Campus & Community

Friends remember Galbraith as giant

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Multimedia presentation

DOWNLOAD high-resolution photos of the memorial service

Related links:

Gazette obituary
Photo gallery
Downloadable Galbraith photos
John Kenneth Galbraith: A timeline of his life

KSG Forum videos:

“The World According to Galbraith”
Interview with Richard Parker (May 9, 2002)
Galbraith’s 90th birthday celebration
(Oct. 15, 1998)
“Thus Galbraith: The Life and Times of John Kenneth Galbraith”
(Nov. 12, 1997)
“Liberalizing India’s Economy: Prospects for Progress”
(March 13, 1995)
“Franklin and Eleanor at War”
Discussion with Doris Kearns Goodwin (Dec. 6, 1994)
“The Government’s Role in the Future of Our Economy”
(Oct. 29, 1992)
“The Reagan Economic Program”
(Dec. 1, 1981)

People came from near and far to Harvard May 31 to pay tribute to a man who was probably the most famous as well as the tallest economist of the second half of the 20th century, John Kenneth Galbraith, who died April 29 at the age of 97.

At a service in the Memorial Church, a succession of speakers, most of them celebrities in their own right, spoke warmly of Galbraith’s wit and humor, his kindness and generosity, his frank and endearing egotism, his intellectual originality and integrity, and his towering stature, both literal and metaphoric.

Harvard President Emeritus Derek Bok said that Galbraith, who lived “the longest, most varied, most influential life ever to have graced this community,” was also remarkable for the many ways he made himself helpful to individuals and to the University.

Bok spoke with gratitude of a dinner invitation he and his wife Sissela received from the Galbraiths shortly after Bok arrived at Harvard as a young Law School professor. The friendship continued into Bok’s presidency. In the 1970s, predicting that Harvard would soon fall on tough economic times, Galbraith wrote Bok a letter insisting that he not be given any further salary increases.

“You may laugh,” said Bok, “but I’ve never gotten such a letter since.”

In addition, Galbraith donated the royalties from one of his books to the Economics Department and has given many works of art to the University Art Museums.

“He cast a long shadow, both figuratively and literally, and Harvard without him will never be quite the same,” Bok said.

James K. Galbraith spoke of his father as “a mentor, coach, critic, and friend,” and mentioned the excellent advice he gave him over the years.

Former President Bill Clinton could not attend but sent a letter in which he said that he will always be grateful for Galbraith’s wise counsel and expressed confidence that “the goodness of his life will continue to inspire and strengthen us.”

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. could not attend either but sent remarks to be read by his son Stephen. Arthur Schlesinger, who met Galbraith during World War II, called the economist “my closest friend in the world” and praised “the boldness with which he confronted the conventional wisdom.”

Another old friend despite their being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, William F. Buckley Jr., spoke of Galbraith’s “poker face,” which often prevented Buckley from knowing whether his friend was teasing him or not.

Feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem said that she was familiar with both the public and private sides of Galbraith. “As John Kenneth Galbraith he changed the world’s consciousness,” she said, “As Ken he won our love and our trust.” But, she said, “the public and private selves were never dissonant.”

Steinem recalled playing a card game with Galbraith in which his winning strategy was to distract the other players with stories of historical events in which he had taken part. She drew three conclusions from that experience: “He wanted to win, he won, and he elevated us all by winning.”

Another of the economist’s sons, J. Alan Galbraith, remembered his father as “a fabulous grandpop” who followed the careers of his grandchildren with interest and affection. He said that Galbraith’s sense of humor never failed him. Toward the end of his life he replied to an inquiry about his health by saying, “I’m old, sick, weak, and intellectually perfect.”

Former U.S. senator and 1972 presidential candidate George S. McGovern spoke about meeting Galbraith after the economist commented favorably on McGovern’s maiden speech in the U.S. House of Representatives. The subject was agriculture, a subject on which Galbraith, the son of a farmer and a graduate of an agricultural college, considered himself an expert.

McGovern recalled meeting Galbraith years later on a night flight across the Atlantic.

“I remember seeing these great long legs wedged up against the seat in front of him, and there was Ken writing his next book. I said, ‘Don’t you find these international flights exhausting?’ He turned to me and said, ‘McGovern, it beats farming!’”

Galbraith’s biographer, Richard Parker, told of bringing Galbraith the Japanese translation of his biography two days before he died. He examined the book carefully, then looked up at Parker and said, “Richard, I do not read Japanese, but given the enormous importance of the subject, I shall devote my remaining days to learning it.”

Amartya Sen, the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, first met Galbraith when the economist was ambassador to India in the early 1960s, then continued their friendship after Sen came to Harvard in 1987.

“Not only did Ken capture the hearts and minds of Indians, but he also gave good advice on how to diminish the distance between our two countries,” he said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said that Galbraith “meant the world to all of us in the Kennedy family,” and that he was particularly grateful for the lessons in economics that Galbraith gave him when he entered the U.S. Senate in 1964.

He said that the decision by Galbraith and Schlesinger to support John F. Kennedy for president “gave Jack the gravitas he needed to become a serious candidate. There might not have been a ‘New Frontier’ without Ken.”

Kennedy called Galbraith “an eloquent voice of reason for our times,” adding, “In another age he would have been a Founding Father.”

The last speaker, Peter W. Galbraith, said that although his father was discouraged by the policies of the present administration, he remained an optimist.

“We do not have the good society my father wanted, but he helped bring us closer to one,” he said.