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Community remembers life of Timothy Fuerst

| Friday, February 24, 2017

Timothy Fuerst loved to whistle.

It was just one way Fuerst, the William and Dorothy O’Neill professor of economics, showed his contagious zeal for life, senior Faisal Shariff said.

“It was the way he expressed himself and it was a way that he showed his enthusiasm,” he said. “It was a really nice way to start the day. To walk into lecture and have him whistling — it brought your spirits up.”

Fuerst died Tuesday at the age of 54 after a 10-month battle with stomach cancer. William Evans, Keough-Hesburgh professor and department chair of economics, said when he was first diagnosed, a group of Fuerst’s students put together a video of various community members whistling in support of him, a testament to how much they cared about their professor.

“I remember when he was first diagnosed: a couple of undergraduates went around and put this video together of people whistling for him to try to make him feel better,” he said. “ … He was one of our most successful teachers. Students enjoyed his class. Part of it was he was just enthusiastic about economics, he was enthusiastic about teaching and his spirit was infectious.”

Evans said Fuerst made a lasting impact in the economics department during his five years at Notre Dame through his enthusiasm for and commitment to the University’s mission.

“He was just a really great friend here in the department,” Evans said. “He was only here for a short time, but he cared about the mission, he cared about economics, he cared about the students. He’s what you want in a faculty member — someone who wants to invest in the institution, make it a better place and help just make Notre Dame able to fulfill its mission here in the world.”

Despite being a “wonderful economist” and a “pioneer” in his field, Joseph Kaboski, the David F. and Erin M. Seng Foundation professor of economics, said Fuerst’s devotion to his family — he and his wife had four kids — and his Catholic faith largely shaped his career path, rather than any personal ambition.

“He kind of gave up this elite academic track to go teach at Bowling Green [State University], which is a liberal arts college, to be closer to his family, closer to [his wife] Toni’s family,” Kaboski said. “That kind of exemplifies his sense of values. He didn’t value praise or accomplishment for his own sake. He did research because he enjoyed it. He thought it was important. He was very humble.”

After spending 19 years as an economics professor at Bowling Green, Fuerst was eventually attracted to Notre Dame due to his commitment to his faith, Evans said.

“Tim really wanted to be on campus because of the Catholic mission,” he said. “The faith is very important to him and his family. We were trying to do something different here at the University — and especially in economics — to be an important research institution where Catholic faith informs everything we do. I thought that was really important for Tim, and I think it’s the only reason that he would come here.”

Fuerst’s addition to the economics department opened a whole new field of research to the University due to his forward-thinking work, Evans said.

“Tim was a very highly regarded economist,” he said. “He’s a macroeconomist — a lot of his work is theoretical — and he’s had a number of important papers. One of which got a lot of attention was about how financial frictions can make recessions a lot worse, which then was kind of revealed in the Great Recession.”

Fuerst’s talent for economics was reflected in the challenging nature of his classes. Senior John Gadient said a class he took in his freshman year that Fuerst taught remains the most difficult, yet rewarding, class he has ever taken.

“He was tough,” Gadient said. “He was one of those teachers that wanted to make sure you knew what you doing, and you had to know it very well. … I still think his class — it was principles of macroeconomics, so it was freshman-level economics course — was by far the hardest class I’ve ever taken. But also, because of him, I understand that material a lot better than I think I ever would in any other context.”

Senior Grant Hagstrom said Fuerst’s classes were so fulfilling because his enthusiasm and total willingness to help his students however possible made the material much easier to understand.

“He was definitely, without a doubt, the best professor I’ve ever had, just in terms of his energy,” Hagstrom said. “He was always so happy to be there. You could tell he really enjoyed teaching, that he wasn’t just here to study economics [and] that he actually cared about his students. … [With] his teaching style, he was really able to help students really understand the material, and he had such a good attitude and positive disposition that it made the class really enjoyable.”

Senior Kate Trankina said this passion encouraged her to become more involved in the economics program.

“I’m in the financial [economics] concentration and he is probably the driving force behind that, so he has definitively strongly impacted the curriculum that I’ve had and made it way more applicable to real world,” she said. “He pushed very hard so that all of his students would get the most useful education and the most in-depth that we could. He’s definitely been a very important professor in both the actual content that I learned and the passion that I have for economics.”

For Fuerst, this education extended beyond the economics classroom, Sharriff said.

