Oliver Oldman, 1920-2008
A Scholar in International Tax, and a Prescient Realist
Oliver Oldman ’53, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Emeritus, died Dec. 5, 2008, at the age of 88. After graduating from Harvard College in 1942, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II and later attended Harvard Law School, joining the faculty in 1959. In addition to teaching generations of law students, he was director of the International Tax Program from 1964 to 1989 and the East Asian Legal Studies Program from 1983 to 1990. Even after retirement in 1993, he continued offering winter-term classes for more than a decade, and then every spring until 2007 (when he was 86) he led a reading group, of which he was especially proud. Until age 79 he was an avid tennis player. He also enjoyed nearly annual round-the-world travel to participate in conferences, visit former students and meet others who would end up becoming his students. The following tribute was written by HLS Professors William Alford ’77 and Mark Ramseyer ’82, who also wrote about their friend and colleague for the March 2009 Harvard Law Review, dedicated to Oldman.
A self-effacing man, Ollie kept many of his accomplishments to himself. Few knew, for example, that his first major international accomplishments—long before he entered the law—involved earning his trip across the Atlantic by playing clarinet on the Cunard Lines, and then, after World War II, returning the Eiffel Tower to France on behalf of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Although Ollie would explain that “it was all downhill from there,” he enjoyed an illustrious career as one of the world’s leading scholars of tax administration and law, and as a beloved mentor and colleague.
Ollie’s award-winning scholarship centered on taxation and tax administration, with particular attention to state and local tax and the value-added tax. A prolific scholar, he wrote or edited five casebooks on those areas of tax law, including “Value Added Tax: A Comparative Approach with Material and Cases” (2001), “Taxation in Developing Countries” (4th edition, 1990) and “Readings on Taxation in Developing Countries” (3rd edition, 1975).
From his earliest days on the Harvard faculty, he displayed both an impressive prescience for emerging trends in tax policy and a realistic appreciation for the prerequisites to effective administrative change. Over the course of his long career, he would advise governments of many countries, including Chile, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Egypt, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Taiwan and Vietnam.
At Harvard Law’s International Tax Program, Ollie trained hundreds of tax officials from across the world, many of whom rose to be ministers, internal revenue commissioners, judges, and leading academics and practitioners. At the East Asian Legal Studies Program, he continued the study of Japanese, Chinese and South Korean law, expanding the program’s emphasis to other countries in what he termed “the Pacific Legal Community.”
Throughout, he was a steadfast, kind and generous teacher—so much so that, for 15 years after taking emeritus status, he continued to counsel students, graduates, and scholars, and to bless HLS with his wisdom.
In 1988, the Japanese government awarded Ollie the Japanese equivalent of knighthood—the Order of the Rising Sun, Third Degree with Neck Ribbon—for his contributions to the education and training of its tax officials.
Over the course of his career, Ollie was honored by various professional associations with awards and senior organizational and editorial positions. In 2000, he received the National Tax Association’s Daniel M. Holland Medal.
Close friends of Hisashi and Yumiko Owada while Mr. Owada was a visiting professor at HLS, Ollie and his wife, Barbara, acted as parents-away-from-home for the Owadas’ daughter Masako when she studied at Harvard College a few years later. Masako would later marry the Japanese Crown Prince.
As then Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan ’86 said in a message to the faculty upon the news of Ollie’s passing, “We can all feel grateful to have known this fine human being.”