The Curious Dr. Grune

Dr. Grune came to the university in 1955. In this, as in all things, he was ahead of his time, as the great wave of visiting European professors did not otherwise begin until the early 1960s, but we had already heard great things about Dr. Grune. He was not a compelling speaker, and obviously many people found his personality a bit inaccessible, but he was remarkably accomplished as an author. He had written a number of books, monographs and papers in his admittedly obscure field, and of course their most singular characteristic was their remarkable prescience. Long before the seventies, when its popularization led to a debasement of the word, Dr. Grune was a highly respected, perhaps even a little feared, futurologist. And when I say ‘feared’, I mean it almost in a Biblical sense — Dr. Grune inspired not terror but a sort of holy awe.

So uncannily accurate were his predictions that despite the abstruseness of his field, he became something of a minor celebrity, or as much of one as an Ivy League professor can be. His unusually precise forecasts in the fields of technology, economics and international relations (he preferred the word ‘forecast’ to ‘prediction’ as he felt the latter term carried with it an inexact sort of pseudo-mysticism) led a number of people, familiar with him by reputation rather than acquaintance, to speak of him as if he were a psychic, a wild-haired Kreskin, a Criswell in twill. Dr. Grune, of course, found all of this to be laughable — well, perhaps laughable is the wrong word, for he very rarely laughed. Let me say instead that suggestions that he was some variety of mentalist or prophet brought to the face of Dr. Grune the wry, knowing twist of a smile that those of us who called him friend so quickly learned to recognize. He maintained that anyone with an informed historical sensibility, the discipline to follow trends and keep up on current events, and of course a complete willingness to look like a fool, could make forecasts just as accurate as his. And at least a few of his new students each semester, particularly those in the mystery-drunk sixties who had heard Dr. Grune described as an oracle and seer, were disappointed to learn that his classes involved spending endless hours studying foreign diplomatic dispatches, position papers, financial forecasts, overseas wire service releases, and endless reams of data, rather than hunching over a crystal ball in a patchouli-scented seance room.

I say those of us who called him friend, for I considered Dr. Grune a friend. I suppose, at least, that I was as good a friend to him as anyone, though I do not say that he was a friend to me. He was polite enough, and always willing to engage me in conversation of the most respectful sort, but one could never get too close to him. So focused was he on the long run (and, as Keynes had taught us, in the long run we are all dead) that he held us ever at a chilly distance, treating us as if we were already corpses who had not yet got it through their heads to stop moving and collapse in a heap. Indeed, one of the most curious things about the curious Dr. Grune was that his insatiable drive to stay two, three and four steps ahead, and his stunning gift at accurately predicting the course of future events, carried over into what remained of his personal life. Dr. Willis, in the sociology department, once related over drinks that Dr. Grune had told him they could never truly be friends. When Dr. Willis asked him why, he replied that he had already run through dozens of different likely scenarios involving their potential companionship, and they all ended with Willis no longer being able to tolerate Dr. Grune’s standoffish attitude and political indifference. More shocking, there was a longstanding rumor on campus that one of Dr. Grune’s student assistants — a calculating young woman who was intoxicated with the prospect of snagging for herself a respected and harmless old man who seemed possessed of the gift to see the future — embarked on a lengthy campaign of seduction against the reserved futurologist. This rumor had it that after many months, Dr. Grune broke down and confessed to her that, given her particular leanings, certain self-analyzed and painstakingly explained flaws in his own character, and a number of disturbingly detailed potential future scenarios, it would be counterproductive for both of them to embark on a relationship, regardless of either of their personal feelings. She left school a semester later and married a rising star on the local political scene, which this same rumor had it that Dr. Grune predicted she would do.

It’s perhaps just as well: anyone looking to Dr. Grune as a source of revenue based on his amazing precognitive skills would no doubt have been disappointed. Despite his stunning accuracy at foreseeing technological, social, political and technological trends, he seemed entirely uninterested in using them for personal gain. He lived modestly on campus housing, comported himself without flash or flair, and even dressed in a decidedly drab fashion, with the exception of a ridiculous-looking pair of shoes, the likes of which I had not seen before and have never seen since, of which he was uncharacteristically fond. A political prognosticator without peer, he was completely apolitical; an unparalleled predictor of social trends, he was entirely uninterested in any expression of high or low culture; an economic forecaster of mechanical accuracy, he was entirely diffident about money. So far as I know he did not invest in a single stock. This, of course, did not stop dozens of private-sector companies from offering him lucrative consulting positions, which he would inevitably turn down, nor did it prevent a daring handful of investors from playing the markets based on his predictions both broad and narrow, with decidedly mixed results. Dr. Grune always said that those who simply tried to get rich off of his forecasts were missing the larger picture; and he himself — who might as well have painted the larger picture, so clearly did he see its every brush stroke — would only say there was no point in him making any more money than he needed to live.

In this, as in virtually everything else, he was prescient. He died in a small plane crash in 1978, brought down on his way to Bangkok to deliver a lecture on economic trends in southeast Asia. His notes to this lecture were found, along with a treasure trove of other personal papers, in his modest home; naturally, they were remarkably forward-looking and predicted in form if not in detail the Asian boom-and-bust cycle of the 1980s and 1990s. Aside from a wealth of information for bright men and women from a dozen fields to pore over for another five decades or so, one curious remnant was found. In a notebook filled with typically, monotonously correct predictions in various fields of science and technology, Dr. Grune — who had been accused at least a half-thousand times, and not always drunkenly or in jest, of being a visitor from the future — scribbled this fragment:

“Time travel not feasible until early 2040s at least.”

I am an old man now, and haven’t the slightest illusion that I shall live to see if Dr. Grune’s most forward-looking forecast comes true. But I say this now: I was never a gambling man. But I have sacked away a decent little store of cash in a trust fund, in the names of each of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, along with instructions on how it is to be invested down the road, starting in the mid-2030s. I might be wasting this money; but, for the first time in my life, I’m willing to bet that I am not.


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