Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A great scholar and friend has passed away

By: Paul Sharp


I always used to joke that I wanted to be like Gunnar when I grew up. What did I mean by that? Certainly I could never hope to be half the scholar he was. No, what I admired most about Gunnar, and the most important thing which my former supervisor and dear friend taught me, was the importance of enjoying life, and work as an integral part of that. His enthusiasm for the latter is reflected by his achievements throughout his career. He had great importance for the internationalization of the Department of Economics at Copenhagen University; for economic history in Denmark and the rest of Europe; for the teaching of economic history, in particular through his textbook on the Economic History of Europe; and last but by no means least he has of course also contributed much in terms of his research. There will be plenty of time to dwell on this in more formal obituaries. The Gunnar I want to remember here was so much more than that. He was truly someone who enjoyed life way beyond academia: he loved the outdoors, sailing, music, art, food and drink, to name just a few examples. Moreover, he was a truly happy and generous man, and someone I always looked up to.

Gunnar on the train on the way back to Copenhagen from Odense and the 2014 Growth Workshop at the University of Southern Denmark. He managed to sit next to two young Russian ladies on their way to a dancing competition, and seemed to enjoy the attention they gave him! 

Thus, his love of life and work intertwined. A few years ago, I interviewed Gunnar for the newsletterof the Cliometric Society. His sense of humour shines out through many of his replies. For example when asked about whether his political beliefs influenced his work, he began his reply by saying “Well I suppose I am more Rosé than Red these days, but I drink both”! He also described how his convictions as what he called a “card-carrying anti-Malthusian” was in part determined by his love of culture, and how the gothic cathedrals he had seen while travelling in his youth had led him to believe that “…the pre-industrial economies of Europe could not possibly be the sort of bare bones subsistence economies Malthusians say they were”.

Although I had also known him as an undergraduate, I think I first became very close to Gunnar while we were both visiting the European University Institute in Florence back in 2007. I was still his PhD student, but he, among other things, found time to enjoy many wonderful dinners with me. I was particularly impressed by his practice of always choosing the cheapest wine, claiming ex ante that it was actually very good, but then “discovering” ex post that it was not so good, with the implication that we would have to order another bottle, but only after the first one had been emptied, thus meaning that we always drank at least a bottle each! This was also when we planned the first edition of the textbook together, sitting outside his beautiful house in Buriano.

We have many unfinished projects together. Indeed, he was very active until the end, and had recently asked me to read through a new chapter he had written for a possible third edition of the textbook. Sadly, we never finished updating a paper we wrote on Tuscan red wines, which remains in working paper limbo. He asked me to work on this during my PhD, I think mostly as an excuse for him to go to a conference on wine economics (which seemed to involve relatively few sessions, and relatively many river cruises and wine tastings). I have frequently teased him about this in recent years, which resulted recently in the promise of a trip to Tuscany with him for the arduous task of visiting various vineyards in order to collect the data on wine prices we needed to finish the paper.


Gunnar and I proudly present the second edition of the textbook to the world in 2015

This was, however, not to be. I met him last on September 8, less than a week before his untimely death in his beloved Italy. We had attended a seminar at the Department of Economics, Copenhagen University, and, as we often did, we went to one of the many bars in Copenhagen with a wide selection of the craft beers he so loved. We didn’t go to our usual: it was the sort of evening which makes Copenhagen seem like paradise, and we sat outside at a different bar next to one of the lakes with a good APA and some salt and vinegar crisps. We weren’t sure where to go for dinner, but I checked my phone and found we were very close to a little French restaurant which had good reviews. There, we first enjoyed a glass of rosé outside, and then went inside for a very good meal, after which we went somewhere else to meet up with some others from his department and mine and the seminar guest. He didn’t enjoy the beer and the smoke at that bar, and anyway it was too late, so he soon left. That evening we had talked a lot about how I was finding it difficult to return to work after a long period of absence due to my daughter being ill, and I apologized for not having made more progress on our many unfinished projects together. He wrote to me the same evening saying

Paul, It was really nice seeing you back on the turf again.
Do not over-extend your commitments.  Well, except when it comes to a beer now and then, of course!
G

It was his typical mix of fatherly and professional advice which meant so much to me. I replied a couple of days later, on September 10:

Yes, thanks for a really enjoyable evening. I will always find time for beer with you!
P


Those were our last words together. How I will miss him. Goodbye Gunnar.


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