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An account of the day Haas Professor Emeritus Oliver Williamson Won the Nobel Prize in Economics
By Oliver Williamson Jr., son of Professor Williamson
I was supposed to have a driving test on Monday, Oct. 12. Dad took me out in the Prius to practice driving since I hadn’t driven for three years. After we parked, he said that there might be a complication the next day. It was “conceivable there could be a call,” he said, and then proceeded to explain that he had, by his subjective probability, a one-in-four chance of winning the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Normally, I’m on top of these things. Every October, I would be on alert and check the Nobel Foundation website for announcement times for the various prizes, but this time it had somewhat slipped my mind. Maybe it was because my wife?? Anna and I were visiting Berkeley or maybe it was because I had been so busy with work. When Dad told me of the possible “complication,” I sensed that it was going to happen this time. I think he deep down thought so as well, though I could be wrong. Dad then proceeded to instruct me to take “the call” if it came. In fact, I was so determined to take it that I had completely forgotten about Dad’s instructions. I was going to field that call no matter what.
I generally sleep better now than I did a few years ago, and even better still since I stopped drinking coffee. Sunday night was an extreme exception. When I did manage to fall asleep at all, I dreamt heavily about the Nobel Prize. My mind conjured up a fictional character who had won it. I was disappointed that it was not Dad, but then I awoke sometime after midnight and could not fall asleep again.
I rolled over and saw the clock. It was 1:00 a.m., still several hours to go. I glanced at it later. 2:00 a.m. -- still maybe two more hours. 3:00 a.m. OK, maybe only half an hour to go. And right at 3:30 a.m., the phone rang. That 1980s vintage phone is LOUD, but I was ready for it. I ran spritely around from the far side of the bed, thinking, “OK, just let it be a nice, polite, European-sounding voice on the other end!” And I got the phone after only two rings and answered, trying not to sound too anxious and maybe a little tired. A nice, polite, European-sounding female voice on the other end asked, “Good morning. Is this Professor Oliver E. Williamson speaking?” “No. Please hold on just a moment.”
I marched into Mum’s and Dad’s room. Dad was already standing. With a lot of pride, I said, “Dad, I think this is the call!” Dad took the call, as dignified as he always is. He was on the phone at length, and the people on the other end did most of the talking. Dad commented that he was extremely “honored” on more than one occasion as he had to talk to three different people: the secretary, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, and a member of the Nobel Committee. At one point, he said, “I’ll do whatever you tell me to do,” and the Nobel people presumably gave him instructions as to what to do next and what to expect.
When the call finally ended, he did not jump up and down. Instead, he said, “Hey! Hey!” He was completely gratified. I gave him a hug. He said that the announcement would be going out to the international media shortly -- at 4:00 a.m. -- and there would be media mayhem immediately thereafter.
The phone immediately began to ring around 4:00 a.m. Anybody and everybody was trying to call. Every time my father would finish a call and put the receiver down, the phone would ring literally within two seconds. Some of the folks were from other countries; I could plainly hear Spanish. After 40 minutes of non-stop talking, Dad ordered everybody, “Don’t take any more phone calls!” and we just let the answering machine handle everything.
The first reporter showed up at the house at about 5:00 a.m. Others followed. Anna and I retreated upstairs. We didn't come downstairs until hours later, and felt like we were under house arrest. I got on the DMV website and duly cancelled my appointment.
The reporters interviewed Dad in the living room and the family room and took photos of him here and there. Three of them were, not surprisingly, taken by the view from the main balcony and took photos out there.
Dad was soon off to the university for a press conference and other festivities . I stayed home the entire day, but by the looks of it, the Haas School of Business was a festive place. The students at all levels came out en masse to celebrate.
Dad did not get home until about 6:30 p.m. He had been up and heavily engaged for about 15 hours. Even Al Jazeera tried calling Dad at the university, but failed to get him, presumably because he was tied up with the general celebration. The Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, did manage to talk to Dad.
When Dad finally got home, I asked if he was “too done up” to have a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue, but he was ready and willing for that. He seemed in remarkably good condition after such a day, even if he could easily have gone door-to-door from Berkeley to Tokyo during all the time he had been out of the house.
The phone was still ringing as we sat at the dinner table, but it wasn’t as relentless as in the morning. It continued to ring the next day, and Dad received, by his estimate, 500 to 700 emails in two days. As far as I could tell, the news was all over the U.S., South America, and Europe.
Now, things are returning to normal. Dad is extremely gratified, and so are the rest of us. I was thrilled to be there for Dad’s special day.
Oliver Williamson accepts a colleague's congratulations in an early-morning phone call.