Dr. V. Orval Watts: Champion of The Northwood Idea

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Dr. V. Orval Watts was born in Manitoba, Canada on March 25, 1898 and died on March 30, 1993 in Palm Springs, California. Watts graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1918 and went on to earn his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Economics from Harvard University. 

Watts first and foremost was an outstanding teacher.  He taught for more than six decades, starting at Gilbert Plains High School in Ontario, Canada.  He then held appointments at Clark University, Harvard University, Wellesley College, Antioch College, Carlton College, Claremont Men’s College, Pepperdine University, Campbell College, and Northwood University.  Watts served as director of economic education and chair of the division of social studies at Northwood University from 1963 to his retirement in 1984.  Upon his retirement, Watts became the first to hold the title Professor Emeritus of Northwood University.

Watts was a prolific writer and contributed regularly to publications ranging from Christian Economics to The Freeman and National Review.  He also authored numerous books including Why Are We So Prosperous? (1938), Do We Want Free Enterprise? (1944), Away from Freedom (1952), Union Monopoly (1954), United Nations: Planned Tyranny (1955), Free Markets or Famine (1967), and Politics versus Prosperity (1976).

In addition to his stellar academic career, Watts was one of the leading free market thinkers of the pre-World War II, World War II, and post-World War II eras.  Watts was the first chief economist of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, at the time the largest municipal organization in the world.  Watts, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce executive director, Leonard Read, and board members like William C. Mullendore (Chairman, Southern California Edison Corporation) molded the LA Chamber into a beacon of free enterprise thought and action for business throughout the United States and around the world.

In 1946, Leonard Read made a bold decision giving up his position with the Los Angeles Chamber moving to Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York, to establish the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).  Read took Watts with him to be FEE’s first director of Economic Education and Research. Almost from inception, FEE became known nationally and internationally as America’s leading free market think tank.  Many of the world’s most impactful and well-known free market scholars worked with Dr. Watts at FEE in the 1940s and 50s.  Among them were luminaries like F.A. Harper and Ludwig von Mises as well as Nobel Prize winning economists Milton Friedman, Fredrich von Hayek, and George Stigler.  He was also a close friend to many notable and influential thinkers and writers, including Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who not only advised and periodically collaborated with her mother in the writing of the Little House on the Prairie book series, but also emerged to prominence as one of the founding mothers of the American libertarian movement.

In 1947, Watts, Hayek, and 37 other scholars founded the world-renowned Mont Pelerin Society to combat the global movement toward greater government intervention in the economy in the post-World War II era.

Watts was a champion of capitalism and ethical business, ideas which would later form the cornerstone of what we call “The Northwood Idea.”  He believed in private ownership and control of the means of production.  He believed that entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs acting in their own self-interest, and that of their customers, would satisfy consumer needs, maximize job creation, and improve standards of living through their risk-taking at a pace far superior to anything a government planned system can devise.  Watts believed in a strong, efficient, and limited government that would protect its people against foreign and domestic peace-breakers while encouraging a productive and diverse business sector.  Watts believed in a free, moral, and competitive marketplace in which government understood and defended the importance of business, individual property rights, and the rule of law.

Orval Watts (standing at far left)

Orval Watts
(standing at far left)

We are fortunate that Dr. Watts taught at Northwood University, as his influence on our co-founders, Drs. Turner and Stauffer resulted in our unique mission and philosophy: The Northwood Idea.  Almost all Northwood graduates either studied under Dr. Watts, were taught by those he mentored, and/or have read his writings.  This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of his writing of “The Northwood Idea” essay and the 50th anniversary of his hiring.

Watts’s life and career included many points of pride, but one we believe he would be most proud of today is the more than 50,000 Northwood graduates who are influenced by his ideas long after his death.  We believe he is smiling down from heaven at the fact that approximately 34 percent of Northwood graduates own some or all of their own business.  He is certainly proud of the tens of thousands of successful Northwood grads whose personal and professional lives are directed by The Northwood Idea, including entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs like Tammy, John, and Jamie Darvish (all officers of the DARCARS Automotive Group); Dan DeVos (President & CEO, DP Fox Holdings and President & CEO, Orlando Magic); Dick DeVos (retired President & CEO, Amway Corporation/Alticor and currently President & CEO, Windquest Group); John Hantz (CEO, The Hantz Group); Jimmy Koons (President & CEO, Koons Automotive Group); Ed McBrien (President, Sales & Distribution Operations, Miller-Coors Brewing Company); Bob Rossiter (retired Chairman & CEO, Lear Corporation); and John Washbish (President & CEO, Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, Incorporated); and creative leaders who have excelled in areas outside traditional business, such as Kyle Clement (member of 2006 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers); Carol Gist (Miss USA); Jon Montgomery (Olympic gold medalist); and Deborah Renshaw Parker (retired NASCAR driver).

Northwood graduates lead and/or own numerous businesses across the United States and around the world.  It is not an understatement to say if we added up the total contribution to global GDP by Northwood graduates, the “Northwood Segment” would certainly be ranked among the top 100 economies of the world—and that is what’s most special about The Northwood Idea and its author, Dr. V. Orval Watts.

- Dr. Keith A. Pretty and Dr. Timothy G. Nash