Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring 2001

A Tribute to Dwight Waldo

Richard Stillman, National Academy of Public Administration

I first heard Dwight Waldo lecture during the summer of 1968 at Syracuse University. I had started the MPA Program and was hoping to do "something good" for my country. The cities were burning after the King and Kennedy assassinations. For me, and many others, public service beckoned.

Dwight Waldo

My classes seemed boring and irrelevant to what was happening at home and abroad. What did administrative case law or cost/benefit analysis have to do with the events that seemed to be tearing apart our country? I considered dropping out. Then, Dwight Waldo appeared as a guest lecturer in Roscoe Martin's course, "Democracy and the Public Service." In his quiet, thoughtful manner, he spoke of the value of public service and its importance for our democracy. His point: public administration is an exciting, worthy calling.

It was an "Ah Ha!" moment. All that boring stuff made sense. It could even give purpose and meaning to one's future! Dwight had that effect on many of us—students, colleagues, and contemporaries. Yet, he was hardly a flamboyant academic self-promoter. Indeed, he was shy, self-deprecating, and hard

to get to know. But once he opened up, Dwight was a uniquely warm, wonderful, wise human being, gifted with a wicked wit, often directed at himself and frequently quite self-revealing.

Typical of his humor was the story he told about how he "failed his way upward in life." Dwight was born in 1913 in DeWitt, Nebraska (pop. 500), into a family of five brothers and sisters. His parents ran a small general store and farmed but had not graduated from high school. DeWitt was a Grant Wood community with hard work, few luxuries, and regular church going the norm. Dwight cited two achievements as a youth: winning second place in a baby contest at two and a hog-calling contest as a teenager. He went to college at Nebraska Wesleyan and transferred to less expensive State Teachers College in Peru. He wanted to teach high school, but in the midst of the Depression there were no teaching jobs available.

Thus, his first failure upward: he left Nebraska to study political science at Yale University. Why Yale? Dwight had received a scholarship and had never been East. At Yale Professor Francis Coker suggested Dwight look into the burgeoning literature of public administration from the angle of his interest in American political theory. Dwight first viewed the materials with distaste, even as nonsense, hardly equal to Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and other greats. But the more he investigated, the more he found a political theory of seminal significance to American government. His Yale dissertation became one of the most important books in our field, The Administrative State, and marked him as a young radical in the field.

When he graduated as a newly minted Ph.D., there were no university teaching jobs offered—his second failure upward. World War II was about to begin and Dwight found work in wartime Washington at the Office of Price Administration, and later at the Bureau of the Budget. (In the former position, Dwight joked he was "America's Funeral Czar," setting national funeral prices.) There he learned the value of effective public administration—particularly how difficult it was to perform as an effective public administrator. Never in his life, he once said, was he assigned a more challenging task than moving his unit across the street: "If I had all those difficulties with a simple move, what must it have been like planning and executing the D-Day Invasion of Europe?"

When the war ended, he applied for teaching jobs and again failure upward: as an assistant professor in 1946 at the University of California, Berkeley, he taught everything in political science but political theory, the subject of his graduate training. Dwight said those were probably the best years of his life as a teacher. His classes were brimming with veterans eager to learn. They also were intellectually productive years, when he wrote The Administrative State, Ideas and Issues in Public Administration, and The Study of Public Administration. And who can forget the classic 1952 Waldo-Simon exchange in the APSR?

By the mid-1950s, Dwight Waldo was recognized as a leading scholars in his field—and no longer as a radical outsider. As he quipped, it was a very short distance from being the young radical to fame as an old conservative. In reality, he was never a conservative. Until the end of his life, many viewed him as "the youngest, creative mind" in our field. He always asked the toughest and best questions.

Dwight served in various professional assignments in the APSA and as director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. Eventually, the Free Speech movement, student protests, and the election of Ronald Reagan as governor in the mid-1960s brought a different climate to the University of California, forcing Dwight to make the difficult decision to leave.

Thus, his fourth failure upward: when he let the word out to friends that he was on the market, Dwight received a dozen offers. He chose the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the Maxell School. After Maxwell, the family moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where Dwight remained active in the field for many years. In 1979 ASPA named its highest honor for lifetime academic contributions to public administration the Dwight Waldo Award.

So, yes, Dwight, you surely failed upward in life—upward to some public administration heaven. Those whom your spirit touched, nurtured and inspired so profoundly will sorely miss you.

This is an edited version of a tribute Stillman wrote for NAPA.

 

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