My Career Path

boyscoutsMy dad had an eighth grade education. He took over his dad’s business, New York Drop Cloth Manufacturing Co., which made drop cloths from cotton cloth, twill and drill. He turned it into Diamond Brand Canvas Products Co., a manufacturer of tarpaulins, tents and camping equipment. It was a small company, but any related equipment with the Boy Scout label on it in the 1930s and ’40s, was made by my dad’s firm. He had no understanding or appreciation of academics and expected me, his eldest son, to work in the business — and ultimately to take it over.

From the time I was 13, whenever I wasn’t in school, I worked in the business and enjoyed it very much. Obviously, dad’s expectation did not to come to pass. By the time I was 17, I had worked myself up in the business. I started by sweeping floors, then became a shipping clerk, worked on the cutting table, made the patterns, and used the grommet machine. I had gone through the various other stages of production and office management.

I came up with an idea that would simplify the flow of materials. It was a relatively small change that could be easily reversed if it didn’t work. I presented the idea to my dad. He said, “No!” No explanation came along with it. I mentioned it to an acquaintance of his who had come to visit; He suggested that I ask again, so I did. My father said, “No. Only 60% of the decisions I make are right. If I don’t make them all, I don’t know that 60% will be right.” Even at 17 I knew that I could not work for, or under, my father. There was no chance that I could make a creative contribution. After high school, instead of working in the business full-time, I went on to college.

I came to UNC–Chapel Hill directly from Fieldston. At the beginning of my senior year my dad asked me to leave school and come to work for him. I said no. I was unsure as to what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” Initially, I thought chemistry would be my calling or perhaps genetics. Those turned out to be wrong as well. After I graduated in 1949 with a BS in Commerce and the equivalent of a joint major in Economics, I was looking to get a corporate job in purchasing. Another expectation went down the tubes. But that’s a longer story that I won’t regale you with.

What I did do was to go on to Vanderbilt University (Vandy) to work under Prof. George W. Stocking. He had recently completed the third of a trilogy with Prof. Myron Watkins of NYU. The title of the book was “Monopoly and Free Enterprise”. It was an area that had interested me since high school. I went to Vandy with the expectation of getting a Masters and then going to work at the Federal Trade Commission.

After my first year they asked me to stay on for my doctorate. They gave me the position as Dr. Stocking’s research assistant. How could I refuse? I found my calling in economics, specializing in the Economics of Industrial Organization, the study of markets — how do they work, how well do they work, and how can they be made to work better. After my second year, the department changed the requirements for getting the degree. They made them retroactive. (That’s another long story). Over the previous summer I had worked at the FTC on Prof. Stocking’s research on basing point pricing. I called my friends there and asked if a position might be available. They said yes. So I left and took a job as a Business Economist at the FTC in 1952. That was just where I wanted to be. I spent two years there. I loved what I was doing. I was working on merger cases under the newly enacted Sect. 7 of the Clayton Act. Not only did I like what I was doing, my supervisors and colleagues, and both of the economists and the attorneys, liked what I did as well.

A problem developed. The Korean War ended. Prior to it, at any job in the Federal Government, you were either a permanent employee or a temporary employee. I came in under a new classification, “Temporary Indefinite”. How’s that for a title! Although I was in a permanent position and they liked what I was doing, when the government downsized I was fired and replaced by a “permanent employee”. The one who replaced me had worked in the Office of Price Stabilization (OPS) and had no knowledge of or experience with merger cases. Since I expected to be drafted (another long story) I decided to go back to Vandy and complete my degree. Prof. Stocking welcomed me back. By the way, I turned out to be 4F — medically unqualified for military service.

I got my degree. My thesis “The Merger Component in the Growth of a Firm: A case study of General Electric” was later published by the NYU Press. I went on to teach at Northwestern University and Michigan State University. Then I joined the Center for Naval Analysis — Navy’s equivalent of the RAND Corporation. From there I went on to Temple UniversityBy then I had worked my way up the ranks to full Professor. The Department put me up to become Chair on a 17-2 vote. The Dean turned me down after he had previously asked me to take on that position. The reason — I wanted to represent the Department to the Dean and not the Dean to the Department. From there I went on to George Washington University Medical Center, as an economist, and then to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Graduate Economics Program in Northern Virginia as Acting and then Associate Director until I retired in 1985. After settling on St. John in the USVI, I taught for a while at the University of the Virgin Islands.

As an aside, some years after I left the FTC I got a job offer for the position I had aspired to — Head of the Division of Economic Reports. By the way, it was a permanent position! The climate at the Commission had changed and rather than investigating economic activities of various industries in order to determine their economic impact, the higher ups decided that the role of the Division was to support the legal activities of the Commission. They had a separate Division of Economic Evidence tasked with that responsibility. I did not think it was the appropriate role for the one I was asked to head up. So I turned the job down.

My Career path was not a smooth one. I thought of myself as a researcher and never really about becoming a teacher. As it turned out I loved teaching and passing what I learned on to my students. My interaction with them also added to my understanding of my profession.

But by paying attention to what was really right for me and by learning what each step had to offer, I have been able to find out what I enjoy doing. Using the skills I have developed, I have been able to help others see things in a different way, and help them solve some problems they face. In addition, I am able to pass on what I learned by following my own path ,to younger generations, struggling to find their own way. I love doing what I do and hopefully it also makes a contribution. What could be better than that?

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3 thoughts on “My Career Path

  1. My own story is a snorer compared to yours. You’ve had chutzpah and used it well. To the benefit of others.

    Well done, Bernie! –Don

  2. Bernie, this is a wonderful reminder that we are always on the hunt for what to do when we grow up! I’m among the many who benefited from your discovery of teaching. And how fortunate I am! The way you share your intellect and opinions always pulls me forward in my own thinking. Thank you for expanding my knowledge and understanding of both economics and art. It’s a beautiful pairing that seems to make everything possible.

  3. So nice to see you’re thriving. Do you remember me from the WAFU days? I still get to DC and still miss it. Agnes

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