Professor led the Economics Department during its ‘golden age’

Merton Peck, a devoted teacher who chaired the Economics Department during its “golden age,” died in Florida on March 1. He was 87 years old.

A respected scholar and administrator, Peck came to Yale as an economics professor in 1963 and served as chair of the Economics Department for several terms in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His former colleagues remember him for his kind and patient nature and ability to foster compromise during his lengthy tenure. In addition to recruiting many prominent economists to his department, Peck strengthened the faculty by keeping peace and oversaw a period of growth in the department, said Richard Nelson GRD ’56, a former economics professor.

“One of the reasons he stayed in the chair [position] for so long is because he was able to push the department upward and avoided conflict,” said Gustav Ranis GRD ’56, a economics professor. “He didn’t have any enemies.”

When disputes arose in the department, Peck listened to both sides and gently brought arguments to a resolution, Ranis said. He frequently met with faculty individually and ensured that all professors felt their voices were heard, Ranis said, adding that nobody in the department was ever upset under Peck’s leadership.

William Brainard GRD ’63 said Peck was respected among colleagues for the care and attention he devoted to teaching economics. His undergraduate seminars, Brainard said, were often so popular that he had to teach more than one section of the same course.

“He embodied many of the characteristics a professor should strive for, in being both a great scholar and giving a lot to Yale in terms of leadership,” economics professor Joseph Altonji ’75 said.

Brainard said Peck’s congenial personality and clarity of thought made him a sought-after adviser. Altonji, who worked for Peck as a research assistant and took one of his undergraduate courses, said Peck was influential in his decision to pursue a doctorate in economics and, later, to become a professor.

An expert in the economics of technology, Peck specialized in industrial organization and government regulation, producing books and papers that touched on numerous disciplines, including defense, communications and transportation. He served as a member of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “Brain Trust” and on former President Lyndon Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisors in the 1960s.

Peck earned his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College in the 1940s, during which time he met his wife, Mary Bosworth Peck, who died in 2004. The couple married in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1949, the year of Peck’s graduation from college. He went on to receive a doctorate in economics from Harvard.

During World War II, Peck served in the Signal Corps in Japan. His service abroad launched a lifelong interest in Japan that led to his later academic interest in the country and technology as an industry, said his son Richard.

Throughout his life, Peck remained modest about his intellectual and administrative achievements, Richard said. Outside of academics, Richard said Peck, who retired in 2002, cultivated a love of reading and jazz music.

Peck is survived by his children, Richard, Katherine, Sarah and David, and four grandchildren.

This article was updated to reflect the  version published in print March 25.

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