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MIT. Economics Ph.D. alumnus (1957) Jaroslav Vanek. Obituary, 2017


When I conducted a bit of scholarly due diligence to try to establish the date of a Harvard economics skit I posted a few days ago (the script refers to the fact that Professor Vanek was leaving the Harvard department much to the regret of the skit-writers), I discovered that MIT Ph.D. alumnus, Jaroslav Vanek, passed away last month. Having been raised a comparative economics economist, I was aware of some of his work and post the local obituary that provides some insight into the man and scholar. 


Vanek, Jaroslav
Published in Ithaca Journal on Nov. 18, 2017

Ithaca resident Jaroslav Vanek, 87 years of age, passed away peacefully at Hospicare of Ithaca on Wednesday, November 15, due to the effects of myelodysplasia. He was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on April 20, 1930, to Josef and Jaroslava Vanek. His father worked in the Czech government’s labor ministry. He survived the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Axis forces from 1938 to 1945, and during this time his mother took up beekeeping as a way to make ends meet, which turned into an interest that he would continue in his later years. Other early activities included building a canoe to paddle on the Vltava River that passes through Prague, and time spent at the family’s summer house in the village of Voznice, in the forested hills about 25 miles south of the city.

Jaroslav graduated from the Prague Gymnasium (high school) in 1949, where he was the pole vaulter on the track and field team. Later in life he reconnected with his high school classmates and attended many reunions with them in the Czech Republic in recent years. In September 1949, the family fled for political reasons into Germany, where they at first landed in a refugee camp in Munich, before eventually settling in Geneva and Paris.

The hardships of the Second World War and the communist takeover of Eastern Europe instilled in Jaroslav a lifelong desire to make the world a better place, including at first social justice and eradication of poverty, and later protection of the environment and development of renewable energy. Desire to increase the welfare of ordinary people led to an interest in economics, and he earned a degree in the field from the University of Geneva in 1954. He stayed on in Geneva to work as a professional economist, and while there met Prof. Charles Kindleberger of MIT. In 1955 he left Geneva for Cambridge to pursue a doctorate in economics under Prof. Kindleberger’s supervision, which he earned in 1957. He then taught economics at Harvard University. In 1958 while teaching at Harvard he met Wilda Marraffino of Larchmont, NY, then a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard, and they married on December 26, 1959.

Jaroslav left Harvard for an economics position with the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, in 1963, and then came to Ithaca in 1964 to take a position with the Department of Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell. Upon arrival they rented a house from the late Prof. Herbert Gilman of Cornell’s Veterinary College at 414 Triphammer Road, and later purchased the house. Although he and Wilda traveled widely, they would always call the house, known among family members as either “Triphammer” or “414”, home for the rest of his days and years.

His early work focused on international economics, one notable book being “Maximal Economic Growth” published in 1968. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he turned his attention to labor managed cooperatives as an alternative to mainstream economic models, leading to titles such as “The Participatory Economy: An Evolutionary Hypothesis and a Strategy for Development” in 1971. He was visiting professor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Louvain, Belgium; Wassenaar, Netherlands; and The Hague, Netherlands. These appointments gave his growing family a chance to live and go to school in several foreign countries, which formed an influential part of their upbringing. He also advised the governments of Peru and Turkey during this time.

In 1979 while on his second sabbatical at the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague, he got to know a Bangladeshi graduate student named Shakur who was eager to start a cooperative using solar energy to bake clay building bricks. This encounter sparked Jaroslav’s lifelong interest in appropriate technology combined with cooperatives, as a way to address economic inequality in the world. On his return to Ithaca he started the “Ensol” solar energy cooperative and began involving his family and graduate students in a flurry of low-tech solar inventions ranging from very large inflated parabolic discs, simple parabolas to generate steam power and improving simple one-pot solar oven design.

Jaroslav would also develop prototypes to harness wind and wave power. In 1986, as the work continued and attracted interest from around the world, Jaroslav and Wilda created the S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation not-for-profit (Sustainable Technology and Energy for Vital Economic Needs) to fund continuing research and outreach abroad. Longtime Ithacans may remember the shiny Mylar-lined parabolic solar collectors which were visible in front of their home at 414 Triphammer Rd in the eighties and nineties.

Jaroslav enjoyed physical activity whether building his inventions in the backyard, walking or biking to his office on Cornell campus or summertime swimming in the local parks. In 1988 at 58 years old he biked around Cayuga Lake. His mother had remained in Geneva, Switzerland, and took up beekeeping as she had done during the war, so over the years he would help her when visiting. His children distinctly remember dad loading the family Volkswagen bus within an inch of breaking the rear axle at the Migro supermarket in Geneva with bags of sugar for mixing sugar-water for the beehives. In retirement, he enjoyed pitching in with projects at his daughter Teresa’s farm, notably assisting in beginning the beekeeping operation there and passing the interest to the third and eventually fourth generation. He also helped three local children with building their homes: a straw-bale home for each Teresa and her brother Steven, and a cohousing home for their brother Francis in the Ecovillage at Ithaca Second Neighborhood.

In 1989, forty years after he escaped with his parents, Jaroslav was invited to present at an economic conference in what was still Czechoslovakia – just before the Velvet Revolution. He brought the family along to see his birthplace for the first time. Thankfully he was able to reconnect with many friends and family. In 1992 the rise and fall of communism in Czechoslovakia came full circle and the summer house in Voznice that had been confiscated was returned to Jaroslav and his brothers’ ownership. This sturdy house that bordered on forests and a large swimming pond became a home away from home during annual visits to Czech Republic. Jaroslav and Wilda (and frequently their children and grandchildren) enjoyed bicycling, walking in the nearby forests – sometimes collecting delicious mushrooms and berries — and the cultural riches of Prague. They were fortunate to revive friendships in Czech Republic that continue until this day.

In closing, Jaroslav truly lived the maxim to “do all the good you can, for as long as you can.” He is survived by his wife of 57 years Wilda Vanek, and children and grandchildren: Josef Vanek, MD, surgeon in Uniontown, PA (wife Sue, children Carolyn and Tess); Francis (wife Catherine Johnson, children Ray and Mira), faculty at Cornell University; Rosie (husband Jon Liden), the Global Fund, Geneva, Switzerland; Steven (wife Leia Raphaeledis, children Anais and Jan), faculty at Colorado State University, Fort Collins; and Teresa (husband Brent Welch, children Milan and Luka), co-owner of Bright Raven Farm and Apiary.

A mass of Christian burial will be held at Immaculate Conception Church, 113 N. Geneva St., Ithaca, on Saturday, November 18, 2017 at 11:30 AM. Family will receive friends at the church at 10:45 AM. Burial will take place at Pleasant Grove Cemetery, in Cayuga Heights, following a brief reception after mass.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier