In Memoriam: John McKenzie Gunn Jr. ’45 The Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Economics Emeritus was 97.
“John had an immense impact on my life and career, and he had a similar effect on the lives of countless other W&L students he taught during his long and distinguished career.”
~ Al Broaddus ’61
John McKenzie Gunn Jr. ’45, the Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Economics Emeritus at Washington and Lee University, died Oct. 16, 2021. He was 97.
“John Gunn had a deep love for this institution, its students, and its alumni,” said President Will Dudley. “Over the years he established a rapport in and out of the classroom with legions of them, and he nurtured those relationships, both personally and professionally, long after they had graduated. Although John’s academic specialty was economics, he was a mentor to students and faculty alike on the university’s Honor System, its core values, its people, and its traditions. We shall be forever grateful to him for his many contributions to the W&L community, and we extend our sincere condolences to his family.”
Al Broaddus ’61, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, noted: “John had an immense impact on my life and career, and he had a similar effect on the lives of countless other W&L students he taught during his long and distinguished career. What began as student-teacher relationships in Newcomb Hall typically evolved to mentoring relationships as his students began their careers and progressed in them, and finally settled into warm, mature personal friendships as they grew older. His passing is a tremendous loss to Washington and Lee and to all of us who have continued to admire and learn from him.”
Born in Pensacola, Florida, on Jan. 16, 1924, Gunn grew up in Georgia and studied at W&L from 1941 to 1942 before enlisting in the Army. While a student, he belonged to the Sigma Chi social fraternity and the honorary societies Beta Gamma Sigma (business) and Omicron Delta Epsilon (economics). He also participated on the forensic team.
He served for three years in World War II, in the European Theater, as a corporal with the 84th Infantry Division. In September 1944, the 84th went ashore at Utah Beach, Normandy, and moved on to occupy the extreme left flank of the Allied Forces’ main front. Later, the 84th played a key role in the Battle of the Bulge, helping to repulse the point of the German offensive. He told the Alumni Magazine in 1993, “I lost 17 classmates in the war. I never go by the War Memorial Gate (the entrance to the University Chapel parking lot) without thinking about them and what we lost.”
Gunn completed his education at Georgia Institute of Technology, earning his B.S. in physics in 1949. He worked as a metallurgist for the U.S. Steel Corp. from 1948 to 1949, and then studied economics at the University of North Carolina (1949–1951) but transferred to Princeton at the urging of Lew Adams, his former W&L professor (and then dean of the Williams School). He earned an M.A. in economics from Princeton University in 1954.
Prior to joining the W&L faculty in 1957 as an assistant professor, Gunn taught economics at Florida State University. In 1993, Gunn was named the Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Economics. He taught international monetary economics and trade, economics and the environment, history of economic thought, human population problems, and the capstone seminar for senior economics majors. He authored two surveys on international finance; published a monograph, “The United States Balance of Payments in 1967”; gave yearly lectures on the state of the U.S.’s balance of payments and nurtured a working relationship between W&L and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Gunn retired in 1994, and over his 37-year career at W&L he earned a reputation as a demanding teacher who delighted in mentoring his students and helping them find a job or apply to graduate school. He said, “What I am is an assistant in learning and in the whole development of young people.”
“John was a legendary figure in the Williams School,” said Dean Rob Straughan. “Between his days as a student, faculty member, and active emeritus faculty member, no one matched his knowledge of its 115-year history. Countless alumni consider John among the most influential individuals during their time as students and in the years since graduation. Similarly, generation after generation of faculty, myself included, benefitted from the oral history handed down by John.”
Linda Hooks, professor of economics and department chair, added, “John embodies for me the spirit of the W&L gentleman. He lived life large, from World War II veteran to W&L professor and mentor to generations of students, to organizer of seminars for the Kendal retirement community. In his last office on campus before he retired, he could look out of his window and see his freshman dorm room. John was a kind and generous person and a role model for me and for many others.”
In addition to his W&L duties, Gunn taught at the Virginia Governor’s School for the Gifted, the Virginia Bankers’ School of Bank Management and Virginia Military Institute’s summer school. He also lectured for W&L’s Alumni College. He belonged to the American Economic Association, the Royal Economic Society, and the Southern Economic Association.
In 2000, Alfred Harrison, an exchange student during Gunn’s first year at W&L, established The John M. Gunn International Scholarship that brings international students of exceptional academic, personal and professional promise to W&L to study for one year. In addition to the international scholarship, Gunn has inspired several other significant gifts. An endowment that supports an economics award in his name was established by former students shortly after his retirement, and another supports new course development, curriculum innovation and faculty professional development in the Williams School. On the occasion of his 50th reunion, a member of the Class of 1969 established the John M. Gunn Endowment for Student Learning and Engagement.
Of personal importance to Gunn was his advocacy of better mental health care and research. His son John took his own life after suffering for many years with schizophrenia, leading Gunn to establish the Rockbridge Chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill. He went on to serve on the board of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and testified before the House Committee on Ways and Means about an appropriations bill for the National Institute of Mental Health. He also served on the member advisory committees at Harvard’s Brain Tissue Resource Center and on American University’s master’s program in international law. In Lexington, he served as president of the PTA and was a lifelong member of the local Democratic party, which elected him vice president emeritus days before his death. He also co-founded the Lexington Lacrosse Club.
A year before he retired, Gunn wrote about whom he’d like to meet after his death. “First, as I walk through the pearly gates (I hope that does not make an unwarranted assumption) I would like Mozart himself to be playing one of the great piano concerti, with a heavenly orchestra — I don’t expect to have much conversation with him, but I would like just the opportunity to say, ‘Thank you,’ while Karl Marx is rushing up to me, calling, ‘John, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you. Let’s talk.’ Then, as soon as I talk him out of that rigidly deterministic view of human nature, we could have some really good conversation.”
Gunn, who is predeceased by his wife Charlotte (2014) and son John (1986), is survived by his son David Gunn Mecsas, daughter-in-law Joan Mecsas, and granddaughter Gwendolyn Lee Mecsas.
A memorial service will be held in Lexington on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 2 p.m. in University Chapel, with a reception to follow in Evans Dining Hall. For those who wish, donations may be made to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill or the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council.