“Life is a book, and if you do not travel, you never go beyond the first chapter.” –Saint Augustine
After 42 years at Michigan Technological University, a chapter is complete for Thomas (Tom) Merz. Tom has been a professor of economics in the College of Business since 1980 and served as associate dean of the College for 10 years. He held visiting faculty positions with universities in Western Australia, Denmark, and Vietnam.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tom’s teaching and research focused on game theory, microeconomics, and public-sector economics. He kept his passion for learning and teaching economics high, always remembering a piece of wisdom one of his professors told him: “Dedicated teachers are nothing more than dedicated students who appreciate other dedicated students.” Though Tom has finished this chapter, his story is hardly complete. By the end of 2024, if all goes according to script, he and his wife Mimi, who together have touched down on all seven continents and twice circumnavigated the globe, will have set foot in 87 countries.
“Much of my travel has been through the University supporting my academic interests and being granted sabbatical to work in other places on the planet,” Tom says.
Tom and Mimi have been beyond the Arctic Circle, through the Panama Canal, atop the highest capital city (La Paz, Bolivia), and in such out-of-the-way places as New Caledonia and Vanuatu. They have experienced the Parthenon and visited both the Blue and Hagia Sophia Mosques, as well as the Rock of Gibraltar. They have also been to the Great Barrier Reef, Robben Island, the Galapagos Islands, the Brazilian Amazon, Iguazu and Victoria Falls, and Machu Picchu (four times). They have scaled glaciers in Iceland and New Zealand, walked along the Great Wall of China, touched the Moscow Kremlin and Berlin Walls, strolled across the Bridge of Spies, climbed to the summit of the famed Sydney Harbor Bridge, and ascended to the summits of the world’s three largest cathedral domes: St. Peter’s Rome, St. Paul’s London, and Frederik’s Marble Church Copenhagen. They even survived a Category 1 hurricane crossing Drake’s Passage on their way home from Antarctica.
“One important change since I was an undergraduate student is the opportunity for students to study and travel abroad,” Tom says.
“I encourage students to travel. Don’t let college instructors, news, or social media define your impressions of the world. Experience the world, then draw your own impressions.”
Being an expert traveler, Tom is accustomed to packing lightly, but his heaviest luggage by far was the Michigan Tech banner he and Mimi lugged onto the Antarctic ice. “Thank goodness we have the photo,” he recalls, “because on that day our only audience was thousands of baby penguins.”
Having taught in lecture halls across the globe, all students, Tom says, have one singular commonality: “They seek a better life—that is why they are there, to learn and enrich their lives.” Another note from Tom’s travel log: He and Mimi have always been treated with kindness, no matter where their travels took them.
As for key cultural differences? “A symbol of respect in many parts of the world outside the US is for students at the end of class to erase the board for their professor,” says Tom.
Known for his active-learning style of teaching, Tom is notorious for bringing a piece of fruit—usually an apple or banana—and giving it away for a correct answer. “One of the most effective classes I ever led was in a 600-seat hall in Australia with over 400 students from all around the world, held over the lunch hour,” he says. “Students were hungry and I walked around with a bag of chocolate. It kept them engaged.”
While his travels have been epic, back home in Houghton, Tom’s mode of transport to and from campus was notoriously humble—a three-speed, British-made 1958 Royal bicycle that he left leaning against the Academic Office Building.
Service to the community is another cornerstone for Tom. He was Houghton’s mayor from 1996 to 2006 and has served as chairperson of the city’s planning commission since 2011—and he was reappointed in 2022 for another three-year term. Tom says there are two ingredients that are key to his longevity in public service: “Thick skin and a sense of humor.”
As a rule, Tom doesn’t discuss politics in class, but he does share applications of voting procedures to shed light and open avenues for his students. “Particularly if they opt to reside in a small town like Houghton, by getting involved in local government they can make a huge impact,” he emphasizes.
“Tom’s titles include professor, associate dean, and mayor, but also teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend,” says Dean Johnson, dean of the Michigan Tech College of Business. “His judicious use of humor combined with level thinking has enabled him to be an effective university and community leader. On behalf of the entire College of Business, past and present—thank you, Tom, for your contributions.”
Retirement will afford Tom time for other hobbies, which include reading, solving games and puzzles, and swimming, as well as time spent with his three daughters—Courtney, Laura, and Erin—and three grandkids, Jax, Audrey, and Thomas.
Reflecting on his time at Tech, Tom said it best: “What a journey!”
About the College of Business
The Michigan Tech College of Business offers undergraduate majors in accounting, business analytics, construction management, economics, engineering management, finance, management, management information systems, and marketing, as well as a general business option. Graduate degrees include the TechMBA®, a Master of Engineering Management, a Master of Science in Accounting, and a Master of Science in Applied Natural Resource Economics.