Economics professor remembered for global agricultural work

Judy and Bob Wedding 1967
Photo by Evenson Family.

Robert Eugene Evenson, an economics professor who taught hundreds of students in his 30 years at Yale, died in New Haven of Alzheimer’s disease on Feb. 2. He was 78.

A key figure in the field of agricultural science, Evenson directed Yale’s Economic Growth Center and International Development Economics Program and researched farm productivity in developing countries, pioneering new methods of surveying agricultural households. His former students said his greatest legacy may be the Yale students he left in his wake to carry on his mission to help the world’s poor and starving.

“I think of Bob as a farmer who planted ideas and cultivated people,” said Agnes Quisumbing, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute who was mentored by Evenson.

Beginning his career as a farmer in southern Minnesota, Evenson left agriculture in his late 20s to pursue a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, focusing his studies on agricultural economics. He went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Chicago, where he met his wife Judy Evenson, and was appointed to an assistant professorship at his alma mater in Minnesota before coming to Yale in 1977.

Judy said she had been teaching at a small college in the Chicago area when she met Evenson at a local church. The two were eventually married at that same church during regular Sunday morning service, she added, with a congregation of mostly students in attendance.

Though she said Evenson had a generally quiet disposition, Judy added that her husband was always very fond of his students.

Evenson’s former students remember him for his generosity and approachable, if sometimes absentminded, nature. They said he spent hours with graduate and undergraduate students alike and often opened his New Haven home to international students.

“His office was filled with piles and piles of paper,” Quisumbing said. “I found that the best way to get him to concentrate on a research question was to walk home with him” — a home that Evenson’s own Ph.D. students had helped him build.

Several of Evenson’s students eventually rose to prominent positions in the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and academia.

In his academic life, Evenson worked steadily toward improving developing nations’ economies and agriculture by studying the most efficient ways to research agricultural commodities, lecturer Cheryl Doss GRD ’87 said. Ward said his pursuits focused on farming and travel, adding that he was concerned with global agriculture and focused intensely on the well-being of people everywhere. He was very interested in raising enough food for the world, Doss said.

Evenson’s daughter Sarah Ward said Evenson was extremely passionate about his work and frequently traveled abroad with his family over the course of his career. Traveling became one of his main interests, she added, recalling the trips she took with her father to countries such as India and Brazil as a child, and the three years the family lived in the Philippines.

“I think he was an excellent student, and he had a passion to do more globally rather than on a local farm,” Ward said. “But he always had definitely fond memories of farming, and when we would drive by fields, he would know what was planted — in all of the fields. He would understand all that.”

Throughout his life, Evenson always stayed connected to his farming roots. Despite achieving pre-eminent status as an economist, Evenson was incredibly humble and able to identify with the farmers he visited in Filipino villages while conducting field studies, visiting professor Douglas Gollin GRD ’88 said.

Ward said she has fond memories of her father taking her on trips to Italy, Napa Valley in California and Sunday afternoon Yankees games.

He was “very kind — a sweet father,” she said.

Evenson is survived by his wife, four children — Ward, Patsy Opsal, Nancy Bogue and Joseph Evenson — and seven grandchildren.

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