Remembering Dale Mortensen '61

by University Communications,

Our community mourns the passing of Dale Mortensen ’61, who died this morning at the age of 74, surrounded by his family.

Nobel laureate, renowned scholar, educator and committed alumnus, he embodied the values of this university.

“Dale Mortensen epitomizes the merits of liberal arts education,” President Steve Thorsett said. “At Willamette, he discovered his passion for economics and, over the course of his life, he was able to expand and profoundly influence our collective knowledge.

"He sought – and found – a singular life, one of achievement, contribution and meaning, and he expressed gratitude for the early help he received by helping others in need.”

Lessons from Willamette

Mortensen graduated from Willamette with a bachelor’s degree in economics and math. He served as a senior class president who participated in theater, Beta Theta Pi and Young Democrats. He also worked as a page in the Oregon Legislature.

His mentor was economics professor Richard Gillis, a memorable campus figure to many.

“He encouraged me in every step of my journey,” Mortensen said. “He pointed me toward economics study that I could do beyond the regular coursework, and he wrote recommendation letters when I applied for graduate school.”

After earning his doctorate in economics from Carnegie Mellon University, Mortensen joined the economics faculty at Northwestern University in 1965. There, he helped students expand their own potentials — just as he had done working with Gillis and others at Willamette.

"I tell students to do what you do because you’re interested in it,” he said. “Find where you can contribute, because that’s what you’re going to enjoy.”

Nobel Prize Winner

Later in life, Mortensen helped pioneer a new approach to studying important economic problems.

Now known as search theory, Mortensen’s approach helps explain why people remain unemployed despite many job vacancies. The model can be used to estimate how unemployment benefits, interest rates, the efficiency of employment agencies and other factors affect the job market.

Together with Peter Diamond, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christopher Pissarides, professor at the London School of Economics, Mortensen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2010.

“In the future, there’s no doubt that the world is going to be led by those who have a good, solid education,” Mortensen said at the time. “A general education is extremely important because the world is changing so fast. A narrow vocational background is risky and limited simply because that particular occupation may disappear within a lifetime.”

Giving Back to his Alma Mater

To help more young people access a higher education, Mortensen joined the class of 1961 to raise money for scholarships. Together, they bestowed a gift totaling nearly $1 million at their 50th anniversary class reunion.

At the time, Mortensen explained, “I was the beneficiary of a very generous scholarship. I think that’s a good way for people who have succeeded to contribute.”

Mortensen later reinforced his commitment to scholarships by choosing to endow the Mortensen Scholars Fund, through which an economics major will receive a full scholarship every year in perpetuity.

“A liberal arts college trains people to be both literate and analytical, and that’s the best training you can have for the future,” Mortensen said. “I think Willamette is an excellent place for an undergraduate to become intellectually mature. It did well by me.”

Private services for the family will take place at Memorial Park in Skokie, Ill. A public memorial will be announced at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, Mortensen and his family request contributions to the scholarship fund. Online gifts can be made at Any gift made in honor of Mortensen or with the designation “Mortensen Scholars Fund” will go toward the scholarship.

Interested parties may also mail donations to the attention of Stephen Brier, associate vice president for development, 900 State Street, Salem, OR 97301. Brier can also be reached at 503-370-6022.

More about Mortensen

Learn more about Mortensen's work and his Nobel Prize through reading these other stories: