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Walter Johnson, Mizzou economics professor

One of my professors at the University of Missouri, whom I fully expected to outlive me, as well as all of my classmates, died in 2002. His name was Walter Johnson. He was the most unforgettable professor of my career.

Dr. Johnson taught economics. Dr. Johnson was the apocryphal college professor who looked like he was at least 100 years old–back when your parents were in college. He was thin and wiry, with a tough, wrinkled face and a full head of wiry gray hair. But beyond his appearance, he was quite possibly the most brilliant man I ever met, with a PhD from Duke University, a degree he was proud of. You could hear a hint of a North Carolina accent in his gruff, raspy, nicotine-coated voice. “Gang,” he would say, one foot perched up on a chair in the front row of his economics class, grinning mischievously, “We’re going to talk to you today about guns… And butter.”

In class, everything was an aside, and he’d often giggle to himself. He had this high-pitched giggle that I doubt anyone could ever forget. While teaching economics, he was as giddy as a second-grade schoolgirl, and I seriously doubt there was anything he enjoyed more in life.

Supply and Demand, as explained by Dr. Walter Johnson

I don’t know if Dr. Johnson was the hard drinker he made himself out to be, but it was a rare lecture that he didn’t use beer to illustrate some economic point. I still remember how he illustrated supply and demand.

“You’re out wandering in the desert. You’re dying of thirst. And,” putting his hand to his brow, “Off, in the distance, you see this tiny little shack. You huff and puff your way up there. Finally, you reach the door. You knock. And I answer.” Then he flashed a mischeivous grin–the kind of grin your best friend gives before he tells you he was the one who broke into your house and painted your nails fuscia while you slept.

“Water, water,” you gasp.

His grin returned. “Don’t have any water. All I’ve got is beer.” He pointed at a college student sitting near where he was standing. “A hundred bucks. Whaddya say?”

“No,” she said.

“You’re dying of thirst,” he reminded her. “Isn’t your life worth more than 100 bucks?”

“OK,” she gave in.

“Now, how about a second? Remember, you’re still dying of thirst.”

“OK,” she said.

“Now, how about a third? Still a hundred bucks.”

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I’ve had enough,” she said.

“Her life’s no longer in danger, so now that 100 bucks is worth more to her than that beer. But that 200 bucks wasn’t worth more to her than her life.”

Walter Johnson: The toughest professor I ever had

It was a rare day you didn’t see Dr. Johnson sitting outside the Middlebush Building before and after class, talking with his students and chain smoking. The auditorium where he lectured so many years now bears his name. But trust me, that auditorium isn’t the same without him in lecturing in it.

He was a brilliant man. He was a very nice man, always willing to explain something to you. He really wanted you to know your stuff. If he’d had his way, everyone would have been at least as brilliant as he was. He was also the toughest professor I ever had. I had a B going into my final. I worked for that B. He had two lectures: one at 8:40 AM and one at 12:40 PM. His good students, he said, signed up for his 8:40 class. It wasn’t uncommon for me to go to both lectures, hoping to understand it the second time. I never did that with any other class.

I studied as hard for my Econ final as I did for any other class. I went in to take the final (it was scheduled at the same time as my political science final, and Dr. Johnson’s policy was always that you made up his final, not the other class’), and looked over the 40-question exam. I knew the answers to exactly two of the questions. I got a high D on that final. That was the difference between me getting a B and a C in that class, and me graduating with honors or not.

I think that happened a lot. The only test I ever took that compared was my six-hour, 250-question CISSP exam. In some ways, Walter Johnson’s final was worse.

I probably ought to appeal that grade. If 2016 proved anything, my grasp of economics isn’t average.


Alcohol and nicotine seem to do one of two things to you: make you die way too soon, or make you live practically forever. I always assumed Dr. Walter Johnson would live forever. We joked that he’d lived through the Civil War.

Dr. Johnson was 63 when he died November 20, 2002. That means he would have been 56 when he taught my economics class.

I never in a million years would have guessed he was that young.

3 thoughts on “Walter Johnson, Mizzou economics professor”

  1. The cost of those cigarettes seem extremely high now. Dr. Johnson seemed to be smart, so he knew what he was doing. Just like in economics, there are trade-offs for pleasure.

    Nice dedication.

  2. Well, it’s now March 2003, and we’re at war in Iraq. I was outside my workplace having a cigarette, and remembering Walter Johnson’s discussion on foreign exchange in terms of the dollar/zloty exchange rate set by a pint of Polish vodka. 🙂

    I came back in to my cubicle, did a Google search on Walter Johnson Econ to see what had become of him. Sadly, I read your web page and found that he had passed.

    Walter Johnson was quintessential to the education of almost every student at the University of Missouri- Columbia for a long time. We all sat at his knee and learned about Guns and Butter, the price of beer, the paradox of diamonds and water, and a myriad of other things. His lectures in Econ 51 were much like a circus, with Walter playing the part of P.T. Barnum.

    His class influenced me so much that I wound up doing my undergraduate work in Economics, taking a B.A. in 1987. As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to be a T.A. for one semester in Econ 51. There was a great esprit de corps, typically culminating in the consumption of obscene amounts of beer on a Friday night. Yessiree, that man did like his beer.

    Some snippets of conversation I recall during those parties:

    Walter: I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and saw God.
    Sanna (grad student): Really? What did she look like?

    Walter: I once killed a man!
    Crowd: [dumbstruck silence]

    and perhaps the most memorable of all:

    Walter [to class in Middlebush Auditorium]: An Economist is a Hired Gun.

    Well, I’m now 38 years old, have a Master’s Degree in Engineering (Systems Science and Mathematics) and work as a Programmer Analyst. To this day, the path that Walter Johnson’s Economics 51 started me on has influenced my life. God rest his soul, and I hope that there’s beer and Lucky Strikes in Heaven.

    -John Mann

  3. Dr. Johnson was like no other. I graduated in ’96 with a BA in Economics because of him. He made me laugh while teaching me what he knew. I always wondered if he ever wrote a book to be sure to pass on what he knew. He was a tough s.o.b., but so is the world. I hope everyone who goes to college can have a teacher like him. May he rest in peace.

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