Central grad nabs Nobel PrizeOliver Williamson is a soft-spoken man – a fisherman, golfer, world traveler and, classmates say, “a true friend.”
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Oliver Williamson is a soft-spoken man – a fisherman, golfer, world traveler and, classmates say, “a true friend.” The Superior native can now add Nobel Prize winner to the list. Fellow members of Central High School’s Class of 1950 are bursting with pride for Williamson, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics on Monday.
“Wasn’t that something?” asked John Salmela of California.
“We are so excited and so happy for him,” said Lois Lundberg of Hayward.
It’s a world honor that reflects well on both Williamson and his hometown, said Bob Murphy of Superior.
“He deserves it, no doubt,” said Richard Keskinen of Bennett.
Williamson, 77, is a professor emeritus of business, economics and law at the University of California, Berkeley. He was honored “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm,” according to the Nobel Prize Web site. He shares the Nobel Prize with Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
Following a whirlwind of interviews and appearances Monday, Williamson’s schedule was slowing down when he was reached for an interview at home Tuesday.
“I’m feeling great and I’m feeling grateful,” he said, recalling the deep breath he took when he received a phone call at 3:30 a.m. Monday telling him he won the Nobel Prize.
Classmates weren’t surprised that Williamson is top in his field.
Murphy called the California professor a first-class guy who was one of the smartest kids in school.
“He went to geometry class, trigonometry class and he paid attention,” he joked.
“He was kind of a bookworm, very studious,” said Carl Zukowski of Superior. “It paid off for him.”
After high school, Williamson attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1955. Since then, he has worked at Pennsylvania University and Yale; he has traveled the world from England and Japan to Austria. But the California professor stays in touch with his roots. He spends about two months each summer at his family cabin in Lake Nebagamon.
“It’s been sort of the fixed point in our lives,” Williamson said.
And he remembers with great warmth his high school years in Superior.
“It was the most democratic experience I ever had,” Williamson said. “People were always evaluated by their merits.”
Fellow students made lasting impressions.
“They were a big part of my development,” said Williamson, and they helped make school a joyous experience.
In high school, Williamson did more than study. He joined the Shutterman’s Club, played poker regularly with friends and was a member of the Mars Bars All-Stars pick-up basketball team, which traveled on Sunday afternoons to challenge teams from Maple, Brule and Gordon.
Were they any good?
“Not really,” Salmela said with a chuckle.
Williamson said although he has given up basketball, he continues to play tennis and golf regularly.
Those who know him say the Nobel Prize couldn’t have gone to a nicer person.
“He’s just a neat guy,” Salmela said of the professor. “He has a super family and a great wife.”
They don’t expect the award to go to his head.
“He’s not shy, nor is he a celebrity type,” Murphy said. “He’s a very, very nice man.”
He’s also brilliant, said Lundberg.
Williamson’s work involves a multidisciplinary field that he mapped out to study how varying organizational structures for markets and institutions affect economic activity. It is said to have influenced everything from electricity deregulation in California to investment in Eastern Europe to human resource management in the technology industry, according to a University of California, Berkeley release.
Williamson said his work challenged the textbook theory of the firm and markets.
“It forces people to rethink a lot of these issues,” he said of his approach, which pulls together economics, organizational theory and law.
Classmates and friends have reached out since the Nobel news broke Monday to give the Superior native a long-distance pat on the back.
“I’m enormously pleased they’re celebrating with me,” he said.
Lundberg sent him a card. Keskinen and Salmela sent out e-mails.
“I figured his phone would be ringing off the hook,” Salmela said.
Lenni Kangas of Iowa gave the Nobel Prize winner a call Monday night, catching him just before dinner.
“He’s doing fine,” said Kangas, who graduated a year behind Williamson.
Next year, there will be plenty of face-to-face congratulations. The Central Class of 1950 meets at the Shack every year for lunch in August.
“Olly and his wife are always there,” Lindberg said.
In 2010 the group will mark a special milestone, their 60th class reunion. Luckily, the program for the event hasn’t been printed yet.
“Now we have to change our plans for a guest speaker,” Zukowksi said.
The Central Class of 1950 is looking forward to shining the spotlight on a Nobel Prize winner.
“We’re pretty darn excited,” Zukowksi said. “He won’t be a guest; he’ll be a classmate.”
“It’s really exciting to know him,” Lundberg said. “Not only as a classmate, but a good friend.”