The Professor, the Prankster and the President

Editor’s note: As we near the centennial celebration of President Ronald Reagan’s birth—and as The Center for Vision & Values prepares for tonight’s Fifth Annual Ronald Reagan Lecture by Dr. Bill Bennett (click here to view the live webcast)—we’d like to connect a few historical dots as today also marks the birth of a renowned Grove City College economics professor Dr. Hans F. Sennholz (February 3, 1922 – June 23, 2007). As we see in this "V&V Flashback" from the administrative director’s archive, his scholarship influenced untold numbers—from pranksters to presidents. (A version of this article was first published by the Center on July 9, 2007.)

"What do we have here? A student from (a nearby college)?" bellowed the irritated and hugely popular and internationally-known economics professor in his thick German accent. A student in Dr. Hans Sennholz’s Grove City College economics class had not yet learned the professor’s prohibition against donning a ball cap in class.

The unwitting and offending student was a soccer teammate of mine. It was the first Saturday class of the 1981 fall semester and my friend had obviously just rolled out of bed. I handed him my bright red corduroy ball cap to "cover up his rack hair so the professor wouldn’t notice." He thanked me and chose a conspicuous aisle seat. My other buddies immediately understood the ruse and eagerly awaited Dr. Sennholz’s certain thunder. My friend may as well have been wearing a beaming red siren on his head.

But today Dr. Sennholz was so wrapped up in his lecture that 25 minutes passed without a reaction. Then, Sennholz saw the flashing siren. It took a few seconds for my friend to understand why he was the subject of the great Sennholz’s wrath. His six foot frame slinked in the seat and he sheepishly removed the hat.

Sennholz Rule One: no ball caps in class.

Sennholz Rule Two: to earn an A, read everything referenced in the lectures, including all articles cited. Not many students were so dedicated to the study of economics.

The typical Sennholz exam consisted of four essays questions. Three questions came from assigned readings and the fourth came from publications only the A students would hunt down. I recall that one such article came from "The Freeman," a journal revered in free market economics circles and published by the Foundation for Economic Education in New York.

Sennholz was a brilliant educator. He made the dismal science understandable and entertaining. He loved large classes. Indeed he used the largest classroom in Grove City College’s Calderwood Hall. He would say, "Bring the students to me, I will educate them!"

His classroom was the world. Although he edited and wrote books, he understood the value of the short, understandable and accessible article. A master of his adopted English language, he published many such articles on a wide range of subjects that were distributed around the world. And he lectured around the world as well.

On July 4th, 2007, a week after his death at the age of 85, I asked his beloved wife, Mary, if it was true that Hans had been a member of an informal economic advisory panel to Ronald Reagan. She said no, but then told me of a moment when Sennholz and Reagan met at an economic conference at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel Ballroom in April 1978, a story I had never heard before.

Sennholz and Reagan were both speakers at the conference. Hans did not appreciate politicians but he grudgingly indulged Mary’s interest in meeting the presidential campaigner, who was in between two runs for the presidency, first in 1976 and then again in 1980. When the crowd of people around Reagan had dissipated, Mary, holding Hans by the hand, approached the former California governor and introduced herself and her husband. Reagan replied excitedly, "Stay right here. Nancy, come here!" Once Mrs. Reagan arrived, the governor exclaimed, "This is Hans Sennholz! Dr. Sennholz, I’ve been plagiarizing you for years in my radio addresses." Sennholz replied, "You have had a good teacher!"

Hans had supplied Reagan with no shortage of content. From 1975 to 1979, Ronald Reagan gave more than 1,000 daily radio broadcasts carried all over the country, two-thirds of which he wrote himself. The topics in the three-minute broadcasts were wide-ranging, from arms control to the environment to the Soviets to a variety of economic issues, including specialties of Hans Sennholz, such as the inflation nightmare of the 1970s. The coming Reagan Revolution is evident throughout these short pieces.

It’s likely Reagan read many of Sennholz’s articles in "The Freeman." There is a well-known picture of the Reagans seated in an airplane. Nancy was dozing on her husband’s shoulder while Reagan was reading. Look closely at that picture. Reagan is reading "The Freeman." Perhaps it was a Sennholz article. Maybe it’s the one that Sennholz referenced for our test. I earned a B on that test. I have a feeling Reagan would have earned an A.

"Bring them to me, I will educate them!" Sennholz said. And he did by the thousands. Ten thousand students passed through his Grove City College classroom from 1956 to 1992. And because he understood the value of articles written for the layman, he educated thousands more in print and on the worldwide web until the month before his death. We’ll never know the full measure of the rich life of Hans Sennholz. But we do know this—he impacted everyone he could reach, from a prankster to a president.

— Lee Wishing is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. |