“My life has been dedicated rather intensely to rationality, and that’s a very Caltech value.”
For his accomplished career as an investor, businessman, and as an attorney. He is director and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, chairman of the Daily Journal Corporation, a director of Costco Wholesale Corporation, and former chairman of Wesco Financial Corporation.
Charlie Munger, JD considers himself to have been “an accidental Caltech student.”
The circumstances that led him from Omaha, Nebraska, to campus in fall 1943 were indeed atypical: he came to study meteorology through the U.S. Army Air Corps. Nonetheless, his interactions with Caltech professor Homer Joe Stewart [PhD ’40] echoed through Munger’s life decades later as he ascended to the firmament of business success. He also strongly identifies with the Institute’s basic ethos.
“My life has been dedicated rather intensely to rationality, and that’s a very Caltech value,” he says. “It works pretty well, even when things don’t look like Caltech.”
Munger describes his military service—forecasting flight conditions so that pilots could land safely at distant airfields—as “unromantic.” But he credits the physics he learned at the Institute, in part, with preparing him for law school, noting that a background in math or physics is (counterintuitively to some) a consistent predictor of success in legal studies.
The career he built afterward brought him to the forefront of the business world, first as a founder in 1965 of the prominent law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson and later as vice chairman of investment giant Berkshire Hathaway, a title he retains to this day. Along the way, he picked up a reputation as public sage (and wag), thanks to the gathering of his words of wisdom into Poor Charlie’s Almanack in 2005 by friend and Caltech trustee Peter Kaufman, MBA.
“That damn book made me famous,” says Munger, a Pasadena resident. “I don’t mind being as well known as I am, but I don’t want to be better known.”
Reflecting on his uncommon experience at Caltech, he emphasizes the influence of Stewart, an aeronautical engineer with whom he studied thermodynamics.
“He taught me a valuable lesson—that I should not try to make my living competing with people like Homer Joe Stewart,” Munger quips. “It was a wonderful lesson because all my life I’ve competed with klutzes instead.”
Of course, the connection runs deeper than that. Munger remembers Stewart as unfailingly kind to his students, lightning quick at calculation, and dedicated to finding the right answer.
“Anytime you interface with somebody like that who’s really admirable, it enlarges your aspirations and your knowledge,” Munger says. “It warms life. The world is better when it contains a Homer Joe Stewart.”
Sometimes, it seems, you can connect with the most exceptional people, even by accident.
— Wayne Lewis