The Specie Circular and the Distribution of the Surplus,” which appeared in 1960. His final work, Gold, the Real Bills Doctrine, and the Fed: Sources of Monetary Disorder, 1922-1938, coauthored with Tom Humphrey, came out just last year. That’s sixty years’ worth of output, with no long breaks. And, if you ask me, it’s all good. (Here is my review of Dick’s penultimate book, Constitutional Money.)

If ever a man deserved to die happy, Dick did. Besides contributing much, he was thoroughly good and kind. If anyone ever disliked him, I never heard about it. And Dick died happy sure enough: Hildegard and Tommy were with him, sharing some of those good wishes and tributes that had begun pouring in. Dick, unassuming as ever, smiled and said, “I didn’t really realize my work has had that kind of impact. It’s really terrific.” Then he fell asleep.

In these days of lockdowns and other precautions, old-fashioned funeral or memorial services are out of the question, even in Georgia. But knowing Dick as I do, I don’t think he would mind. Instead, I’m pretty sure he’d rather have people remember him by continuing to study and make use of his work, of which he was, for once, though rightfully, proud. That may not sound like much. But to a devoted scholar like Dick, it’s pretty much everything.
The above originally appeared at Cato.org

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