Sunday, December 16, 2007

In memory of Dr. Walter Rice

The day before yesterday, I received the sad news that my old economics professor--both from my undergraduate days and from the MBA program--had passed away that morning.

Dr. Walter Rice was an old-timer at Cal Poly--going back to the days when the place was known by some as "Cow Poly." As I recall, Dr. Rice joined the Cal Poly faculty in 1964, the year in which I was born. Before then, he had first had a pre-college stint as a textiles buyer and then, after completing college, a career with the Department of Transportation (or some other state or Federal transportation related office). Dr. Rice developed a course in the Economics of Transportation, and his interest in that showed itself in other courses, too. One day, he prefaced an example by saying something to the effect that "Knowing my personality, you can probably guess that this has to do with transportation." Having originally joined the faculty without a doctoral degree, Dr. Rice spent an interlude receiving his Ph.D. at what was then (and until recently) known as the Clairemont Graduate School. He had, however, returned to campus years before I ever showed up.

Dr. Rice showed a great deal of enthusiasm for his field and was renowned for his constant references to "fat little dollars." One time, when the MBA Association had a contest for the design of an Association T-shirt, a group of us submitted one featuring capitalist pigs (with curly tails) "gobbling up fat little dollars." One time in class, to demonstrate reservation prices, Dr. Rice pointed out that you would obviously not turn down an offer from a potential employee to work for less than you would have been willing to pay. "You jump with joy!" he said instead.

Every year, Dr. Rice would start his MBA economics course with the story of Robinson Crusoe, illustrating first the benefits of investing time in making a net to catch fish and then diminishing returns to scale when more people joined Robinson in catching the fish. Robinson Crusoe was, of course, a profit optimizer. During my second MBA year--the course was featured in the first year--one of my classmates told me that a dozen or so people from my year had returned to hear his introductory story again.

Dr. Rice knew that some of us--especially those of us who did not have much of a math background--found certain aspects of his course rather difficult. Sadly, I no longer remember exactly what "isoquant" curves are about, but I remember those being especially challenging. One day, Dr. Rice alluded to the relief that many of us might feel after the upcoming exam was over. He then discussed a hypothetical scenario where, to celebrate the completion of the exam, we would head up to San Francisco. He suggested--illustrating some marginal phenomenon--that when we reached Gonzalez (probably about 75 miles North of San Luis Obispo--or some 300 miles North of Los Angeles on Interstate 101) and suddenly spotted him, we would want to be as far away as possible from him. Fortunately, it happened that at Gonzalez, there was an "arc" type road briefly running along the freeway, and going on that would maximize the distance from him.

Dr. Rice would often refer to "utils," a unit of utility. He mentioned that a meter to measure this quantity could be calibrated by pointing to the course text book. Finding that the utility for the book measured at -3.5, we would know that the meter was working properly. Dr. Rice's constant use of the term "utils," unfortunately, came back to haunt him when a disgruntled former student--with a vivid imagination--filed certain outrageous charges against him. Among her allegations was that the term was a secret code word used by Dr. Rice and a student assistant to refer to cocaine--or some other elicit substance--that they were allegedly dealing. Tragically, it took close to a year to clear Dr. Rice of these fabricated charges.

Dr. Rice did not take kindly to people who ditched class or failed to pay proper attention. Back in the days where few faculty recorded student attendance, he was a pioneer. One day, he announced that for those who were absent that day, the day's notes would be due at our next class meeting. Those of us who were present, however, did not have to worry about this. Dr. Rice took grave exception when, on the first day of classes, the caught a student looking through the class schedule during class. He expressed his vehement view that he considered such behavior "very rude." The last two words, in particular, thundered. One of my classmates who took a different section from mine mentioned that near the end of class, a student was startled by some outside noises and glanced at her watch. "Class ends when I say it ends!" came the stern and roaring reprimand. Dr. Rice liked to keep the door to his classroom open--presumably so that passers-by would not miss out on his wisdom. In my second MBA program, a very beautiful woman in the program was taking Dr. Rice's class. I knew that I could stop and admire her--deeply absorbed in the lecture--for a few moments without getting caught. Later, she told me about not daring to fail to pay full attention in that class.

To make sure that no one--despite paying close attention--missed out on his wisdom, Dr. Rice would often repeat himself. There were also certain hypothetical entities that kept coming up--e.g, the "W. E. Rice Widget Company."

I have fond memories of Dr. Rice and will miss him. I am also very disappointed that Dr. Rice passed away years before he would have had a chance to see one of his favorite students receive the Nobel Prize in economics.


boozer10 said...

I also have fond memories of Walt Rice from his transportation economics course at Poly. As I recall he used the textbook by Pegrum while everyone else used Locklin in those days. For a while he actually put a research report that I wrote on the class' reserve reading list. I was elated.

My favorite memory of Walt was when he let me and a bunch of his former students sack out at his house when 4449 and the bicentennial train overnighted at SLO. Through a mistake, I had been issued an extra ticket for the next day's SLO to San Jose run. I offered the ticket to Walt although he had a class scheduled for the morning. He was sorely tempted to try to cram in a ride as far as Paso Robles but, although my memory is hazy on this point, I think that duty and his job ultimately won out.

He was a super instructor. I am glad that I got a chance to speak with him again several months ago.

Steve Petracek

Sarah said...

I am so glad to read more about the man who was my father-in-law. I never got a chance to see him in action as Dr. Rice, but often heard stories from my husband and the rest of the family. It's a rare professor that leaves such an indelible impression on so many students. He was a brilliant, passionate man and he loved his life - a life ended far too soon. The San Luis Obispo Tribune will have an obituary "guestbook" where anyone can leave comments until at least January 15. Go to and search on his name to get to the guestbook.
Thank you again for the wonderful tribute. I've printed the post and comment to give to my mother-in-law (his widow)- I know she'll appreciate it too.

Graeme said...

I first met Walter back in August, 2006.
I've been interested in San Francisco's Cable Cars since I was 11 years old (back in 1970). Myself and Walter started to e-mail each other and when I told him that I was coming over to the States (from my home in Australia) he kindly invited myself and my Mum to stay with him at his home in San Luis Obispo.
His knowledge of Transportation was just amazing!
I found him to be a warm and kind hearted man and was very sad to hear of his passing. He shall be greatly missed.
Graeme Knappick.

gugly58 said...

I had Dr Rice as a professor for several classes between 1981-85. Was one of my favorite and most memorable professors. Made the classes unique and fun to reflect upon. One of the favorite sayings I remember was "the chances of that are asymptotic to zero". One of the good guys, sorry to read he is gone.

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Douglas Raymond said...


Thank you for your completely "Rice True" stories. I remember his pipe smoke aura back in the mid seventies. He certainly did love his Trains and his occasional beers with his students back then. I still remember his humorous (hard to catch sometimes) comments when dealing with Micro-economics. I consider him one of the finest men I have ever met and cannot wait (well, yes I can wait) to see him again when we all meet each other before God. I just hope that Trains are still running in Heaven and I cannot imagine Walter Rice not asking for one if they don't 'miraculously" appear to take him inside the "Pearly Gates" (if they truly exist where we will all end up, at least for awhile).

Thank you for your good and kind words that will be remembered by many.


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