By Christine Arrington
They met in Logan at the Brigham Young College (BYC), the small “high school and college” Brigham Young founded in 1877, 23 days before he died. John A. Widtsoe and George Thomas, Jr., were students at the BYC, where Logan High stands now, and Joseph M. Tanner was the school’s principal. The BYC was a kind of combination high school and community college, in contrast to USU (called the Agricultural College of Utah until 1929), which opened 11 years later in 1888 up on the hill in Logan.
After these three friends met, they would find their lives intertwined, and would go on to become giants of learning and leadership. They brought the world’s best economics and law training back home to Utah, from Harvard University starting in 1891 and later from universities at Gottingen, Berlin, and Halle in Germany. From 1894 to 1917 the three of them held key early positions at USU in agricultural economics, general economics, and political economics.
John A. Widtsoe headed the USU agricultural economics experiment station from 1894 (six years after the university’s founding) until 1907, except for two years during which time he sought further education at Harvard. He was then president of USU from 1907 to 1916, and president of the University of Utah from 1916 to 1921.
George Thomas, Jr., was USU’s first professor of economics and head of the Department of Economics and Sociology, which grew from 17 students to more than 500 in about ten years from 1908 to 1917. He then served at the University of Utah as Dean of the School of Commerce and then as president from 1922 until 1944.
Joseph M. Tanner taught political economics at USU from 1896 to 1900, while serving as president of the university.
These “three musketeers” left Cache Valley together in 1891 to study at Harvard University. Widtsoe and Thomas then separately studied economics in Germany, during a time when the “Historical School” of economics in Germany was very influential. The school of “Classical Economics” shaped by Adam Smith’s 1776 “Wealth of Nations” focused on individual self-interest, while the German school held that Smith’s approach “neglected the role of government and the ethical considerations of those leading the nation.” 1 This German school had a “predisposition toward an activist government” and may have held more interest for young men living in Cache Valley, where the United Order communitarian economic system of owning some goods in common and creating cooperative enterprises was practiced, especially during the 1880s.
John A. Widtsoe was born in Norway in 1872 to John and Anna Widtsoe. His father died when he was six, and his widowed mother immigrated to Utah with her two young sons in 1883, when John was 11.
The Thomas family of Welsh immigrants had arrived in Hyde Park not long before 1866 when their son George Thomas was born. After George’s birth, his family moved to settle Benson in western Cache Valley. George did not start school until age 11, when he rode his pony back and forth to Hyde Park each day, four miles away.
When George was 12, his father was disabled in an accident, and George wrote, “In addition to school work, my daily task was in the morning feeding of thirty-five head of cattle, seven head of horses, milking five cows, saddling my pony, eating my breakfast, and getting to school at 9 a.m. Upon returning home, in the evenings, the chores, the same as in the morning, had to be done and lessons prepared for the next day.”
Joseph M. Tanner was born in 1859 in Payson and served as principal of the BYC in Logan from 1887 to 1891.
In 1890, when George Thomas was 24 years old, his father died. Joseph Tanner then proposed that he, Thomas, Widtsoe, and several other smart young men in Cache Valley go together to study at Harvard University. They were the first group from Utah to enroll at Harvard. So in 1891, George Thomas sold the family farm, borrowed money from friends, and went off to Harvard with the small group. Widtsoe was 19 years old, Thomas 25, and Tanner 32. Three years later, in 1894, Widtsoe graduated from Harvard summa cum laude and Tanner earned a law degree. In 1896 Thomas graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. degree.
After Widtsoe served as head of the agricultural economics experiment station at USU, he was sent to Europe to do missionary work and to study at the University of Gottingen, Germany, earning an A.M. Ph.D. in 1899. He returned to USU in 1900, again as director of the agricultural station.
In 1898, Thomas began teaching economics, history, and chemistry at USU. In 1900, he went back to Harvard for further economics studies, and after receiving an A.M. degree in 1901, he went to Europe where he studied at the University of Paris and the universities of Berlin and Halle in Germany, receiving the Ph.D. with highest ranking from Halle in 1903. His dissertation was on the history of customs tariffs and foreign trade transactions of the United States after 1875.
In the ensuing years, Joseph Tanner was president of Utah State for four years and Widtsoe for nine years. Then Widtsoe was president of the University of Utah for six years and Thomas for 21 years. All three beacons of educational excellence remembered fondly their early friendships with each other in Cache Valley, their common aspirations in the 1890s, and their foundation-laying work together in economics at USU.