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Demographer Looked Past the Numbers To Discover the Heart of the Heartland

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Two or three times a year, Calvin L. Beale would leave his desk in Washington and travel to the University of Wisconsin to speak to graduate students. A professor of rural sociology at the university, Glenn Fuguitt, knew that Mr. Beale had spent decades studying the population trends of rural regions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that no one alive had a deeper understanding of his subject.

After his lecture, Mr. Beale would join Fuguitt and the grad students for dinner. In his characteristically reserved but attentive way, he asked the students where they were from. He would then recite the name of each student's county, no matter how remote, and detail its primary businesses and cultural history.

As a final flourish, he would describe the local courthouse.

"He would always amaze them," Fuguitt said. "I never spent more than half an hour with him without learning something."

To the general public, Mr. Beale might have been an anonymous bureaucrat in an obscure agency -- the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service -- but in the world of demographics and rural sociology, he was nothing less than a legend.

"He had an unprecedented, encyclopedic knowledge of rural America, county by county," Steven H. Murdock, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, said. "I know of no one who knew as much about rural America."

Mr. Beale knew all the figures behind his facts, but he also recognized the faces. He made his first foray into the American hinterlands in 1950, when he led a census crew in the Mississippi Delta. For more than five decades, he continued to travel to distant outposts in all 50 states to take the measure of the people who live there.

Of the nation's 3,141 counties, he visited almost 2,500. In each one, he took a picture of the county courthouse, interviewed local residents and recorded meticulous notes. (Many of his photographs can be found on a USDA Web site at

What may be even more remarkable is that Mr. Beale never charged his trips to a government expense account. He paid for everything -- airline tickets, car rentals and hotels -- out of his own pocket. He also scrupulously arrived at his office desk 30 minutes early each morning, so as not to waste the government's time while eating his breakfast of half a muffin.

"The taxpayers got their money's worth from Calvin, and then some," said David L. Brown, a former colleague who now teaches at Cornell University.

Mr. Beale joined the Agriculture Department in 1953 and never retired. He was still on the job as senior demographer of the Economic Research Service when he died of colon cancer Sept. 2. He was 85.

His most renowned discovery came in the late 1960s, when he noticed that people were beginning to trickle back to the countryside after 150 years of steady migration to cities. When he published evidence of what became known as the "population turnaround," academics scoffed.

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