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43 Years Ago Frank Bourgin Got the Shaft; Next Week He'll Be Getting His Doctorate

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Looking back on it now, at 77, Frank P. Bourgin knows that his life might have been different. In 1945, as a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago, Bourgin had it all planned. First he would get his degree—the reward for a 617-page thesis into which he had poured heart, soul and intellect—then go on to a distinguished career as a college professor. What he got was the academic equivalent of a Bronx cheer.

The problem, he now believes, was that he was too far ahead of his time. He is convinced that his thesis, which challenged the prevailing wisdom among historians that FDR’s New Deal was a radical departure from the laissez-faire economic precepts of the Founding Fathers, “was too controversial, too new, too different, too unorthodox to be accepted.” In any case, the university’s three-man Ph.D. review committee, which had the power to make or break Bourgin’s dream of an academic career, exercised the option to break it. After reviewing his thesis, which took two years to write, they told him it needed a lot more work.

Bourgin was crushed. To revise his paper completely would mean giving up his job with a lighting-fixture firm and returning to the university full-time. But by then, with a wife and year-old daughter to support, he couldn’t go back. “In my own mind, I’d done a terrific job, and I knew what I wrote was solid,” he says. “But no one gave me any encouragement. I was licked, and very bitter.” He put his manuscript in a steel filing box and reluctantly got on with his life.

A childhood bout with polio had weakened his left side, but Bourgin had always showed strength in the classroom. The middle of three sons of an Ely, Minn., storekeeper, he graduated magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota, then earned his master’s in political science at California’s Claremont College. When his Ph.D. thesis was rejected, he returned to Minnesota after the war and went into the clothing business, while his wife, Dorothy Crost, an accomplished pianist, taught at home. Active in community affairs, he eventually joined the U.S. civil service, and at the time of his retirement in 1983 he was working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C.

But wherever the Bourgins moved, the steel box went with them. His two daughters grew up, he became a grandfather, and for four decades the box remained closed. Finally, in 1985, while the nation was planning for the Constitution’s bicentennial, he took another look at his manuscript. “The papers were old and yellow and faded, and the paper clips were rusty,” he says. Still, he liked what he read.

Bourgin summarized his paper and circulated the condensed version among noted academics, including historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who replied with a letter praising Bourgin as “a true pioneer in the reconstruction of the early economic policy of the republic.” Encouraged, Bourgin decided that vindication was long overdue. He sent a copy of his thesis to the University of Chicago and asked that it be read again. After 43 years, a new Ph.D. committee approved his paper, and at the university’s June 10 commencement, Frank Bourgin will finally get his degree. “I don’t think I’ll ever use it,” says Bourgin, who now lives in Chevy Chase, Md., “but this is like being reborn.”

—By Dan Chu, with Linda Kramer in Washington