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Leonid Hurwicz -- commanding intellect, humble soul, Nobel Prize winner

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Leonid Hurwicz
Leonid Hurwicz, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Minnesota, is a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics.
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Leonid Hurwicz is renowned for his pioneering economic theory. But he is also known for his interest in a wide variety of subjects -- from linguistics to biochemistry to music. And he's been known to visit archaelogical sites in the Middle East. 

Colleague V.V. Chari remembers the first time he met Hurwicz at a party, Chari got a detailed lesson on his native language from the Tamil Nadu state of India. 

"Put simply, a Jew from Poland was explaining to a Tamilian what Tamil was all about. That was truly an amazing, eye-opening experience," says Chari.

Chari is an economics professor at the University of Minnesota and has known Hurwicz for more than 25 years. Like nearly everyone who knows Hurwicz, Chari uses the word "humble" to describe him.

"He treated everybody as his intellectual equal, even though the vast majority of us were not."

"He took real delight in talking to students. He did all that because he treated everybody as his intellectual equal, even though the vast majority of us were not," says Chari. "He treated us all with respect for our intellegence, and an assumption that we knew what we were talking about."

Hurwicz was born in Moscow to Polish refugees of World War I. His family moved back to Poland shortly after the revolution that gave rise to Joseph Stalin. 

At the urging of his father, Hurwicz earned a law degree from the University of Warsaw, but he had since found the subject of his lifelong academic pursuit in a second-year economics class. He entered the London School of Economics. 

When Hitler invaded Poland, Hurwicz became a refugee, eventually landing in the United States where he continued his studies at Harvard and the University of Chicago. 

Chari says Hurwicz's experiences and his ability to connect with ordinary people shaped his high-performing intellect.

"I think a lot of that just came from his humility, and his understanding that centrally planned systems cannot possibly function very well," says Chari. "He said, 'If I can't handle it, the odds anybody else will be able to handle it are pretty small.'"

Hurwicz first came to Minnesota in 1951 at the urging of Walter Heller, then head of the economics department. The two had nearly opposite approaches to their work, but proved to be a formidable team that cemented the University of Minnesota's reputation as an academic powerhouse. 

Hurwicz taught graduate economics classes up until last year. Chari says he maintains a drive to connect with students.

"He was the antithesis of the 'publish or perish' mentality. For him, it was not important that a paper got published in a famous journal. It was really important that young people learned about it, and that's what he cared about," says Chari.

Like many notable intellectuals, Hurwicz prefers the exploration of heady concepts over the management of daily details. His university office and parts of his south Minneapolis home became an ad hoc library of research papers and other documents, piled roughly in the order they were arrived. 

"Leo is the second most disorganized person I know, other than me," Chari says. "All the work he did, he did for the sheer love of it. I'm sure there are thousands of manuscripts that he's written, that he's simply forgotten to publish, hidden away in his drawers."

Hurwicz's life and career is a near unanimous collection of praise both for his work and his connection to those around him. 

U of M President Robert Bruininks spoke to Hurwicz shortly after he learned he'd won the Nobel. Bruininks says Hurwicz characteristically downplayed his own accomplishments.

"He was surprised by the award, deeply appreciative of the recognition of this work. But he expected that he largely received this recognition because he outlived his contemporaries," Bruininks says. "He's a very humble person who took a deep interest in his students at the University of Minnesota. He was a wonderful, gracious colleague. But through his work, he has had a profound impact on the study of economics around the world."   Bruininks says Hurwicz remained at the U of M despite numerous offers to teach at any number of prestigious institutions around the world. 

When contacted, Hurwicz own first reaction was to credit other people he worked with.

"I realize there's a limit to how many names they can put on a prize, but I just wanted to stress it's not just my own accomplishment but the help, collaboration from these many other people," Hurwicz said.

When asked what he planned to do with the recognition the Nobel Prize will bring, along with his portion of the $1.5 million that he splits with two other scholars, his wife of more than 60 years answered for him. 

Evelyn Hurwicz says her husband has been so busy talking with reporters and well-wishers he hasn't had any time to think about it.