Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010
George Hoffer did not teach any classes this summer. He retired in June after 40 years in the economics department at VCU and cleaned out his office in July, removing the dazzling collection of memorabilia – model trains and planes, matchbox cars, old posters and advertisements – that had lined shelves, embellished walls and hung from the ceiling. For a couple of weeks, there were only a few papers arranged in piles on his desk. Outside his door, Snead Hall seemed drowsy.
And yet he kept returning to that office every day, working as he always has. He answered the phone that his colleague David Harless has said “is always ringing,” and he kept his door open so passersby might feel welcome to stick their heads in and chat about whatever was on their minds. Visitors were met with Hoffer’s reliable courtesy, gaining his full attention as he swiveled in his chair to face them. He nodded enthusiastically, almost bowing, in greeting, asking in his affable Southern accent, “How are you doing?”
Even after his phone went dead at the end of July, he came back, visiting the Snead Hall computer lab to send e-mails and keep up with the many people who like to talk over things with him.
“I couldn’t stay away,” said Hoffer, now a professor emeritus of economics.
Hoffer, a renowned transportation economics expert, has demonstrated this summer that when you apply the brakes to a vehicle that has a great deal of momentum the actual stopping can take a while.
During the course of his VCU career, Hoffer taught approximately 16,000 students. He taught multiple classes every semester, never skipping a fall, spring or summer or taking a sabbatical. He also never missed a single day for illness, aided in part by the timing of a 1980s case of pneumonia, which struck during spring break. He’s been a steady producer of original and important research, a widely quoted expert in the media and an active member of the Richmond community.
“He’s one of the few people who truly excel in all three of a professor’s duties – teaching, research and service,” said Edward Millner, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Economics, who has been Hoffer’s colleague for more than 25 years. “He’s done it all here.”
Hoffer said he decided to retire at 68 because he figured “realistically that it was time. It’s time to make room for the young.” However, he will not give up teaching completely – he starts as an instructor at the University of Richmond in the fall.
Hoffer, in his typical self-deprecating manner, said his career has all been a case of arrested development. Unable to relinquish the rhythms and interests of school, he simply never let go.
In his mind, his academic career represents a continued exploration of the same fancies that won his imagination when he was a boy in Richmond in the late 1940s and 1950s. Sixty years ago, Hoffer could be found on any given day testing himself on the makes and models of the cars that rolled down the street. In similar fashion, Hoffer has been a familiar sight on the VCU campus and in its vicinity, hustling through a daily walk while he surveys the sidewalk for neglected change and names the makes and models of the vehicles that he passes.
“I am a boy that never grew up,” he said.
Hoffer was raised in Richmond. His father ran a general store first in Jackson Ward and then in Laurel, providing Hoffer with some early lessons in economics. As a kid, Hoffer often took the bus from the family’s home in Laurel to the Downtown YMCA, playing there before walking over to Broad Street to peruse the lots of the 28 auto dealers that lined the way (he still has a diagram of their locations).
After graduating from Douglas Freeman High School, Hoffer attended the University of Richmond and worked two jobs during college – at an A&P grocery store and at Thalhimers department store. “I’ve always had empathy for my students who worked because I know what that’s like,” he said. Following graduation, he received a master’s degree at Virginia Tech, teaching mathematics while there, and then continued his studies at the University of Virginia, where he received his doctorate in economics.
Hoffer joined the economics department at VCU in the fall of 1970. He knew from the start that VCU would be an agreeable long-term home. The institution was a great fit, and he loved being back in Richmond, a city that he knew intuitively.
Hoffer views his knowledge of the city as a distinct advantage in his teaching and research. He uses Richmond as a recurring character in class, clarifying lessons for students with what surrounds them, and the city serves as a petri dish for his research, enabling him to observe the real-world implications of the ideas that capture him. He has haunted the area’s auto dealers, airports and train stations, watching trends develop and noting the apparently trifling details that amount to something significant.
“I’ve always thought that there’s value in being narrow but deep,” Hoffer said. “If you know the history, you can use a little bit of economic common sense to put things in perspective.”
It is Hoffer’s depth of knowledge about local interests and the transportation industry – his historical, encompassing knowledge – that has made him a favorite with the press.
“He’s very popular with reporters because whatever the topic is he can explain it,” Harless said. “He can give the background and explain exactly why something is the way it is. And he can always relate it to something else.”
Hoffer realized in graduate school that the automobile industry was fertile ground for research. He saw an industry with broad public interest that was unique and always changing, especially with the dawn of heightened automobile regulation in the 1960s. And he was delighted to discover that he could transform his childhood interest into a professional one.
“I can’t do anything mechanical and because I can’t do anything mechanical I respect mechanical equipment,” Hoffer said. “I’ve just always had this fascination with mechanical transportation equipment – airplanes, cars, trains. It started when I was a little boy – four or five – and got my first toy trucks.”
