Do you remember a favorite teacher you had at Baker? For those of us who were econ majors in the late 60’s (Walter Pinnell, Kent Stromsted and I along with many others) the answer was fairly straight forward – Dr. Don Eilenstine. He was only at Baker for five years. What happened to him and where is he now? We did the research to answer these questions.
DR. DONALD LEE EILENSTINE
Donald Lee Eilenstine was born to Hubert Clark and Thelma Lee Fruit Eilenstine on July 5, 1937, on the family farm near Gardner, Kansas. Don was raised by his grandparents, Ernest Hubert (known as Hubert) and Ethel May Patrick Eilenstine, who lived “across the railroad tracks” in the city of Gardner. Hubert owned a five-acre lot in town, and he was considered a farmer for census purposes, but he also owned a filling station and was a real estate investor and landlord. Don remembers that when he was growing up it seemed his grandfather owned half of the houses in the neighborhood where they lived. Hubert was also a religious man and served as the chairman of the board of the local Baptist church. Don was active in the Baptist Youth Fellowship and attended the BYF summer conference at Ottawa University. Don went to Gardner schools which consisted of a single building with all 12 grades. When he got to seventh grade his teacher was the same teacher his father had, and she asked if he would like to have the same desk his father had used. There were 22 students in his graduating class.
When it came time for Don to go to college, there were only two schools on the short list his grandfather approved of, William Jewell and Ottawa, both Baptist affiliated schools. One of Don’s high school teachers was an Ottawa grad and before he entered college as a freshman, he had the opportunity to have dinner with the chair of the history department at Ottawa. It was almost a forgone conclusion that he would attend that school. Early on, influenced by his grandfather, Don developed a passion for history and since he intended to major in that subject, his advisor at Ottawa was a history professor. Don got into economics through the back door by virtue of a couple of chance occurrences. When Don met with his advisor, he had selected sociology as a course he wanted to take, and his advisor said that Don had to study something with substance, and he literally crossed out sociology and wrote in economics. Later, when Don was heading to preregistration as a sophomore, Ottawa’s new economics professor, Wayne Angell, intercepted him and told him that he needed to sign up for intermediate economic theory. Angell became a mentor of sorts for Don and went on to become one of the most recognized economists in the country. He served as a Governor of the Federal Reserve Board from 1986 to 1994. He left to become a Chief Economist and Senior Managing Director for Bear Sterns & Co., Inc., where he served until 2002. He then opened a consultancy, Angell Economics.
Don loved his experience at Ottawa. He was able to indulge in one of his first obsessions: reading. He benefited from Angell’s unusual teaching style. Angell’s approach was to have his students study the next chapter in advance and then have them listen to his lecture. He didn’t like for his students to take notes and said that if you trained your mind, you could remember if you just sit and listen. Don was active in the social life of the school as well. He was the master of his fraternity which at Ottawa was more like a social club to which you were assigned based on where you lived on campus. They did not have national fraternities like Baker because they were banned as the result of a hazing incident which occurred in the 1930’s: a freshman was put into a railroad car and ended up in New York. He was on the Inter-Club Council which planned social events and other activities and worked closely with his sorority counterpart, Dorene Covell, who was master of her sorority. Dorene was also a Kansan having grown up in Salina and had an unusual privilege in that she was allowed to cook her own meals. At one of their planning meetings, she invited Don to dinner that she would cook. Romance ensued and they were married in 1958 during the summer between their junior and senior years. They graduated in 1959 and he was selected as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.
