James “Chief” Graaskamp

If You Know Real Estate, You Know James Graaskamp

To students, James Graaskamp PhD1965 was The Chief. A brilliant scholar who defied his quadriplegia, he espoused an ethical approach to real estate development that put the UW atop national rankings.

“The successful real estate deal is nothing more than a series of crises tied together by a critical path,” he said.

This pragmatic approach is poignant wisdom from the mind of Graaskamp, whose legacy reflects his life as a determined, creative problem-solver, a master teacher, and a devoted mentor. As a professor and department chair, he led the UW’s real estate faculty from 1964 to 1988.

James "Chief" Graaskamp

Image courtesy of the UW Archives, #S08449.

Graaskamp’s approach to real estate development built on the legacy of the Wisconsin Idea. He prioritized ethics over profits, building models that showed why successful development always respected people, society, and the environment.

Practitioners remain inspired by Graaskamp’s portfolio-management theory, as well as his seminal works, Fundamentals of Real Estate Development, and A Guide to Feasibility Analysis. But those who knew him were equally inspired by his scholarship and his spirit.

Graaskamp was quadriplegic after contracting polio in high school, and he used a wheelchair during his adult life. Yet as his colleagues described, “He pursued life with unbridled enthusiasm, energy, curiosity, and courage. His positive outlook and lack of self-pity were living testimony to the potential of the human spirit.”

Undaunted by his physical condition — he called it a “materials-handling problem” — he earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Rollins College, an MBA at Marquette University, and a PhD at the UW in urban land economics and risk management before accepting a full-time faculty position. He also ran his own private consultancy, Landmark Research, and was forward in offering thoughts to policymakers who oversaw Wisconsin’s rapid development in the 1970s and 80s.

From The Park

A real estate entrepreneur [should have] the creativity of Leonardo da Vinci [and] the sensitivity for the natural world of John Muir.​

Graaskamp hired trusted students as “materials handlers” to assist him in his day-to-day activities, which included work, travel and occasional deep-sea fishing. As a teacher, Graaskamp could be “unreasonably demanding,” but he captured students’ attention with his mentorship, intellect, and quotable lectures, using his teeth to turn paper notes with an 18-inch stick — his “magic wand.”

His contributions are fittingly honored on campus through the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate and in the McBurney Resource Center, which ensures access to students with disabilities.

Just as he believed physical real estate could bring about good for society, he could also be outspoken about support for the university’s people: “When you’re asked to give, give for endowments, not buildings. Just as the church is the congregation, not the structure, a university is a fellowship of motivated scholars, not an indoor athletic facility and column-free temple for graduation speeches.”

Graaskamp died in 1988 while he was still department chair. The university had great difficulty appointing a worthy successor.