“It was clear that he cared about the world,” he said. “He taught me macroeconomics in a large lecture hall, but he used to talk about inequality in the world and issues in the third world, and I really believe that he … represented what was good about Notre Dame in the social justice and educating the mind, body and soul, and really trying to use your education for the greater good.”

Kaboski said this attitude extended into every aspect of Fuerst’s life.

“He and his wife are just the most giving, loving, kind people you could imagine,” he said. “He was a guy who walked the walk … he was an example of what a good life and a good person looked like. He made you wish and want to be a better person.”

Even after receiving his diagnosis, Fuerst continued teaching after taking the end of the 2016 spring semester off. Trankina said his goodbye to the seniors that semester was a perfect example of Fuerst’s effort to connect with each of his students personally.

“He said a personal goodbye to all the seniors,” she said. “It wasn’t me at the time, but [he said] a personal goodbye to all of them, and it was just very special to see how much he cared about each of us individually. You could tell he was sick — and I think it was his first time to come back to a classroom — but he did it so he could say goodbye to all of them.”

Evans said Fuerst stayed positive in spite of his “grim” diagnosis.

“Even in the face of that he still had a smile, he still was positive,” he said. “He had this great top-10 list — something like the 10 best things about having cancer — and it was pretty funny. To be able to sort of have that kind of attitude even in the face of death is pretty [amazing].”

The number of people who rallied to support Fuerst inspired part of his positivity, Evans said. A short time after Fuerst was diagnosed, a movement started in which people would pray to Blessed Basil Moreau to intercede and perform a miracle on Fuerst’s behalf.

“Tim needed a miracle and Blessed Basil Moreau needs another miracle for canonization,” Evans said. “ … The best part about it was how many names were on this list [of people praying] at the end of it, and how many people took up this charge. So that was pretty special. And it says something special about Notre Dame, and it says something special about Tim.”

Despite the advanced stage of his cancer, Fuerst remained determined to fight his disease, outliving his original prognosis by four months. Hagstrom said Fuerst’s strength when he returned to campus in the fall revealed a whole new side of the professor and served as an inspiration to the students he taught while he was going through treatment.

“That’s when his character really started to show,” Hagstrom said. “At the beginning of the semester, he kind of said, ‘I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room — I have stage four cancer.’ I’ll never forget, he looked at the class and he said, ‘I would not have started this class if I didn’t have every intent to finish it.’ And I saw that throughout the semester. … Words can’t even describe how much he really impacted, I think, all of us in his class — to see him be going through so much and still caring so much about the students and the University.”

While Fuerst’s treatments caused him to become weaker and teach from a chair some days, Trankina said his “goofy” demeanor, characterized by “corny economics jokes,” remained the same during class.

“The crazy thing is you couldn’t actually see the pain he was in,” she said. “You could tell that he was tired because he moved slower, but his facial expressions, his intonations — nothing changed. I had him the semester before and the semester he was sick, and I saw very little difference in the way he treated his students, the way he held himself and the way he taught. There was really no change, which was probably the most impressive thing.”

Graduate student Ron Mau, who studied under Fuerst, said this commitment stemmed from Fuerst’s love for his work.

“Tim is someone who loved what he did, more so than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Mau said. “Multiple economists around the country have told me Tim’s the happiest economist they’d ever met and loved the work more than anybody. He provided a great lesson in lov[ing] what you do, and do it with a passion, [and] as an instructor and mentor he had a certain patience that’s hard to find.”

Mau said he hopes to emulate Fuerst’s giving nature as a teacher in his future career.

“I hope that throughout my career I can remember him,” he said. “He’s way smarter than I ever will be, and he still had a willingness to help everyone and try to walk through an understanding of people’s research … and I hope that for my career I can remember that and always just have a positive attitude towards helping people accomplish their goals.”

Gadient said he, for one, will always remember Fuerst, who had an article entitled “Why I mourn the decline of whistling” taped to his office door, when he hears someone whistle from now on.

“He was a very loud whistler, and it carried, so you heard it through the entire building, so you knew he was there,” Gadient said. “It was always a very upbeat tune and it just made you a little bit happier. … He’d just walk around campus whistling all day, and I remember talking to him about it, and he said, ‘I wish people would whistle more.’”

Funeral Services will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Friday in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, who recently wrapped up her year as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

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