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“He went to the office every day until he was 84”

“He went to the office every day until he was 84”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Jean-Jacques Herings inspired by Jacques Drèze

It was January 2005 when the Maastricht professors Franz Palm and Jean-Jacques Herings together delivered the laudatory address when Belgian economist Jacques Drèze was awarded his honorary doctorate. “That day was a high point and a low point for me. I was 35 at the time and felt so privileged to be the honorary supervisor for Drèze, the most important Belgian economist of all times. However, I didn’t make it to the party in the evening. My mother had an epileptic fit after which it was diagnosed that she had a brain tumour. She died three months later.”

Herings has known Drèze since 1991. “I did a PhD course with him in The Hague as a PhD student, and years later as a postdoc I did research at the CORE institute, which he set up. We also wrote articles together. What was important for my career, was the fact that he had a hand in my attending Yale. That is playing in the top league for a while. I am still reaping the rewards from that period.”

In the nineteen-eighties, Drèze (85) was a dead certain candidate for the Nobel Prize, says Herings, professor of microeconomics. “That was when he wrote his most influential publications, in the fields of econometrics and microeconomics, disciplines that are miles apart. He wasn’t just a man of theory, but he also had a social conscience, especially where it concerned unemployment. His son inherited this social conscience, because Jean Drèze is a development economist and was instrumental in getting schools to provide children in India with healthy lunches.”

Herings met him again last summer, at a farewell party for a colleague in Paris. “You can see that he is getting older, but he is still sharp as a knife and publishes regularly, in influential journals. Until last year, he still went to the office every day. These days he works at home. Why? Because a student complained about the smoke. The thing is, Drèze smokes a pipe; he can’t work unless he smokes. The institute had turned a blind eye, but felt it necessary to finally enforce the rules.”

Herings also appreciates the man as a human being. “Six weeks after my mother had passed away, there was a mass at the church in Schinveld, the village where I was born. Suddenly I saw someone receiving communion and from the back he looked like Drèze. It was him. He had found out through the secretary’s office where the mass would be and had made his way there. Ten years earlier, when I married, he wrote in a complimentary copy of his new book: ‘I wish for you to have five sons.’ The same number as he has, four sons of his own and one adopted from Korea. The remarkable thing is: I am now the father of four sons. But chances of there being a fifth are rather small.”

This is a series in which scientists talk about the person who inspired them most

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