Encouraged by Wayne Angell and others and supported by a Woodrow Wilson scholarship which paid full tuition and a living stipend, Don had already decided on a career in academics. However, he had not determined whether he would pursue studies in his first love: history, or in his more recent infatuation with economics. The choice of graduate schools was easy. Angell had attended the University of Kansas and knew many of the professors there having completed his PhD in few years earlier. So, Don settled into the life of a graduate student while Dorene got a job teaching at Hocker Grove Middle School in the Shawnee Mission District. They lived in Mission and later in Eudora. Don resolved his dilemma about which field of study by taking courses in both history and economics. Upon completing his course work, he finally had to decide in which field to do his dissertation. He chose the time period to focus on based on his background in history, but he chose the subject based on one very simple fact – a dissertation in economics would be about a fifth the size of one in history. As he started to work on “America and the World Economy of the 1780’s: A Study in Mercantile Behavior” he had the opportunity to go out and begin his teaching career. The chair of the economics department at KU, Ron Olsen, had taught at Ohio University and in September 1963, Don was named Assistant Professor of Economics there. Don gained valuable experience while teaching at Ohio, but it confirmed his belief that he didn’t want to teach at an institution of that size forever. Based on his experience at Ottawa and his interest in inter-disciplinary studies in the social sciences and humanities, Don knew that his future would be teaching in a liberal arts environment. He would always hope that he could return to Ottawa or a place where he could re-live the kind of experience he had there. In the meantime, Don and Dorene settled into a life of domesticity and their two children, Christopher, and Karen, were born in Ohio.
As a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Don had made a non-binding commitment to the goals of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation – to offer talented students the opportunity to attend doctoral programs and begin college teaching careers. In its early years, the Foundation was active in working with colleges and universities to fill teaching positions in fields, such as economics, where qualified applicants were hard to find. After losing a key economics professor in 1965, Dean Ben Gessner at Baker reached out to the Foundation for help. The Foundation came back with the recommendation that he talk to Don. Gessner wrote a letter and followed up with Don who was so intrigued that he agreed to climb on an airplane and meet with him. After that meeting Don wanted to ask, “where do I sign,” but first he needed to negotiate the terms of his employment - that he would become department chair and that he would have a free hand in putting together the curriculum in economics. Gessner readily agreed because he needed a PhD, which Don had just recently received from KU, to head the Department of Economics and Business Administration. Consequently, 28-year-old Dr. Don Eilenstine and his young family settled into life in Baldwin in August of 1965.
Don quickly established a reputation as one of the outstanding professors on campus. He had a conversational lecture style replete with references to and quotes from books he was reading. Not satisfied with waiting for students to come to him, he would subtly “recruit” students, such as Bill Rohlf, Mark Henry, Walter Pinnell and Kent Stromsted, that he felt had potential to major in economics. He had success in developing students who would go on to significant accomplishments in the field. Bill Rohlf graduated in 1967 and received his PhD in Economics from the University of Kansas in 1972. He joined the faculty of Drury University in 1973 and taught there for 43 years earning a number of awards including the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Mark Henry graduated in 1968 and completed his Ph.D. in Economics from Kansas State University in 1973. He was an Assistant/Associate Professor of Economics at the University of North Dakota from 1973 to 1978 and an Associate Professor and Professor of Applied Economics at Clemson University from 1978 to 2010. He was an expert in regional economics and received the D. E. Boyce Award for Distinguished Service to Regional Economics in 2000.
Don quickly became a part of the social fabric of the Baker campus. He frequented the student union where he and his bridge partner, accounting professor Roy Williams, took on all comers and usually won. He became obsessed with golf after being introduced to the game by 1966 grad Kit Colvin. Former students insist that he scheduled 7:45 am classes so that he could make his 10:00 am tee times. He would host upper classman classes in a room in the basement at his home where the students would be surrounded by bookshelves crammed with books on economics and history and detective novels. Not yet satisfied with his encyclopedic knowledge of economics in his second year at Baker, he read 36,000 pages of books on economics. In 1967, he and Dr. Lowell Gish led a group of students, including 1969 grad Kent Stromsted, in a mission to Botswana to aid in the economic development of the newly established country. The group decided that the country needed a national economic plan and wrote a report of their findings. While Don claims there is no connection to the work that the group did, Botswana has one of the best economic development records on the continent and reportedly has the fourth highest GDP per capita. Kent remembers playing a lot of bridge and one point there were 26 consecutive rubbers in which he never played a hand.
