Obituary: Mark Perlman / Prominent economist of post-World War II era

Dec. 23, 1923 - May 3, 2006

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"Pillars of Economic Understanding," the title of a textbook published not long ago, might as well be the epitaph of the man who helped to write it. Mark Perlman, a former University of Pittsburgh professor, was a pillar among the nation's economics editors and, say his students and colleagues, was one of the most prominent economists of the post-World War II era.

Mr. Perlman died Wednesday in Shadyside. He was 82. Before his death, he lived in Fox Chapel for two years, and Oakland for decades before that.

For all of his books and accolades, he is best remembered by his thousands of students as a professor who took the idea of teaching seriously, a notion that is sometimes lost at larger schools where research and scholarly publication is paramount.

"He was the prototype of a professor," quick-witted and always wearing a bow-tie, said former student Morgan Marietta.

"He's the reason that I became a professor myself."

He lavished individual attention upon many of his students -- something they weren't always used to at a large public school -- inviting them over to dinner and happy to write reference letter after reference letter for those applying to graduate school.

"He was the first [professor] who ever asked me where my father went to school, what my religion was," said former student Robert Holzbach. "Not for gossip, but to get to know me."

Mr. Perlman taught at Cornell and Johns Hopkins, but he made a home at Pitt, where he taught for three decades before retiring a dozen years ago. Early in his career, he developed an expertise in labor economics, penning books such as "The Machinists" and "Labor Union Theories in America." That niche proficiency evolved into a broader expertise in the history of economic thought.

He put that breadth of knowledge to use not only as a teacher, but also as the founding editor of the "Journal of Economic Literature," a leading journal in its genre. He edited that journal from 1969 through 1980. His influence was so wide that, in 2002, a group of colleagues published a text called "Editing Economics: Essays in Honour of Mark Perlman" -- the written equivalent of a tribute album.

Economics was a family affair, both by birth and by marriage. His father was Selig Perlman, a Polish-born labor economist who immigrated to the U.S. in 1918 and taught at the University of Wisconsin. Mr. Perlman married Naomi Waxman, an economist for the young United Nations.

Their only child, Abigail Perlman Williams, now living in Boston, said her father was a dedicated husband, something that has become particularly evident over the last few years. During that period, Mr. Perlman's wife has been hospitalized, suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"He visited her every day," Mrs. Williams said, up until he fell ill himself, diagnosed with cancer a few months ago.

Mr. Perlman is survived by his wife and only child, as well as four grandchildren. Services start at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Ralph Schugar Chapel in Shadyside.

Mark Perlman in 2005

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.


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