His auto research over the years has occasionally been controversial and led to insults from those steering the apple carts that he has upset. For a light sleeper like Hoffer, it has not always been pleasant. However, he has also reveled in the experience of pursuing an unconventional hypothesis to a conclusion that is revelatory for the industry, such as the research he did in the 1990s with VCU colleagues Millner and Steven Peterson that showed that the addition of airbags to vehicles had not improved auto safety because the feature led drivers to feel more safe and therefore to drive with less care.
Harless said that Hoffer is a dogged researcher capable of tracking down just about any data source that can be imagined -- “he loves finding this stuff,” Harless said. Some of Hoffer’s practices are fast becoming anachronisms in technology-fueled academia, including his habits of writing research papers first in longhand and editing his copy with scissors.
Millner said that Hoffer often shows generosity in his research choices, making a point of partnering with less-experienced, younger colleagues to bolster their publishing record. He said Hoffer also steadfastly looks to distribute credit for the research evenly among co-authors.
“He would come to us,” Millner said. “Much of the time he didn’t really need our help but he was doing what he could to help us establish ourselves and get published because he knew that was important for getting tenure.”
Millner said it is an example of Hoffer’s consistent devotion to the VCU School of Business and his colleagues. Hoffer even once volunteered to teach an extra class for free. “Nobody does that stuff,” Millner said.
“I love the guy,” he said. “He has always done whatever he thinks is best for the university, the business school and the department.”
From 1988 to 2005, Hoffer was a frequent airline traveler in the southeast, largely on Delta, lecturing in General Motors plants. Whenever he walked down the aisle toward his seat, he wondered if a former student would be on board to greet him. More than half of the time, he guesses, someone would say hello. It is the same when he goes to a restaurant to eat. Invariably, a former student stops by with a polite greeting.
The sheer volume of students that Hoffer has taught at VCU only offers a partial explanation. Equally as important is that students who take his course do not forget him.
“He is the most memorable professor that a lot of the students have here,” Harless said. “He taught a great class. And it’s a very important class: teaching the fundamentals of microeconomics to undergraduates.”
Hoffer kept his lectures lively with concrete, contemporary examples that were pulled from the news. Often, he used his vast knowledge of Richmond’s business history to involve students in a discussion that made the day’s lesson accessible and fresh, discussing area fast food restaurants or the entry of a new grocer into the Richmond market. Harless said Hoffer also carried the talents of a “thespian” to the classroom. Millner agreed.
“Yes, he’s a little quirky up there, a bit of a showman,” Millner said with a laugh. “But he also shows students how economics works. He understands that the real joy of economics is the ability to predict and explain actual behavior in the real world. Students walk away saying he’s the best teacher they’ve ever had.”
Sometimes, Hoffer used his personal practices to illustrate to students the way economics infuses daily decision-making. For instance, he never has his ties cleaned because he only buys cheap ones and a cleaning would cost more than buying a new one. Or he shaves at night to save time in the morning when his time is more valuable. Or he always orders the cheapest thing on the menu that he might like because part of the cost of going to a restaurant is the ambience and the cost of ambience is the same for every item.
“So much of what I try to teach them I don’t test them on and often that’s what they remember,” Hoffer said. “There are certain economic principles that will take you very far in life.”
However, students who mistook Hoffer’s charm and humor for an easygoing approach to education sometimes found themselves with a failing grade, especially if that inference inspired them to skip class.
“I’ve always required them to come to class and my logic has always been that somebody’s good money is paying for this, whether it’s the taxpayer or their parents,” Hoffer said. “When you’re 18 to 20 years old, you can be very irresponsible sometimes. If you can’t maintain that minimal responsibility of attending class, then there’s no reason you should pass the course. I’ve always felt that I’m somewhat of a surrogate parent to the extent that as a taxpayer I’m paying for this.”
Hoffer largely has taught large economics courses to undergraduates during his career. He said without cracking a smile that the reason for this was that he is “not a deep thinker” and he would not have been at home teaching graduate courses. Also, though, he prefers the big lecture setting and working with students green to the subject of economics.
“I feel that the commonwealth pays me first to be a teacher and so therefore the more students I have the more I go home at night satisfied that I have earned my dollar,” Hoffer said. “I seek out as many students as I can get.”
Hoffer’s open office door has been a hallmark of his time at VCU, encouraging students and colleagues to stop by and chat. It’s a safe bet that he will have an opinion on whatever topic arises, that it will be based on careful thought and certain economic principles and that he will discuss it in an unfailingly polite, though direct, fashion.
“I always kept my door open because psychologically I always thought of it as part of my nine-to-five job,” Hoffer said. “I would do stuff at night that was low priority and that would free the day to sit here and entertain students.”
Hoffer has followed the careers and successes of many of his former students. He notes, for instance, that Snead Hall, the home of the School of Business, is named after two of his first students, Tom and Vickie Snead, who each received an “A” in his course. Hoffer marvels at the increasing influence of VCU graduates throughout the state and says that “you take pride as you see them go through their careers.”
Hoffer, teacher of 16,000 students over four decades, can take a bit more pride than most.
“It’s been a great run,” Hoffer said.