In Memoriam: Sherle R. Schwenninger, 1951-2020

Every weekday morning for two-and-a-half-years, I started my day the exact same way: calling Sherle, my boss, to check in. Sherle would pick up the phone from his rent-controlled studio in New York—he refused on principle to live in Washington, D.C., even though he was a co-founder of a think tank based in Washington, D.C.—and clear his throat loudly and thoroughly. Then, in the most unforgettable voice, an inimitable mix of his Nebraska roots and his adopted New York home, he would say, “HellooOOOoo,” undulating the sound of the final “o.” This routine became so drilled into my head that at times I found myself answering my own phone with a throat clear and an undulating hello; still, to this day, if I’m not paying attention, the Sherle hello, as it should be known, will sneak up on me when I pick up a call from a friend.

Sherle passed away unexpectedly last week. He was not a household name by any stretch, but he was an intellectual inspiration and quiet backer of many household names in the world of politics and ideas. Colleagues frequently referred to him the “smartest person you’ve never heard of” in the policy world, and I came to believe that this was probably true. When he spoke, his volume was almost imperceptible, and you had to lean in to catch what he was saying (and you definitely wanted to hear what he was saying, because it was far more insightful than what anyone else was saying). His preference for long, comprehensive answers to simple questions made him ill-suited for political talk shows and live interviews that marked status in the D.C. world. Instead, he made his mark from the sidelines, cultivating young thinkers, convening roundtable discussions, and writing editorials. With Sherle, you didn’t need to know his name; what mattered were his ideas and his impact on future generations.

Sherle maintained a distinct formality even in a world careening toward informality. Everything he did was thorough: thoroughly written, thoroughly edited, and thoroughly researched. Even a response to a question via email would be formatted to the fullest extent. Name, colon, two line breaks, one word, two line breaks, name. It had a palindromic appeal, of sorts, almost comforting in its structure.




I was supposed to call at “around nine am” every morning, but, being me, it became “between nine and ten,” and then “one minute before ten o’clock.” By the time I had called, Sherle had already read the day’s New York Times and Financial Times from front to back, and was waiting expectantly for my call. 

I didn’t always agree with Sherle on policy issues, and, I soon realized, he appreciated that: he’d rather have an interesting discussion than blind obedience. I doubt I ever convinced Sherle of anything, yet he would always give me room to argue my side and try to make my case. (He, on the other hand, did convince me of many things; and the time I spent working with him and Michael Lind were far more formative for my thinking about politics than my four years in college, or after.) Even when I pursued research interests of mine only tangentially related to the job I was supposed to be doing for our team, Sherle was unfailingly supportive. Like a great adviser, he encouraged me to follow my own path, while also making sure I didn’t veer too far off course. 

What was most evident about Sherle was that he was generous. He was generous with salaries, always giving me the maximum raise possible even when he didn’t have to. He was generous with his time, giving feedback on items that didn’t interest him but were important to others. He was generous with opportunities, never treating me as a mere assistant and instead giving me assignments that should have been reserved for researchers far beyond my years. He was even generous with his clothes, gifting his old neckties to younger colleagues when he was ready to move onto new ones. (The tie that Sherle gave me is still the nicest and best-looking tie I own, and possibly ever will be.) And, of course, he was generous with his ideas, caring more that they got out into the world than that he would be the one to get credit for them.

Sherle’s commitment to substance over style made him an excellent manager and mentor, but he was always the underdog when it came to making a splash on the D.C. donor circuit. By the time he hired me, his program at the think tank he co-founded had been reduced to just four people, then three, and, eventually, it was pushed out altogether in favor of more flashy thinkers who could charm donors by telling them what they wanted to hear. Sherle would rather let the program fold than compromise what he believed in: good research in support of a policy agenda that would offer a better deal for the middle classes, a renewed social contract, fewer foreign wars, and better infrastructure. 

Whenever I think of the word infrastructure, I think of Sherle. Sherle had thought through infrastructure funding down to the last detail, and worked with politicians, financiers, and various coalitions to try to get somebody—anybody—to try to make good infrastructure policy actually happen. Sherle knew that a program for infrastructure investment could address multiple facets of American malaise at once: provide good, middle class jobs for workers of all education levels; offer a productive (and socially beneficial) target for the overabundant supply of investment capital that otherwise causes asset bubbles; and make America’s economy more productive and efficient in the long-term. He was a tireless advocate for this unsung cause, pressing his case gently even as the tides of political dysfunction swelled around him.

Infrastructure is, I think, a good metaphor for Sherle’s life. It is the solid foundation that makes the humans around it able to prosper and thrive. That was Sherle during my time working with him: he made it possible for me to grow as a researcher, thinker and editor. And his selfless generosity made me a better person as well.

I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to work with and learn from Sherle for so long, and I hope that my own research and writing will be able to meet his impeccable standards. (My fashion sense and choice of neckties certainly will not.) Every time I pick up the phone and want to say a “Sherle hello,” I will remember the voice on the other end of that phone line each morning, wondering why I took so long to call, and ready to get to work to make this country a better place.