Dr. Schaffer reminisces on Tech’s traditions

Photo by Brenda Lin

Tech has changed a great deal over the past five decades, but one presence that has remained constant is the rumbling good humor of Dr. William Schaffer, Emeritus Professor of Economics. Though he has taught here continuously — save for a single year — he jokes he retired in 1963, the year he joined the faculty. As his wife Lee Schaffer explained, “He says he’s never worked a day in his life because he loves to teach.”

That love of teaching is evident in the way he talks about his work, which will often be framed in terms of his relationships with students.

“Students were the source of everything,” Schaffer said, joking that “they all worked with me, and I exploited them mercilessly. But they got good deals out of it, because they got their names on different publications and they got to go off to different places with me.”

Dr. Schaffer is an acknowledged expert in regional and urban economics, which means he would often travel to different areas to create economic models relating to different activities. He spoke fondly of the “computer jocks” who would assist him, commending them for their willingness to work late in the night and the expertise they were able to contribute.

In recent days, however, the advent of widespread computing has changed the culture, and as he explains, “students have their own lives, and it’s very difficult for the student and the professor to interact.”

With travel no longer necessary thanks to the availability of information through the Internet and a more formal system of internships existing separately from the student-professor relationship, extensive collaboration between a professor and a student is a rarity these days.

Still, Dr. Schaffer believes strongly in relationships in pedagogy, making a point to know the pupils in his class and hosting “Peach Parties” at his home for his students.

Dr. Schaffer’s pride for Tech, and the state of Georgia as a whole, is evident in everything he does. Before coming to Tech as an undergraduate, Schaffer grew up in Monticello, Georiga (or as he refers to it, “Where they filmed My Cousin Vinnie.) He then  graduated from Tech with a degree in Industrial Management in 1956. Schaffer still remembers when classic school traditions were more obligatory than today, as “the freshman were closely supervised by the sophomores, juniors and seniors.”

Losing one’s RAT cap meant being paid a visit by upperclassmen who would shave most of one’s head, leaving behind a “T” pattern — a cause of great panic when Schaffer lost his cap one night behind a radiator.

Another tradition, the shirt tail parade, saw a line of students, mostly freshmen, weaving through Atlanta while clutching each others’ shirt tails with Five Points as the destination.

He noted that the student body had changed, explaining that “you no longer come to a place with a frightened young boy just off the farm trying desperately to stay out of the military and go to Korea.”

The turbulent era of the Vietnam War introduced a more prominent strain of individualism into the student body, and the influx of different cultural groups reduced the homogeneity of the then largely white male population.

In fact, the year of Dr. Schaffer’s entrance as an undergraduate was the first to have female students admitted to regular classes. Some things have remained constant, however.

As Dr. Schaffer explained, students have always had a distaste for cafeteria food: “People with heads on their shoulders would go over to Junior’s and eat and enjoy a good breakfast of eggs and pancakes, rather than going  to Brittain, which served a pretty crappy selection.”

Though Dr. Schaffer is now officially retired, he continues to teach small courses in regional and urban economics and the history of economic thought. He strives to contribute his wisdom and knowledge to the student body. It is no surprise that he continues to enjoy and practice teaching — as he says, “students are what made my life.”