Paul Milgrom
Paul Milgrom, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. (Stanford University)

Paul Milgrom’s former classmates describe him as smart, likable and one of the guys.

Paul R. Milgrom’s journey to Sweden began in Oak Park.

Milgrom, 72, a 1966 graduate of Oak Park High School, was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences earlier this year with his Stanford adviser and good friend Robert B. Wilson.

Milgrom’s former classmates describe him as smart, likeable and one of the guys.

“Although we didn’t have any classes together, I knew Paul from school,” said Steve Gilbert. “For a guy who would be considered an egghead, I remember him as laid back and congenial.”

Milgrom is the second of four sons of Abraham and Anne Milgrom. He has two adult children and a grandson. He has since remarried following a divorce. Every week, Milgrom hosts his son, a single parent, and grandson for Shabbat dinner at his Palo Alto, Calif., home.

Milgrom’s recollections of his Oak Park childhood are pretty typical of any kid growing up in the 1960s: Playing football, basketball and baseball with his friends at local schoolyards. Playing cards with friends or walking to services at B’nai Moshe every Saturday. And, of course, girls — girls he said he was too shy to date.

He recalls traveling in the USY on Wheels program in 1964, “cementing my Jewish identity when some kids in the mountains [out west] threw rocks at our bus.”

A friendship between Joel Seidman and Milgrom, begun in kindergarten in Detroit, continued after their families moved to Oak Park on Sussex in 1954, just four houses apart.

They “were regular buddies during these early years,” including attending each other’s bar mitzvahs, Seidman said, but by junior high school the friendship “drifted some.”

Soon it was apparent, said Seidman, now a physician, “that Paul was brilliant and without question my intellectual superior. He spent hours tutoring me about chess strategies and introducing me to game theory.”

Perhaps the Smartest

Former classmate Nolan Weinberg, who holds an M.D. from the University of Minnesota, said the hallways of Oak Park High were infused with the gray matter of lots of smart kids.

Perhaps Milgrom was the smartest. Weinberg recalled an incident when he and Milgrom were in a 12th grade math class.

The teacher brought in a Fortran computer programming problem for the class to solve. “It was a tic-tac-toe problem, and only Paul solved it,” Weinberg said.

Milgrom said he doesn’t remember that incident but recalls another math class. “One geometry teacher could see that I was bored and told me that, so long as I got 100 percent on every exam, I could skip the homework and read ahead in the books.”

Consequently, Milgrom said he finished two years of math in his junior year, skipped senior year math, and “was warned by the head of the math department that I would be forced to take remedial math in college.”

Instead, he said he became the first Oak Park High student to get advance placement credit in calculus.

Another teacher wasn’t so kind, giving him “an ‘F’ whenever I found a clever shortcut that made the problem easy” rather than following her intended solution, Milgrom said.

Academic Career

After graduating from the University of Michigan with an A.B. in math, Milgrom became an actuary, working for two large actuarial firms.

Bored, he said he decided to pursue graduate business at Stanford where he learned “the real reason I was bored was that I loved research and hated the grind of business routine. So, I switched into the career that, evidently, I was born for.”

That move led him to game theory, the study of strategic behavior used in economics fields, political science and computer science. 

Winning major prizes is nothing new to Milgrom, winning, in 2012, the BBVA, an international award recognizing significant contributions in the areas of scientific research and cultural creation. He won the John J. Carty Award in 2018, handed out by the National Academy of Sciences.

“I know I am a respected researcher and teacher and consultant, and I thought even a Nobel Prize could not change much for [me] … but how could it top those earlier prizes,” he said.

Since winning the Nobel Prize he said has “received thousands of emails, some from folks I had lost touch with. From elementary school and high school and college friends. Bridge friends. Chess friends. Old lovers. My opinions suddenly seem to carry more weight.”

Including among his own family. “Even my 9-year-old grandson, sees me differently. I’m the same man that I was two months ago. Remarkable.” 

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