Remembering economist Leslie Whittington
A university community mourns a lost family
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- "All of us resisted that it was a reality. And it gradually sank in."
Judy Feder, dean of public studies at Georgetown University in Washington, had driven into work as usual on Tuesday morning.
"I really was thinking, 'What are the odds?'" as news of targeted plane crashes began moving.
A keenly respected friend and colleague, Leslie Whittington, was leaving that day for a sabbatical in Australia. With her were her husband Charles Falkenberg of ECOlogic Corporation and their daughters Zoe, 8, and Dana, 3. The family was on American Airlines Flight 77, the Boeing 757 that at 9:43 a.m. EDT crashed into the Pentagon. Whittington, her husband and daughters were en route to a connecting flight in Los Angeles.
"I was at work," says Feder, "and gradually, personally -- well, some people were thinking of it. But I thought, 'Not possible.'
"And as the course of the day went forward, we tried to find out whether anyone we knew was aware of their itinerary.
"An alum called American Airlines and was told that Leslie was on the plane. And then a couple of others of us checked because we couldn't believe it -- and we got semi-information, so we were getting more and more scared.
"There was an e-mail from a friend-of-a-friend who had heard from Leslie's stepfather -- and I tracked down her stepfather and spoke with him" to get the confirmation she hadn't wanted.
"We've been doing a lot of remembering and thinking about her."
'Enormously, enormously proud'
Whittington was an economist and professor, headed for a stint of several months as a visiting fellow at Australian National University in Canberra.
She'd worked closely with Feder for the past couple of years as associate dean of Georgetown's Public Policy Institute and was an associate professor of public policy. After taking a BS in business from Regis College in Denver, Whittington did her master's work and took a Ph.D. in economics from University of Colorado at Boulder.
One of Whittington's key interests was in the balance of work and life responsibilities. Her 1989 doctoral dissertation was on "Taxes and the Family: Fertility and the Personal Exemption in the United States." After publishing that work in the American Economic Review in 1990, Whittington went on to publish a handsome array of research papers and articles, often with her collaborator, James Alm. Frequently, the impact of taxation policy on family life was a central interest for Whittington, and she has worked on a book with the University of Delaware's Saul Hoffman, on women, work and family.
"She was a fabulous teacher," Feder says. "The alums and students have been pouring in, talking about their disbelief and horror" at the loss.
In a course called "Race, Gender and the Job Market," Whittington shared the lecture podium with Geraldine Ferraro, a former Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States, and a sometime-commentator with CNN.
"Leslie won awards for teaching people statistics," Feder says, "which is not an easy thing and it's a testimony to what a fine teacher she was.
"She believed profoundly in educating students she saw as believing they could change the world. She saw it as her job to be sure they had the skills to do it. She expected the most of her students -- and she got it. And she was enormously, enormously proud of all her students' achievements.
"She was a wonderful colleague. She mentored her junior colleagues. She was a good friend to all of us. We're a faculty and community that are something of a family. She loved them and they loved her."
And you can tell from Whittington's many publications how central the concept of family -- and the reality of her own -- were to her: "Is There Competition Between Breast-Feeding and Maternal Employment?" (Demography, May 1999); "Wedding Bell Blues: The Income Tax Consequences of Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage" (National Tax Journal, June 2000); and "Choosing Children Over Career? A Cross-Cohort Exploration of the Postpartum Labor Force Behavior of Professional Women" (Population Research and Policy Review, August 2000).
'All a part of us'
"Leslie's husband and little girls were all a part of us. We remember when she was pregnant with Dana. And the girls were part of Leslie's classroom patter. Everybody loved them all."
Feder says a memorial service for Whittington, Falkenberg and the girls is planned for Monday, a group effort to somehow get closer to coming to terms with something most of the campus community, she says, still can't fully comprehend.
"It's quite horrendous."
On Thursday, an interfaith prayer service was convened at Georgetown's Gaston Hall in commemoration of the victims of Tuesday's attacks and their families.
"We were profoundly saddened," university president John J. DeGioia said on Tuesday, "to learn tonight of the deaths of our faculty colleague Leslie Whittington and her family. Like all of you, I await with deep anxiety further word about the well-being and safety of our friends and family."
A current student, Liza Hetherington, says that Whittington's "warm personality and genuine interest in students made her beloved. We will miss her."
A 1999 graduate of the Public Policy Institute, Alan Berube, speaks of Whittington as the key teacher in his life that every student hopes to find: "Most people remember their favorite teacher in life as an elementary or high school teacher. I had my favorite teacher at age 25 in Leslie, and I made a very good friend in the process. There are some people whom, even if you don't see them all the time, you know the world functions better because of them. Leslie was one of them."
Whittington -- whose career was so determinedly focused on the career- and life-quality of others -- clearly would have produced much more work. When she and her family died Tuesday along with 54 other passengers and six American Airlines crew members, her contract with Hoffman for the book "Women and the Economy -- Family, Work and Pay" was in place with publisher Addison-Wesley.
With Alm, she was working on "Shacking Up or Shelling Out: Income Taxes and the Choice of Cohabitation Over Marriage" (with Jennifer Thatcher) and "Is There a Singles Tax? The Relative Income Tax Treatment of Single Households" (with Jason Fletcher). With Shirley Hung, Donna Ruane Morrison and Sara Fein, she'd collaborated on "Prepartum Work, Job Characteristics and a Woman's Risk of Cesarian Delivery." And with Ramon Lopez, Whittington was working on "Land Reform and Fertility in Honduras."
But for all the explanatory precision of Whittington's research and publications, what comes across most compellingly in Feder's gentle, searching comments about her friend and colleague is a tone of daunting, deep quandary. The "why" for what has happened can no more be found in the deaths of this teacher and her family than in the loss of so many other victims in the Washington area and in New York.
"We're all devastated and mourning her and loving her," says Feder.
"And that's about all we can do."
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Georgetown Public Policy Institute, Georgetown University
University of Colorado at Boulder
America Under Attack, a CNN.com special
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