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Linda Datcher Loury, 59, pioneer in social economics

Using the tools of economic research, Dr. Loury measured the effect of various factors on how people fare in the job market. Using the tools of economic research, Dr. Loury measured the effect of various factors on how people fare in the job market.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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With an economist’s love of using numbers to tell the story behind the story, Linda Datcher Loury took commonly held beliefs and subjected them to academic scrutiny. For her, data had the final say, not emotions.

If mothers stay home, do their offspring do better in school? Are children inspired by the academic achievements of their grandparents? Do workers stay in jobs longer if a personal contact helped them get hired? Dr. Loury’s research ranged across the field of social economics, which she helped pioneer.

“It’s an exceedingly rare quality for someone to use their intuition to develop questions for research topics, but then put intuition on the back burner and let data guide them the rest of the way,’’ said Roland Fryer, the Robert M. Beren professor of economics at Harvard. “That’s what she did.’’

Dr. Loury, an economics professor who taught at Tufts University for 27 years, died Sept. 22 in her Brookline home, about 11 years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 59.

“It’s such an incredible loss,’’ said Yannis Ioannides, the Max and Herta Neubauer professor of economics at Tufts, where he was Dr. Loury’s friend and research collaborator. “I think she ought to be a model for academics.’’

In work dating back to the 1980s, he said, she “provided the foundations for what we now call the economics of social interactions.’’

Using the tools of economic research, Dr. Loury measured the effect of various factors on how people fare in the job market. Some seemed obvious, such as gender and race, but she brought fresh eyes to other details, such as the kinds of neighborhoods where people grow up, the nuanced differences among the universities they attend, and how well they do in college.

“In that one, most labor economists - myself included - treated . . all colleges as the same, and all majors as the same, and all GPAs as the same,’’ said Kevin Lang, an economics professor at Boston University. “It was just, ‘Did you go to college or did you not?’ Linda really got into the specifics and focused on did it matter where you went to college, how important is college selectivity, how important is your major, how important is your performance?’’

Dr. Loury found ways to measure the impact of each factor, colleagues said. She proved theories or cast them aside.

“She was very precise and very sharp,’’ Ioannides said. “Her approach was one of empirical rigor: Can we make this statement? Can we support this statement? What is the economic investigation we need to do to make this solid?’’

While researching how wage gaps were decreasing between women and men, Lang said, she noticed “it wasn’t just that more women were going to college, it was that they were majoring in fields that improved their labor market performance.’’

Her concern for economic outcomes was just as pronounced in the classroom as it was with research topics, Ioannides said. Dr. Loury not only wanted her students to learn, she wanted them to do well once they graduated. If she thought a departmental proposal was ill-considered and wouldn’t help students, she didn’t hold back.

“She was just sharp,’’ Ioannides said. “Sharp and sharp-tongued.’’

Dr. Loury was born in Baltimore and was the second of four children. Her father painted houses; her mother, who migrated north from Georgia, became a church secretary.

She graduated from Friends School of Baltimore in 1969 and majored in economics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1973. Five years later, she received a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While at MIT she met Glenn Loury, who is now the Merton P. Stoltz professor of social sciences at Brown University.

Dr. Loury spent four years doing research at the University of Michigan, then was hired to teach at Tufts.

Once her sons Glenn II and Nehemiah were born, her husband said, she insisted that they be a principal part of her life, even though doing so slowed her ascent through the academic ranks to full professor.

“When the kids came along, she left the office at 3:30, 4 o’clock max, to pick up them at the day-care center,’’ he said. “She’d say, ‘When am I going to spend any time with my children if I don’t pick them up at 3:30?’ ’’

Though her academic work was specialized, Dr. Loury’s cultural tastes ran the gamut from the esoteric to the wildly popular.

“Linda read pulp fiction, mysteries, and detective novels, and sometimes would read them to our sons at the dinner table,’’ her husband said.

She also “was a sophisticated appreciator of jazz,’’ her husband said, and on trips abroad, she eagerly spent large chunks of each vacation touring the art museums in major European cities.

“The whole Paris trip ended up with us waiting in line,’’ he recalled, laughing. “I had a different idea of what to do with my time.’’

At home, he said, she was one of Brookline’s founders of a network of middle- and upper-middle-class black families that met once a month to share a meal and ponder how their children’s lives were unfolding.

Sometimes she helped facilitate discussions of black history or lead trips to museums, her husband said. Other months, parents discussed the gap between reality and the stereotypes foisted on black children who grow up in successful families.

Dr. Loury also “had a very dry sense of humor,’’ her husband said, and was a fierce competitor while playing anything from chess to cards to Scrabble.

“She was a wonderful labor economist and she was also just a terrific person,’’ Lang said. “She was a huge football fan. Every year, she and Glenn would put on a party for the Super Bowl.’’

In addition to her husband and two sons, Dr. Loury leaves her mother, Helen (Hines) Datcher of Baltimore; a sister, Rhonda Patterson of Reston, Va.; and two brothers, Griffin Datcher Jr. of Killeen, Texas, and Victor Datcher of Baltimore.

A service will be held at 3 p.m. today in Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. Burial will be tomorrow in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

“I have enormous respect for her as an economist, but even more as a person,’’ Fryer said. “She taught me a ton about, frankly, being a black academic and being in this world. I used to ask her questions about economics, but I also asked her questions about how to be such a good parent. And she was a great person.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.