Who could have known that a quote from George Washington, hanging on a father's office wall in the small New Jersey town of Teaneck during the Depression-wracked 1930s, would have such a lasting impact on millions of American businesses, workers and investors two centuries later?
"Do not suffer your good nature ... to say yes when you ought to say no," Washington is reported to have said. "Remember that it is a public not private cause that is to be injured or benefited by your choice."
The office belonged to Paul A. Volcker Sr., whose son and namesake not only absorbed those words but lived by them over a career in public service that spanned over 60 years.
The centerpiece of those years was a two-term stint as head of the Federal Reserve, during which Paul Volcker Jr. said no to his private cause and yes to almost single-handedly reversing the inflationary psychology that gripped the nation for 15 years beginning in the late 1960s.
Volcker's death last Sunday at age 92 recalls an era that, in many respects, is the antithesis of the current economic, political and ethical environment. His war on inflation took real interest rates to levels that today would be considered unthinkable, and a certain recipe for presidential retaliation as well.
Under his leadership from 1979 to 1987, the Fed switched from controlling interest rates to controlling the supply of money, and then letting financial markets set its price.
That price was high.
In December 1980, with inflation rising at over 1% per month, short-term rates reached 20%. A few months later, rates on 30-year mortgages hit 18.6%. For the average homeowner, that meant monthly mortgage payments of $2,725 in today's money.
Assuming he was true to form, smoke from his trademark cigar would have been seen wafting about his bespectacled face as Volcker told his Congressional interrogators that, like it or not, the Fed's brute force policy toward vanquishing inflation would not be cut short.
"It would strike me as the cruelest blow of all to the millions who have felt the pain of recession directly to suggest, in effect, it was all in vain," Volcker said in July 1982, with the economy still mired in the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
The pre-Volcker Fed had surrendered its credibility to the private cause of President Richard Nixon, who was intent on propping up an economy laboring under the effects of sky-high energy prices. Restraining inflation was further complicated by the breakup of the post-war Bretton Woods agreement on exchange rates, which effectively devalued the U.S. dollar and made imports - most notably of oil - more expensive.
In 1979, as President Jimmy Carter pondered a shakeup of his economic team, Volcker was invited to the Oval Office to interview for the top job at the Fed. His 6-foot-7-inch frame slouching on a couch and ubiquitous cigar in hand, Volcker bluntly informed Carter that he would be tougher on inflation than "that fellow," who just happened to be seated nearby.
Against the advice of his advisers - and against his private cause - Carter went ahead with Volcker's nomination.
The "Great Moderation" that Volcker helped engineer triggered a golden age for investors, with stocks and bonds each posting double-digit annual returns over the next quarter-century.
Notably, however, Volcker did not count his lonely war on inflation as the defining feature of his life or career. Rather, he wanted his legacy to be a dedication to public service.
Knowing the end was near, Volcker in September wrote an afterword to the forthcoming paperback version of his autobiography, "Keeping At It: The Quest for Sound Money and Good Government." In an excerpt published by the Financial Times, Volcker called President Donald Trump's attempt to bully the Fed "a matter of grave concern, given that the central bank is one of our key government institutions, carefully designed to be free of purely partisan attacks."
And finally, ominously, there is this: "Nihilistic forces are dismantling policies to protect our air, water, and climate," Volcker warned. "And they seek to discredit the pillars of our democracy: voting rights and fair elections, the rule of law, the free press, the separation of powers, the belief in science, and the concept of truth itself."
He was not blowing smoke.
Tom Saler is an author and freelance journalist in Madison. He can be reached at tomsaler.com.