Don thoroughly enjoyed his first four years at Baker, but his fifth year was painful. Baker was experiencing another one of its periodic financial crises and Don was appointed to an advisory group that was charged with eliminating 10 faculty positions. Don opposed the recommendations the group developed because every one of the proposed positions to be eliminated was in the liberal arts and sciences. At the same time, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation was looking for economics professors to fill desperate needs at historically black colleges and reached out to him. Don went to the new Dean Neal Malicky and proposed that instead of firing someone that he would take a leave of absence for a year and go to Fisk University. While this idea was being considered, out of the blue, Don received a letter from Eisenhower College, a newly formed institution in Seneca Falls, New York.
Eisenhower College was the brainchild of a group of businessmen in Seneca Falls including insurance broker John Rosenkrans. They knew that starting a new liberal arts college would require a lot of money and to raise what was needed they would have to have a big name. Back in the early 60s there weren’t many bigger names than World War Two hero and former President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower. They approached Ike who was very receptive and agreed to give the school his name and full endorsement. Money immediately began flowing into the college’s coffers. One million dollars was raised among the citizens of Seneca Falls area alone. Dozens of Ike’s wealthy Republican friends contributed. Assured, at least temporarily, of the institution’s financial security, Rosenkrans closed down his Seneca Falls insurance agency, and, with a small, handpicked staff, began planning the college campus and designing its curricula. The planners hired Warren Hickman, an international scholar and curriculum expert at nearby Syracuse University, as a consultant. Hickman had already developed a “world studies” program that he considered to be the ideal for a liberal arts college. It would offer a highly sophisticated core curriculum covering the natural and social sciences, literature, art, music, and philosophy. Hickman was asked to bring his curricular design to Eisenhower and was later named the College’s Vice President for Academic Affairs. The groundbreaking ceremony in September 1965 included Nelson Rockefeller, a speech from Ike himself and a keynote by Bob Hope. Fund raising activities continued, many sponsored by Ike himself, and events like an exhibition of Ike’s paintings and fancy galas attended by celebrities kept money flowing into the school.
Eisenhower College opened its doors to students in September 1968. The school had raised $14.5 million shortly after opening including a $5 million grant from Congress designating the college as the official “living memorial” to Ike. Led by President John Rosenkrans and with the help of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the school had attracted highly qualified faculty members from across the country. It was no wonder that Don was attracted to a school with the kind of liberal arts environment he believed in, and the initial funding most small private schools would love to have. Adopting “if we build it, they will come” philosophy, the college built 15 buildings in 14 years designing the physical plant for what its leaders considered the ideal liberal arts college size – 1,000 students. Arriving on campus in September of 1970, Don found the school to be exactly as advertised. It was pure liberal arts – no business administration, no teacher certification, no journalism, no career office, and no physical education major. His early years at Eisenhower were very productive. He published two papers: “Projected Consumption Patterns for a Stationary Population (1972)”; and “Trends and Cycles in the Legislative Productivity of the United States Congress, 1789–1976 (1978)”. As he and his family settled into life in the Finger Lakes region, he found time to engage in his favorite pastime – golf. One year he managed to play 200 rounds of golf and rarely missed his 2:00 pm tee time at the local golf club on weekdays.
However, trouble was brewing on the horizon at Eisenhower. At a campus built for 1,000, the student population barely exceeded 500. Most of the initial funding had been burned through with its building campaign and operating losses and the school was millions of dollars in debt. Rosenkrans decided that it was time that the students of Eisenhower College know the facts. On March 12, 1974, he dispatched Joseph Coffee, vice president for financial affairs, to speak to an assembly of the student body in Jacob’s Lounge. The college, the students were told by an embarrassed Coffee, was faced with an intolerable short-term operating deficit. If $369,000 was not pledged by April 9, the date of the trustees’ next meeting, it might have to close. This disclosure had two effects, one intended and the other unintended. Congress, shocked by the potential demise of Ike’s “living memorial” that they had already given so much to, passed a bill allocating a portion of the profits from the sale of the Eisenhower Dollar to Eisenhower College, funding that eventually reached $9 million, enough to pay off the school’s debts and point toward a brighter future. The unintended consequence of the announcement, however, was that current and prospective students stayed away in droves fearful that their college of choice might someday cease to exist.
