Posted Dec 16, 2010
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
ARLINGTON, Wis. – Carol and Gregory Schill flip through their high school yearbooks and an entire era comes roaring back to life: Bermuda shorts and saddle shoes, rock ‘n’ roll on the radio and quiz shows on TV.
The Schills were members of the Class of 1957. She attended Markesan High School. He attended Madison East.
And they would be linked forever. Not just by a half-century of marriage but also by a single statewide survey that morphed into a lifetime study.
The Schills, now 71, are among some of the original Class of ’57 graduates who for decades have formed the core of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a groundbreaking work that has charted a generation’s rise from adolescence to older age. Results have helped inform hundreds of scholarly works throughout the world.
Now, the Schills and thousands of other 1957 graduates are participating in one of the study’s crucial periods, sitting down for face-to-face interviews with researchers for the first time. They’re answering questions on everything from finances to education and work to well-being as the aspiration of youth has given way to the reality of age.
By early 2012, researchers hope to question around 12,300 people, both 1957 graduates and a randomly selected group of the graduates’ brothers and sisters.
“This will help out future generations,” Gregory Schill says.
“It will tell them, ‘What’s going to happen to you,’ ” Carol Schill says.
The Class of ’57 has provided a treasure trove of data, from their work lives to their family lives, from buying homes to attending PTA meetings.
“They’re getting more interesting as they age,” says Carol Roan, an assistant scientist with the study.
It all began in the spring of 1957.
Graduates from across Wisconsin, some 30,000 in all, took a survey on their post-high school plans. The data were used to help the University of Wisconsin System chart its future as higher education began to boom in the post-World War II era. The survey also served as a nudge for students, getting them to think about going to college.
For five years, survey results were stored in boxes in the basement of the UW administration building in Madison. The surveys were slated to be destroyed until someone called sociologist and future chancellor William H. Sewell.
Sewell wanted to find out the effect of education on occupational outcomes. And the surveys provided a start – they included the home phone numbers of the students. He focused on a sample of around one-third of the Class of ’57 – 10,317 people. In all, Sewell and others collected data for 9,300 people. Phone and postcard surveys were done. In 1964, researchers contacted the parents of the graduates and finally the graduates themselves in 1975.
In 1977, researchers began surveying 2,000 of the graduates’ siblings. There were further studies over the decades.
In essence, the Class of ’57 provides researchers with a slice of America. The sample isn’t perfect, of course, and doesn’t reflect a more modern age. The students were mostly white, most born in 1939.
They’ve been dubbed by some as the “Happy Days” generation.
The program has been going so long that there is a newer generation of researchers who work alongside Robert Hauser, a sociologist who joined the project in 1969 and became principal investigator in 1980.
“It’s probably the biggest thing of its sort in the world,” Hauser says. “There have been a lot of really, really big surveys and fairly long surveys, but if you combine the idea that you start out with a pretty big sample with the longevity of this study, you have something that is really unique.”
Hauser says the early stage of the study “showed the importance of parents and peers, what people’s friends were doing, as influences on entry into postsecondary education for this cohort. That was really key. So much of everything that happened to these people later in their lives really depended on whether they went to college after high school.”
Hauser says of those studied, about 30 percent of the men and slightly less than 20 percent of the women from the high school Class of ’57 graduated from college.
Pam Herd, the study’s co-principal investigator, marvels at the willingness of people to participate in the study over the decades.
“A lot of people in the study understand what they’re doing is contributing to something bigger,” Herd says. “It’s a form of volunteering.”
Researchers find that every time they survey the group (usually every five to 10 years), around 70 percent still live in Wisconsin.
As of May 2009, 1,743 people had died from the original study group.
Results culled from surveys taken between 2003 and 2005 showed that most of the participants “enjoyed long and happy marriages,” and more than half said their kids had done better than they had in education, work and finances.
The Class of ’57 was active in the community, politically engaged and Internet savvy.
“They have such a force to continue on and persevere,” says Erin Stegeman, who serves as an interviewer with the study. “At first, I was surprised with how active people still are. People are just very full of life.”
Stegeman says face-to-face interviews run two to three hours. Anonymity is assured. She says those in the study are “welcoming and gracious.”
Researchers are now collecting data on health and cognition, as well as caregiving, as the class enters older age. They’ll be paying close attention to how people have endured the Great Recession.
Throughout the research, the class “has been on the verge of a lot of things, work lives, family lives and now what they’ll do in retirement,” Herd says.
For the Schills, retirement is merely a speck on the horizon. They’ve raised their four kids, dote over the grandkids too, but they’re still hard at work. He runs a humidifier business. She delivers daily newspapers.
Yearbooks stoke their memories. Long ago, Carol (Raith) Schill’s ambition was “to see the world.” She liked “people with manners” and disliked “Elvis Presley!” Gregory Schill played sports and wanted to become an architect.
“Nineteen-fifty-seven was a good year,” Gregory says. “It wasn’t so confusing like it is now, with all the changing technology.”
“I remember that year, getting out of school, graduating, moving to the big city, getting off the farm,” Carol says.
They never looked back.