Beloved Professor Henry J. Bruton dies

brutonOn Jan. 31, Professor Henry Bruton of the Center for Development Economics (CDE) and the economics department passed away in Williamstown.

Originally from Dallas, Texas, Bruton has been affiliated with the College since 1962, when he became a professor in the economics department. He retired in 2004, but continued to visit the CDE frequently to dine with the fellows and discuss current issues in global economics. While teaching full-time, he was also committee chair for the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Throughout the course of his academic career he explored large economic questions such as “why are some countries rich and others poor?” For Bruton, teaching was a way of “transmitting his enthusiasm for searching and learning, for asking questions, thinking critically and taking nothing for granted,” Chair and Professor of Economics Peter Montiel said. Bruton’s students valued his use of the Socratic method, which helped them to “learn to be wary of canned answers,” according to Professor Gerard Caprio ’72 of the CDE.

“At the 50th Anniversary of the CDE, one of the many CDE alumni [Elsie Kanza CDE ’00] who returned to see Professor Bruton said that in her country [Tanzania], the president said that he preferred his advisers from the CDE to those with Ph.Ds from Harvard because the latter return home thinking that they have all of the answers, while those from the CDE come back asking how will a given policy recommendation work with their country’s institutional environments,” Caprio said. “Henry Bruton was one of the key members of the faculty who communicated and lived this approach as an adviser in developing countries … CDE alumni from around the world have written that they regard him as one of their greatest mentors and teachers.”

Born in 1921, Bruton graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas in 1943. He served in Europe during World War II under General George Patton before going on to graduate school in economics at Harvard. Bruton spent time as an economic advisor to the Egyptian government in the early 1980s and taught at Princeton, Harvard and Yale before coming to the College in 1962. His former students include College faculty and staff, world leaders and important figures in modern higher education.

“Henry Bruton cared deeply about poverty in developing countries, believing it to be not just an economic or political issue, but most importantly a moral issue,” Vassar President Catharine Hill ’76, a student of Bruton and former chair of the economics department at the College, said. “He devoted his life to understanding why some countries are poor and what could be done about it. Henry cared deeply about Williams College and the education that it offers its undergraduates and was wise counsel to many presidents, deans and provosts at the college. All of us who knew Henry are going to miss his insightful views on the world we live in.”

Bruton’s picture has hung on a wall in the CDE reserved for former professors since his retirement in 2004, and plans are already in the works to carry his memory into the future of the Center, though they have not been fully developed. According to Montiel, Bruton was the “heart and soul” of the CDE, which started in 1960 and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. Bruton was so loved by his students that one CDE fellow even went on to name his son “Bruton” after him.

“He had a way of going to the heart of matters, of listening with great care to other people, and of finding solutions to problems,” Stephen Lewis ’60, a former colleague in the economics department and former president of Carleton, said. “These characteristics also made him a highly valued advisor in developing countries. Most people as smart as Henry tend to have a pretty big ego. Henry Bruton was exceptionally modest.”

Bruton was the author of a multitude of articles in his field as well as a book, Principles of Development Economics.

“Many conversations took off from his ‘seemingly naïve questions’ about the nature of life, economics, economic growth and education,” Professor Emeritus Roger Bolton said. “He was a ‘widow’s cruse,’ to use the metaphor of the small jar that produced an unending supply of oil for Elijah and the widow in the Old Testament.”

Bruton lived abroad in many countries including India and Chile, where he was a visiting professor in economics at the University of Bombay and Universidad de Chile. He also served as the joint director of the Institute of Development Economics in Karachi, Pakistan and was an international financial adviser at the International Cooperation Administration Mission in Tehran, Iran.

“Henry was as much a moral philosopher as an economist,” Thomas Powers ’81, CDE director, said. “He asked why people did things and tried to understand their motivations as well as the economic outcome. Before his tests at the CDE, he would often tell students not to study, that the best way to study was to get a good night’s sleep and be prepared to think.”

President Falk sent an e-mail on Jan. 31 to inform the College community of Bruton’s death. In his e-mail, he described Bruton as “worldly wise, in the best sense of the term.” Bruton is survived by his wife and a niece and nephew. A memorial service for Bruton will be held on Sunday, at 3 p.m. immediately following his burial in the Williams College Cemetery.

“Henry Bruton was a great man,” former College President Morton Schapiro said. “He was a fabulous mentor, teacher and scholar. He deserves much of the credit for the impact that the CDE has had on generations of economic leaders throughout the developing world. He will be missed, but his vision lives on through the Center and through the best college economics department in the world.”

  • Tapiwa Muchenje

    Prof H Bruton remains one of the best professors I have met in my schooling times. His unique ways and constaint need to ask why and quest to continuously search and learning remains my approach to my ways – what a legacy for me.

    May His Soul rest in peace.

    We all loved you so much.