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If you like Gary Becker's story, you might also like:
Milton Friedman,
Murray Gell-Mann,
John Hennessy,
Leon Lederman,
Paul H. Nitze,
John Sexton
and E.O. Wilson

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Gary Becker
Gary Becker
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Gary Becker Interview (page: 9 / 9)

Nobel Prize in Economics

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  Gary Becker

You had two adolescent girls to raise when your wife died, what a handful.

Gary Becker: It was difficult.

And hard for them.

Gary Becker: Very hard for them. It was a very difficult death. They went through a lot of difficulties, and it was hard for me. I was the mother and father to them for a number of years. So it was a difficult period, there's no question about. It was not an easy period.

And how long after that did you remarry?

Gary Becker Interview Photo
Gary Becker: I remarried about eight to ten years later. I was single for about eight or nine years I think. I met my second wife a few years before we married, so that was very good. We didn't actually marry until the end of the '70s. I think my wife died on January 1, 1970 or so.

Did the girls get along with their stepmother?

Gary Becker: They got along. There's always difficulties in these situations. That's why they write stories about it, but after some initial difficulties they worked out their difficulties and they have a good relation now, and with the two sons of my wife. So that's very good. The four children get along well. So that part has been good. Everybody goes through difficulties in their life. I've had my share, and I do believe the old saying that it makes you stronger. I think it does make you stronger not to have everything come easily. I think that's not only personally, but also professionally. I think I'm stronger professionally because my recognition did not come at a very early age, or did not come so smoothly. I think that's been helpful to me.

Could you tell us about the winning of the Nobel Prize? Can you describe the day?

Gary Becker: I had been down with 104 temperature for about a week before, and the last thing on my mind was whether they were awarding a Nobel Prize. I mean, it would be dishonest to say in the past I hadn't worried about whether I was going to get it. I had, along with most other people. No matter what they tell you, people are conscious of that. But then, I was out of my mind. They wanted me to go to the hospital and so on. And all of a sudden, I was just about recovering, and we got a -- five o'clock in the morning, my wife answered. She was up grading papers. She said, "My husband is sleeping. Who's calling?" She was very upset that somebody was calling that early in the morning. They said, "It's an important phone call," but she said, "But what do you want?" And they said, "Well, it's an important phone call. We'd like to speak to your husband." She said, "He's sleeping now, he's just getting..." they said, "Call from Sweden." So when she heard it was a call from Sweden, she figured something important, maybe not for me, maybe they wanted somebody's telephone number. So she got me up and I was reluctant. I went on the phone. And I don't usually show a lot of emotion in my face. And I'm saying, "Yes, yes," and she doesn't know what's going on. And all of a sudden I say, "Thank you. I appreciate this honor you've conferred on me. Please give my thanks to the rest of your committee," and she let out a scream. She'd knew I'd won.

It was a great shock. Surprise. Of course we were enormously elated over it. An extra reason was because of all this controversy I'd had in my work.

We went through all this period of time, all these years when my work was neglected, laughed at and so on. And now I got, so to speak, the ultimate recognition to anybody. And I felt good, not only for myself, but I had a lot of students and other people out there who had suffered a lot, who wrote me letters afterwards, how they were happier than I was about getting it, 'cause now they were respectable, and I think that the personal satisfaction of course was there. But it was more than that, it was this feeling that this was an official recognition, this class of work that I was involved in, that others were involved in. Some of them, many of them my students or my disciples, their work was being recognized, and to me that was worth as much as anything else to me. So the Nobel thing is a great week. I mean recognition and so on. Your head gets turned, you begin to think you're an expert on every issue they ask you to comment on. It's hard to avoid that Nobel disease, and I can't say I've avoided it completely either. I mean everybody gets caught up in it. But from a professional point of view, aside from the personal acclaim, the professional point of view, recognition after all the fights I went through, to me and all these others, I think that was the most important thing for me.

What do you think about the American Dream? Do those words mean something to you?

Gary Becker: My parents were both immigrants. So if you ask, my mother came when she was six months, but she liked to feel that she was European, she wasn't an American. My father, clearly, came to this country when he was 14 and it was for a dream to get employed. I've always been a very strong proponent of immigration and the like, because I think the American Dream is real. We provide the opportunities for people. I came from an uneducated family, as I said, no books in the house. But the opportunities provided by this country were enormous, and that's why I feel so patriotic, so proud to be an American. You won't catch me attacking. I mean the U.S. makes a lot of mistakes, but I won't attack America, because I think it's a great country, and I think it's continued to provide for opportunity for people and there's no country in the world that provides these kind of opportunities. So I think it's a real dream, and what we and the younger generations have to do is continue that dream, that people from all walks of life can succeed. It isn't the contacts you have, it isn't the networks you have, although they count. But if you're willing to work hard enough and keep your mind on a goal, and willing along the way to take criticism, that the chances that you'll succeed, for everybody, is considerable. And that to me is the American Dream.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Gary Becker Interview Photo
So I think it's a great dream. It's still alive, and I don't want to sound too emotional, but I think this is just a great country. My wife is an immigrant. She had brothers who came out from Iran, who came out after the revolution, who were trained in Europe. They went to Europe, and they eventually came here. They just weren't accepted in Europe the way they are accepted in the United States. In the United States, everybody's an immigrant, or not too long ago was an immigrant. So I think it is a great dream, and a lot of the people this year, and in previous years on this program, are simply reflections of the fact that there is this dream here, and that people can make it. You can do it in other countries, but the opportunities in every field of endeavor are not matched, as far as I know, by any country of the world as they are in the United States. So yes, I have strong feelings about the American Dream, 'cause I think it's a real dream.

Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

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This page last revised on Mar 31, 2011 18:30 EST
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