Globetrotting economist recounts 64-year career

MIDDLEBURY — Throughout a person’s life, there is usually one defining achievement, one great success that becomes what they are remembered for, the personal triumph that becomes the first line of their obituary. For David Horlacher, whose career as a military officer, scholar and economic adviser has spanned seven decades and several continents, choosing this defining achievement is no easy task — and he isn’t even finished yet.
Horlacher, 82, is the Johnson Distinguished Scholar of Economics at Middlebury College. He has worked in the field of economics and international relations for more than half a century, including stints at the United Nations.
Horlacher was born in August 1931 in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. He recalled that in those days, it was not much like the rest of New York City.
“It really is a bay, with a fishing fleet and so forth,” Horlacher said, in a recent interview at his office in Munroe Hall on the Middlebury campus. “We didn’t really consider it a part of New York.”
When World War II broke out, Horlacher’s family moved to St. Augustine, Fla. Amos Benjamin Horlacher, David’s father and a Methodist minister, became a Navy chaplain. Following two years in San Diego after the war, the family moved to Carlisle, Pa., when Horlacher senior became a dean at Dickinson College.
As a high school senior in Carlisle, Horlacher applied for and was awarded a Naval ROTC scholarship. He could have attended any of some 50 universities and decided on Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., because it had a small student body, much like his father’s alma mater, Wesleyan College. Plus, he was familiar with the area.
“Since 1935, my family has had a summer cottage around Chelsea, Vt.,” Horlacher recalled. “We always thought of Vermont as just heaven — New Hampshire sounded pretty good.”
During his first summer as an undergraduate in the ROTC program, Horlacher spent six weeks on a destroyer. His military career got off to a rough start.
“I got seasick the whole time, so I knew the Navy wasn’t for me,” he said. “You had the choice between the Navy and Marines, and foxholes don’t sway back and forth.”
Horlacher cherished his time at Dartmouth, where he first started out as an international relations major, and only later switched to economics.
“As I learned more about international relations, notions of international law seemed less important than being able to exert power, especially economic power,” Horlacher said. “So to understand this I had to take economics courses — I didn’t really want to, I thought, well, this is just bookkeeping. I was dragged kicking and screaming into it.”
On June 14, 1953, Horlacher’s life changed immeasurably. At 8:30 that morning, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. At noon, he was handed his diploma by President Dwight Eisenhower, who was the Dartmouth commencement speaker, and at 2:30 that afternoon he was married to Marie Clevenger by his father in a small ceremony. The couple honeymooned at the family cottage in Vermont.
After training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., Horlacher was shipped to Japan. After six months of additional training, he was deployed to South Korea, near its border with North Korea.
“No one was shooting at us by that time, but we were freezing there in tents on the mountainside.”
While the Korean armistice was signed in July 1953, tensions were still high along the Demilitarized Zone.
“We didn’t know when the war would start again, and we knew the North continued to send spies across,” Horlacher said. “Our base was surrounded by barbed wire covered with tin cans, so if someone touched the wire you’d hear it and start shooting in that direction.”
Horlacher spent a year in Korea and three years of active duty in the Marine Corps. After 20 years in the reserves, he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Horlacher’s first child, David Jr., was born while he was overseas. When Horlacher returned stateside, he and Marie had three more — Diane, Kevin and Carol. Horlacher earned his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and began teaching at Bucknell University in 1959, a post he held for 10 years. He would later earn his Ph.D. from Penn State, and also taught at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., for 11 years.
Horlacher described the joy he got from teaching.
“It’s like playing professional baseball — you’re getting paid for what you were doing for fun anyway,” he said.
While a doctoral candidate at Penn State, Horlacher authored a paper on population pressures in the developing world. One of his professors, Warren C. Robinson, had coincidentally just received a federal grant to study population problems, and asked Horlacher to be his research assistant.
Robinson and Horlacher traveled to India, Pakistan and the Philippines conducting research about family planning programs.
