Rich Aronson

J. Richard Aronson in his office at Lehigh in 1984. 

Remembering J. Richard Aronson, Creator and Former Director of the Martindale Center

In his 50-plus-year career at Lehigh, he was believed to have taught more students than any other professor at the university.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

J. Richard Aronson, the founder and former longtime director of the Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise and the former William L. Clayton professor of Business and Economics at Lehigh, passed away Jan. 15, 2023.

In his 50-plus-year career at Lehigh, Aronson was believed to have taught more students than any other professor at the university—an estimated 20,000 students. He also influenced the lives of hundreds of Martindale Student Associates who benefited from life-changing trips to countries that included Slovenia, Colombia, Greece and Argentina.

“It’s hard to overstate how much Rich meant to Lehigh and his students, colleagues and friends,” said Todd Watkins, executive director of the Martindale Center who succeeded Aronson after he retired from Lehigh in 2015. “Since word got out about his passing, literally hundreds have reached out to us here at the Martindale Center … to express condolences certainly, but even more to share stories of how Rich had so affected their lives, and their honor and joy of having known him.” 

One person offering condolences described him perfectly, Watkins said, invoking a word that the writer said Aronson might have used but not about himself–mensch. “Indeed he was, in every way: honor, integrity, kindness, true compassion for those around him, and always with that wonderful twinkle in his eyes that we all knew,” Watkins said. “He clearly enjoyed every moment and every interaction in his life.”

As a teacher and mentor, Aronson was extraordinarily well liked yet challenging in the classroom. He was a widely published scholar with a passion for his discipline, as well as a groundbreaking educator who, with the Martindale Student Associates program, embraced experiential undergraduate research with deep global engagement long before global and experiential learning “were even things” on university campuses, Watkins said. 

He lit up every classroom he stood in front of, with a sense of humor and the ability to make you consider new ways of thinking about how economies work and interact with one another

Elizabeth (Humphreys) Beatty '84 ’16P

It was Aronson who had long ago invited the Marching 97 into his Eco 1 class, starting the still-continuing tradition of the band coming into classrooms before the Lehigh-Lafayette Rivalry. 

“He helped students find their interests and themselves and jobs, and even some find spouses,’” Watkins said. “He could tell a fun story about, well, anything.” 

Aronson’s most lasting legacy, family and colleagues say, was his work in starting the Martindale Center in 1980, his directorship of that program until 2015, and his continued connection to Martindale alumni. 

Aronson in Greece

Aronson on a Martindale research trip to Greece

To date, more than 400 students have graduated from the program and have had the opportunity to research global topics, explore countries and publish research articles about central challenges in those countries. His vision in building the program equips students to reach beyond what they think possible by giving them the confidence and opportunity to interact with leading experts around the world. 

“He lit up every classroom he stood in front of, with a sense of humor and the ability to make you consider new ways of thinking about how economies work and interact with one another,” Elizabeth (Humphreys) Beatty '84 ’16P, a Martindale Honors graduate, posted on Instagram.

Patrick Brophy '87, also a Martindale Honors graduate, posted that Aronson “touched the hearts and minds of so many in deeply positive and lasting ways.” He wrote, “The exceptionally thoughtful, caring love you had for your students, and the delight you showed in teaching us, along with your voice and warm smile, will stay with me for all of my days.”

During his tenure, Aronson received four teaching awards: the Lehigh University Award in 1968 for distinguished teaching by a junior faculty member; the Stabler Award in 1974 for demonstrating mastery of his field and superior ability in communicating it to others; the Deming Lewis Faculty Award in 1984, given by the Class of 1974 to the faculty member who most significantly influenced their educational experience; and the Beta Gamma Sigma Award presented by the Business Honorary Society. He also received the Hillman Award for service to the university and the Libsch Award for research.

“My theory has always been that you can’t teach anybody anything,” Aronson had said in reflecting on his career before retiring. “What you can do is inspire people to learn, because they’re going to have to learn it on their own sooner or later.”

He loved organizing faculty and student activities outside of the classroom too.  He and his wife, Judy, served as the first residential headmasters of Taylor House. Taylor Residential College provided cultural experiences to 160 students each academic year.  

Aronson had arrived at Lehigh in 1965 to teach economics, when the City of Bethlehem was so gritty because of a thriving steel industry. He figured he’d stay a year and move on, but finding Lehigh so welcoming, he stayed for five decades. 

“I feel very fortunate in having come to Lehigh,” Aronson had said in reflecting on his career. “Lehigh offered me quite a wonderful life.”

Aronson received his undergraduate degree from Clark University and his master’s degree at Stanford University. He returned to Clark to receive his doctorate. He was originally a chemistry, then math major at Clark before he became interested in economics. He believed he could utilize economics to improve and understand the world still living in the throes of a post-depression and post-war state.

According to WorldCat.org, Aronson is published in 209 publications, in three languages, and 5,279 library holdings.  He was a two-time Fulbright scholar and was also an honorary professor of economics at the University of York, Heslington, England. 

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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