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

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.

"No one believed him when he first started talking about it," USDA colleague John Cromartie said, "but later surveys bore him out."

Mr. Beale knew from firsthand experience that rural America is far more diverse, racially and economically, than most people realize. He also knew, despite common perceptions, that the vast majority of rural Americans have nothing to do with farming and are, in fact, more likely to work in manufacturing.

"His on-the-ground knowledge of all these rural counties gave him the ability to see things going on before those of us more wedded to numbers could," said Kenneth M. Johnson, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor.

One of the few people to accompany Mr. Beale on one of his field trips was Rand Corp. demographer Peter Morrison, who recalls his journey to the Mississippi Delta as "one of the great experiences of my life."

In 1990, Morrison published a collection of Mr. Beale's reports and notes as "A Taste of the Country: A Collection of Calvin Beale's Writings." It was reissued in 2002.

"More and more people who came to know him were fascinated by his knowledge," Morrison said. "It's fair to say there developed a cult following."

Calvin Lunsford Beale was born June 6, 1923, in Northeast Washington and was a graduate of Eastern High School and D.C.'s old Wilson Teachers College. Fascinated by geography from childhood, he found a job in the map department of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, during World War II.

While working at the Census Bureau in the late 1940s, he did graduate work in the new field of demography at the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin. He received a master's degree from Wisconsin for his life's work in 1981.

Mr. Beale, who never married, lived in the District his entire life -- and had no desire to live anywhere else. He followed baseball closely and was his office's resident movie expert, but mostly he devoted his life to his work, studying maps, the ever-changing numbers on census reports and the lives those numbers represented.

In the words of his nephew, Richard Beale, "He's the only person I've ever known who, on his deathbed, said he should have spent more time at the office."

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