Robert E. Will


Will, Robert E., age 95, Educator, Community Builder, Humorist, and Family Man, peacefully passed away Sunday, June 25, 2023, surrounded by love and family. Bob was a gentleman and a scholar with a life rooted in service. His life was a model of how to live one’s vocation and commitment to others. Bob taught Economics at Carleton College for 36 years, joyfully scratching supply and demand charts out on the blackboard, bringing the subject to life. He encouraged generations of students to appreciate the value of liberal arts in their everyday lives. Upon retiring, Bob devoted time to volunteering in the community. “I felt I owed something to the community I lived in, that gave me a good life, that brought up my children, educated my children in the school system. I felt it a duty, and a happy duty.”

Born at the beginning of the Great Depression in Dousman, WI to Erwin and Gena Will, Bob graduated from high school after 8th grade. A life-long love of music began as a young trombonist in the Oconomowoc American Legion Band, an award-winning band that marched in parades from small towns to New York’s 5th Avenue. He surprised his parents by enlisting in the US Navy, unaware that swimming was a required skill, one he did not have. Even though Bob never learned to swim, his strong patriotism committed him to the Naval Reserve for a further twenty years. After the war, Bob entered Carleton College in 1946, dragging his Navy footlocker behind him and clutching the GI Bill (“that great social invention”). He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and later earned his MA and Ph.D from Yale University.

Bob met the love of his life, Barbara, while teaching at UMass Amherst. She was the beautiful librarian in the Department of Research Chemistry when Bob walked in seeking advice about moldy wallpaper in the apartment he shared with Gus Mattersdorff. A year later, Gus was best man at their wedding. In 1957, Carleton College President Larry Gould hired Bob to join the Economics department. The newlyweds packed their books and wedding presents and drove to Minnesota. Bob and Barbara built a remarkable life together. They found joy in raising a family, traveling around the world, and deepening their roots in Northfield.

Beyond teaching duties, Bob was an Assistant Dean of the College and the first Director of International Studies and was named the Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics. Many have described Bob as the quintessential Carleton alum and professor: a gifted and enthusiastic teacher, a knowledgeable scholar, an engaged college citizen, a gracious mentor to colleagues and students. Bob was a pioneer in what is now called social entrepreneurship, applying economic theories to real world problems. This pursuit led to Carleton’s Social Entrepreneurship scholarship program. While at Carleton, he also earned grants from the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, General Electric, the Lilly Endowment, and the National Science Foundation. Bob retired in 1993 as the Raymond Plank Professor of Incentive Economics.

Always a performer, many will remember listening to the brilliant badinage between Bob and Wayne Eddy on Northfield’s KYMN radio. Bob loved reading aloud and delighted in Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew.” He was also cast in two films: as Rev. William Wilcox in the award-winning Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, by Chérif Keïta; and as the Old Man in Roma Nova, by Max Silver.

Bob left an indelible mark on organizations around the country and world, including the US National Commission for the United Nations Economic and Social Council; the planning commission that created Hampshire College in Amherst, MA; Bob and Barbara helped seed libraries at Miles College in Alabama and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Closer to home, Bob’s curious and creative mind, and his ever-present yellow notepad, focused on strengthening the beauty and humanity of Northfield, MN. He served on the Rotary Club, Mayor’s Streetscape Task Force, Heritage Preservation Commission, United Way, Northfield Historical Society, All Saints Episcopal Church, Northfield Shares, and Northfield Retirement Community.

In the winter of 1994 Bob was surprised to learn that Governor Arne Carlson proclaimed March 26 as Robert E. Will Day in Minnesota. Twenty years later, Northfield honored Bob with the Joseph Lee Heywood Distinguished Service Award in recognition of over 50 years of service to the Northfield area community. Bob said “There is no better feeling than serving a community. Enjoy it as I have over the years. I did things I never thought I would do in my life.”

Bob was preceded in death by his parents, his wife, Barbara, and son, Jonathan. He is survived by daughters Leslie Will and Jennifer Labovitz; son-in-law Mark Labovitz; and grandchildren Zachary Will, Jackson and Tessa Labovitz.

Bob Will has left the classroom. Onward and Upward with the Arts.

The family would like to thank the thoughtful staff at the Northfield Retirement Community for the attentive and compassionate care given to Bob, and acknowledge all the special friendships Bob made through the years.

A memorial service will be held to celebrate Bob’s life on August 26, 2023, at 2:00pm at All Saints Church in Northfield. Donations may be given to Northfield Shares, All Saints Church, or the Robert E. Will ‘50 Endowed Internship Fund in Social Entrepreneurship at Carleton College.

Arrangements by Bierman Funeral Home and Crematory