Conditions did not improve. In 1975, Rosenkrans resigned and In March 1979, the college, which had a total enrollment of only 460 students, was acquired by Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). RIT pledged to operate the campus for five years, but after three academic years, citing major operating deficits, RIT closed the campus in 1982. Much of what Eisenhower had been was merged into RIT and became the liberal arts part of the larger school. It was a huge culture shock for the Eisenhower professors that remained. However, RIT had an interest in building a managerial economics program with Don leading the way, and there were other advantages as well from a compensation perspective. Don gained recognition as an early adopter of personal computer technology during this time. Still, Don yearned to get back to the kind of liberal arts environment he was comfortable with.
The opportunity came when the Provost at RIT was named President of Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. The new President knew that he wanted Don to lead the economics department and Don was impressed with the environment at Bethany which in many ways was similar to Ottawa and Baker. Bethany had been founded by Alexander Campbell in 1840. Campbell was one of the early leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the school has been affiliated with that denomination ever since. Bethany College is the birthplace of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. Don joined the faculty at Bethany in 1987 as head of the Economics Department and he was also named as Director of the Career and Professional Development Center so that the President could justify setting his compensation close to what he was making at RIT. Don was a leader in the Bethany College community from the first day he arrived on campus. Here he found a balance of traditional liberal arts and student career development. Bethany even had senior comprehensive exams and a senior thesis requirement. He initiated ideas that shaped the curriculum in the Economics Department, influenced the development of the use of computers on campus, and helped to develop a new general education curriculum. Don’s accomplishments earned him recognition on campus by being named the John F and Evelyn Casey Steen Professorship in Economics, an endowed chair, in 1998. He was also named as the Sears Corporation Outstanding Professor of the Year. He served on and chaired a number of committees including Curriculum, Educational Technology, Faculty Personnel, Faculty Welfare, Honors, Interdisciplinary and Long –Range Planning. He also conducted research for the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group and the Center for Governmental Research. During this time, Don became obsessed with a new hobby – gardening.
Don was the subject of an article in the Bethany Magazine entitled “A Man of Obsessions”. Aided by Dorene, the writer described his obsessions with reading, bridge, golf, gardening and stamp collecting. His obsession with reading began at an early age focused on history and later economics. While at KU he discovered detective novels and he is an avid reader of that genre to this day. It is interesting that KU is one of the leading universities in research related to detective fiction. Reading has been his lifelong pastime and he has tracked his progress. He estimates that he got rid of 2,500 books when he left Baker and when he retired, he gave up many boxes of books on computers and general history. However, he kept 160 linear feet of econ books. His obsessions with bridge and golf began at Baker, however, he gave up bridge when they moved to New York where he became even more involved with golf. He also took up gardening in New York, but he gave up gave up golf and gardening when they moved to Bethany. Stamp collecting was encouraged by his grandmother during his years at home in Gardner and continues in his retirement.
Encouraged by Dorene, Don retired in 2002 at age 65. At a dinner honoring him Bethany College praised his scholarship and his dedication to his students: “Fellow faculty, administrators, students, and other constituencies know that Don Eilenstine is a true intellectual with a fundamental love for all phases of economics, particularly number crunching. Don has a shared interest in history and is never content studying an economic concept without knowing the origin of the proposition or argument being considered. For Don, economics is at once a personal identity and a philosophical frame of reference with which to view the world . . .. Don always maintained a very high academic standard for his students. Even his cheerful eight o’clock scholars had exceptionally good work ethics and attendance records. Don always had the long run best interest of his students in mind. In addition, his thoughts of repaying the discipline by encouraging bright students to get a PhD in economics were never far from his central focus. In his view, that was a debt he owed the discipline.”
Don and Dorene had bought a house in the country north of Seneca Falls in 1975 and had lived in it during their time in New York. Their daughter had lived there in the intervening years, but it was an easy decision to move back to the house after retirement. The two native Kansans never seriously considered moving back to their home state because their kids and grandkids all lived in upstate New York. They recently moved to a senior living community in Clifton Springs, New York. He currently has 64 feet of econ books and another 20 feet of detective books. He has 4,500 books on his Kindle.
Don’s dedication to his profession and to his students has endeared him to generations of us who had the privilege to learn from him. Through us and to those that we passed on what we learned, his legacy lives on.