“This was in the early days of family planning, when no one knew if it would work or how much it would cost, or what the payoff would be,” Horlacher said. “That was my early introduction to this sort of thing.”
Based on their research, Robinson was asked by the United Nations to study population growth in the developing world, based at the UN offices in Bangkok, Thailand. Since Robinson had also been asked to be an adviser to the Thai government, and asked the UN to consider Horlacher instead.
Soon, Horlacher, along with his wife and family, were on their way to Thailand.
“The UN kept asking me back to Bangkok to keep organizing studies on population,” Horlacher said. “I took a sabbatical for two years.”
Horlacher and his daughter Carol loved the country especially, and he has returned many times since.
In 1974, Horlacher attended the United Nations World Population Conference in Romania. The purpose of the summit was to discuss the causes and consequences of population growth around the world.
“It seems odd now but at that time many countries were saying population growth wasn’t a problem,” Horlacher said. “Even China — and this is before the one child policy — was saying population wasn’t a problem if you had a good social system.”
The nations did not endorse family planning, which Horlacher was a proponent of. However, many Asian countries, which Horlacher worked with in his capacity at the UN, were eager to adopt such a program.
He traveled throughout southeast Asia in his duties. He recalled being in Vietnam in 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon.
“I talked to people on the ground and they had no idea the military situation was going to fall apart,” Horlacher said. “There were professors planning 10-year careers helping Vietnam rebuild who thought the war was over. Of course a few months later they were gone.”
After the head of the population studies division at the UN headquarters in New York retired, Horlacher was tapped for the post.
“It was more just one lucky break after another — first running into Professor Robinson and being invited to participate in the Bangkok program, and then being invited to New York,” Horlacher said.
During the 10 years he spent summers in Bangkok with the UN, Horlacher continued to teach at Bucknell and Susquehanna. However, the year-round position at the UN in New York forced him to give up his posts.
Horlacher served as the head of the UN population studies division from 1980-1990. He was forced to retire because of a UN regulation that does not permit officials to serve past age 60. The rule was created, Horlacher explained, so that scholars from nations who more recently joined the UN could more easily be appointed to posts, as vacancies opened up more frequently.
“I was kept on a little longer because I was organizing one of the big conferences the UN has, called an expert group meeting, where they bring scholars about a certain topic,” Horlacher said. “I organized a meeting on population and the environment — 10 years earlier I had done the same thing.”
In 1992, Middlebury College Economics Department Chair David Colander approached Horlacher about returning to the classroom.
“He wanted people with not just academic training but real world experience, so he asked if I would come to Middlebury,” Horlacher said. “It was a terrible surprise! My wife and I never imagined I’d get a job teaching in Vermont.”
Horlacher accepted a position as the Hepburn Professor of Economics. For the first 10 years, he only taught in the spring. For the fall semesters, he continued to teach at different foreign universities, which allowed him to travel to Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Egypt.
In Vietnam, he taught a class of leading economists from that country who were seeking advice about how to transition from a communist to market economy.
He said the Vietnamese were ambivalent about American military involvement in their country.
“I had students whose parents had been killed in the war,” Horlacher said. “Their feeling was ‘Don’t worry about the past, focus on the future; a good relationship with the U.S. is good for us.’”
That approach, combined with Horlacher’s expertise, seems to have worked.
“I remember going back (to Vietnam) and hearing people complaining they couldn’t hire gardeners anymore because no one wanted to work for that wage,” Horlacher said. “I said that’s great — that’s what development should be about.”
Over the past decade, Horlacher has not traveled as much; he teaches at Middlebury full-time.
Since arriving on campus 21 years ago, he has authored dozens of papers that have been published in academic journals around the world. In addition to his courses, Horlacher continues to research global population trends.
His current contract with Middlebury will expire in three years. Asked if he planned to continue teaching then, Horlacher leaned back in his chair and smiled.
“I’ll see how I feel at 85,” he said.

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