Some know him for his libertarian rants in economics classes, others know him by his surf band, the Madeira, which has toured the U.S. and Italy and released six CDs since 2004.
Ivan Pongracic was born in 1969 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, a country run by communist dictator Marshal Tito at the time.
Pongracic’s parents worked for the government. His dad audited businesses in Croatia and witnessed from within the system falling apart.
“I remember shortages of all sorts, waiting in line for coffee, detergent, and milk,” Pongracic said. “I was 12, so I was the one who had to go stand in line.”
Yugoslavia thrived from Western money until Tito’s death in 1980; after that, it began to collapse. Pongracic said that Yugoslavia had to ration electricity for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, so the government divided major cities into three parts and turned off electricity for eight hours each section every third day. Consequently, Pongracic and his family went without electricity from 2 -10 p.m. every three days.
“We lived on the 20th floor of a high rise building, so sometimes I would get home at 2:01 with my bike, and have to carry it up the stairs when I returned home — I was really cursing the commies then,” Pongracic said.
His father applied for visas to the United States in the late 70s-80s but was rejected. He joined the American Consulate in Zagreb, where he gained access to National Review and fell in love with Russell Kirk.
When Kirk was speaking for a Grove City College conference, his father wrote National Review asking to attend.
“National Review covered all expenses but the plane ticket,” Pongracic said.
His father was determined to meet Kirk, an adjunct Hillsdale College professor at the time. He introduced himself, and they talked for hours.
Kirk offered Pongracic Sr. to stay a week at his home in Mecosta, Michigan; after that, to study with him, and supplied him and his family with visas.
Pongracic’s family moved to the U.S in February of 1984, departing on the same plane as the United States’ Olympic hockey team.
“We had a good life in Zagreb,” Pongracic said. “We moved from a town of 700,000, the second largest in Yugoslavia, to Mecosta, Michigan, a town of 400 people. It was like a trip back in time from Zagreb where we had two western cars, and we would travel a lot — to central Michigan, with one general store.”
Pongracic Jr. went to high school his third day in the U.S and found himself ahead of the American students. He graduated high school in two and a half years.
“I’d already had most of the requirements,” he said. “Yugoslav education was better than American — go figure.”
Pongracic earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Purdue University in 1992, and his master’s and doctorate degrees in economics at George Mason University in 1996 and 2004.
Christina Pongracic first met her future husband when the manager of The Space Cossacks, Pongracic’s first surf band, invited her to one of their last shows in 1998, in Baltimore. Pongracic struck up a conversation with her before he performed.
“We talked about everything from music to school to aspirations for 30 – 45 minutes before realizing other people were around us,” she said. “I was struck by his intelligence — he wrote his own music and was working on his Ph.D. in economics. He seemed set apart from the rest.”
Christina emailed him a year later about the band’s new CD, and the emails became lengthier and more frequent.
Christina began teaching in Philadelphia upon receiving her master’s degree at the University of Delaware while Pongracic was touring and teaching, so they only saw each other a couple of times a month. They compensated for the distance through lengthy phone conversations.
“We were on the phone late one night, and out of the blue, he asked me to marry him. Looking back, I didn’t think about the consequences of living in Hillsdale —I just said yes, even though we had only been talking for six months. It just felt right,” Christina said. “How often do you meet a songwriter, a musician, who has a soft side he doesn’t show many people?”
Pongracic began teaching at Hillsdale College in 2000. He and Christina married at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hillsdale in July 2001.
Christina said both she and her husband are outsiders, one reason why their relationship happened so suddenly.
“We are both different from the people we know here — not formally religious, neither liberal nor conservative,” she said. “We don’t fit into a box, and we find comfort in each other.”
Professor of Economics Charles Steele first met Pongracic walking back from a luncheon after Steele was interviewed to teach Austrian economics.
“I had felt like I had already known the guy for years. It wasn’t like talking to some strange person for the first time; we had a lot of common ground.”
Steele and Pongracic make up one-third of Hillsdale’s economics department, the largest major at Hillsdale College.
“Pongracic is known for rigor and toughness,” Steele said. “He supervises the principles courses, and he makes certain our program matches or is better than others. Any student that comes to Hillsdale College and doesn’t take a class with Wolfram or Pongracic is like going to Mount Rushmore and not seeing the presidents.”