by Chris Killian
Move over, Thomas Jefferson. There's a new Renaissance man on your Charlottesville campus.
Best-selling author. Popular professor. Noted researcher. Street rod enthusiast. Devout Christian. These are just a few of the things that compose Kenneth Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia (UVa), established by Jefferson, the eccentric intellectual, in 1819.
Elzinga is quick to include one more notch in his belt of accomplishments: 1963 graduate of Kalamazoo College.
Despite the impressive résumé, Elzinga, 68, is a humble man. His deep faith demands that he be so. He sits at a table in his Monroe Hall office - about the size of a small bedroom - surrounded by books from ceiling to floor. A few boxes are stacked upon one another. There are no plump leather couches, no over-the-top, look-who-I-am type of memorabilia or décor.
A legend of the economics department at UVa, which U.S. News and World Report ranked as the second best public university in the nation this year, Elzinga nevertheless teaches the university's largest class, "Principles of Microeconomics," to sections that usually top 1,000 students. It's one of the most popular classes on campus.
"I always thought it was funny that the size of that class is about the entire student population of Kalamazoo College," he said. "Do I have to teach that class? No. Do I enjoy teaching it? You bet."
His easy going, friendly demeanor might also have something to do with where he came from - a working class neighborhood in Kalamazoo.
His family knew next to nothing about what the college experience was like, what lectures were, or what an academic advisor might do. He was so new to the world of higher education that he remembers being in a receiving line of some sort during his freshman year and remarking to himself about how strange it was that so many people being recognized - both male and female - had the first name "Dean."
While a student at Kalamazoo Central High School, he was enrolled in the shop curriculum. He nearly failed his first year at "K." But like many who have soared to incredible heights in their professional lives, Elzinga had someone who believed in him at a time when his wings of talent were just growing feathers.
When he was attending Kalamazoo College in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Elzinga was living at his parents' home in Kalamazoo's Milwood neighborhood, working at Lee's Sporting Goods, where he sold fishing tackle and other items. He was shy and kept mostly to himself.
"I went to 'K' planning on being a fishing tackle salesman," Elzinga said. "I thought that was going to be what I would do, and I was fine with that."
But Sherrill Cleland, his economics professor, saw something in Elzinga.
"He said to me: 'Ken, why don't you become a professor,'" Elzinga recalled. "I thought to myself at the time how crazy that was. But he believed in me.
"I owe a great deal to Kalamazoo College. It could have been a place where I was shunned, but I was welcomed. That made an incredible difference for me. It allowed me to succeed."
After "K" - where he also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters (2000) - Elzinga attended Michigan State University, where he earned his Ph.D. in economics in 1967. Since then, he taught at MSU, Pepperdine, Cambridge, and Trinity Universities.
He sits on the board of trustees of Hope College. He knew Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman. He is regarded as a leading authority on industrial organization and anti-trust policy. And the Gus A. Stavros Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University recently called him "probably the nation's most successful teacher of college-level economics."
"It is well with my soul"
All you have to do is look at a picture hanging from the wall near the door to his office to understand the source of Elzinga's deep humility. The painting shows Jesus washing his disciples' feet.
"My colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies might contend that the most prominent image or picture of the Christian faith is the crucifix," Elzinga wrote in 1996. "For me, as a teacher, it is the picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The scene illustrates the upside-down and paradoxical biblical principle of leadership: the one who leads should be willing to serve; if you want to be first, you line up last."
But even the staunchest faiths are tested from time to time. They have to be to remain strong. And sometimes those with the most fervent of faiths are tested the most.
That certainly was the case in 2008, when Elzinga found out he had advanced prostate cancer. He remembers being at church one Sunday not long before a complicated surgery to remove the cancer, singing a song that touched him to the point of tears, but not out of fear or sadness. They were, rather, tears of calming certainty.
"The chorus was: 'It is well, it is well, it is well with my soul,'" he said, closing his eyes, as if in prayer. "I knew I was alright with God. I knew that I would be fine even if I died on the operating table. I wasn't afraid.
"Now when people say: 'It's nice to see you,' it's a little more literal to me."
Economics is an academic discipline made up of hard facts and figures, of laws and rules. And the way most lay people understand the complicated world of phrases
"I went to 'K' planning on being a fishing tackle salesman..."and numbers usually left to experts to interpret is by a simple chart.
One of these charts is taped to a file cabinet in Elzinga's office. It doesn't prove any economic law, but it does prove, in a way, what he means to those he serves.
On the y-axis, are the words "Happiness at UVa" and on the x-axis, "Ken Elzinga's Health." A line on the chart indicates that when Elzinga's health went down, so did the mood at the university.
"That touched me," he said of the chart. "It really did."
A quick walk down the hallway from his office and outside his building will explain why. Several students wave and smile at him, shouting: "Good Morning, Mr. Elzinga!" to which he cheerily responds, with a sincere "Oh, hello there!"
It's clear only after a few hours that UVa would be a completely different place without him. As of now, the cancer is gone and Elzinga was back to participating in many of his favorite hobbies this summer, including waterskiing, even though he's just this side of 70 years old.
Same man, other sides
Elzinga, who has testified in several precedent-setting court cases - including three Supreme Court decisions - and who has authored more than 70 academic publications, is perhaps even better known among his peers for his fiction writing than his scholarly research.
Together with his co-author, William Breit, Elzinga has penned three mystery novels in which the protagonist, Henry Spearman, uses economic reasoning to solve crimes. A fourth book (Elzinga wouldn't divulge the name) is about halfway done, he said.
"I've hung out with Nobel Laureates who want to talk about those novels," he said. "John Nash [whose story was told in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind] told me one time: 'I like your book a lot. It's cool, really cool.'"
His professional success has afforded Elzinga the opportunity to indulge his pastimes. And like many boys who grew into men in the Great Lakes State, the focus of his indulgence has four wheels, polished chrome, maybe a chopped top, and definitely the potential to make a lot of noise.
His two prized possessions, a 1932 Ford Coupe and 1949 Mercury Coupe, are captured in picture frames and located near the most important place in his office's bookshelves - right above the Bibles.
"I'll probably always be that kid from Kalamazoo," he said. "But God has blessed me with so many opportunities I really can't count them all." He paused, "Kalamazoo College was definitely one of them."
Ken Elzinga considers his students' appreciation, spoken in charts.
A passionate avocation: hot rods
At ease in his UVa office