America Loses A Prized Rural Demographer Demographer Calvin Beale poured his life's energy into understanding rural America. He helped focus federal policy by visiting thousands of counties, often paying his own way to do so. He died Sept. 1 after 60 years of government work.
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America Loses A Prized Rural Demographer

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America Loses A Prized Rural Demographer

America Loses A Prized Rural Demographer

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The phrase federal bureaucrat isn't often used as a compliment, but demographer Calvin Beale wore that label well during his 55 years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beale focused on rural America. He visited hundreds of counties, remembering minute details about them. He also helped shape federal policy by steering spending to rural places. Calvin Beale died recently wishing he'd spent more time at work. NPR's Howard Berkes has this remembrance of a bureaucratic life well lived.

HOWARD BERKES: The people who knew Calvin Beale want the rest of us to know this...

Dr. KENNETH JOHNSON (Rural Demographer & Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire): Calvin is, I would say, an American treasure.

BERKES: Kenneth Johnson is a rural demographer and sociologist at the University of New Hampshire.

Dr. JOHNSON: His encyclopedic knowledge of rural America, his dedication as a federal civil servant, really changed the views about what rural America was and how rural America was changing at a critical point in American history when most people's attention was elsewhere.

BERKES: And Jim Wildman is a producer here at National Public Radio who focused a video documentary on Beale.

JIM WILDMAN: This vast government is largely made up of hundreds and hundreds of people like him, but his contribution over more than five decades is - it seems limitless.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

BERKES: Wildman joined Beale on a rural road trip five years ago, stopping at this brown brick courthouse in Warren, Arkansas. Beale visited 2,400 counties in his career, close to 80 percent of the total, so he could test his demographic data against local reality.

Mr. CALVIN BEALE (Former Demographer, Department of Agriculture): I like to be informed about what's going on in ways that you cannot be fully by simply sitting behind the desk in Washington. And I can't tell you how many times my knowledge of local conditions made a contribution that other people could not make because they hadn't done the same kind of thing.

BERKES: This wasn't common for government demographers before Calvin Beale, and it fundamentally changed federal policy and funding in the 1970s. The conventional wisdom then was that rural America was losing population. But that's not what Beale heard from the county officials he visited. More people are moving in, they told him, including young farmers and urban refugees. Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire...

Dr. JOHNSON: He saw that long before we saw it in the data, because he was out and about. And for a nation that was focused on growth, much of rural America had essentially been written off as a declining place. But what Calvin showed was that rural America was growing again. And it made policymakers on a lot of fronts begin to think about not just decline and how to cushion it, but about growth and how to help manage it.

BERKES: Beale documented something else about rural counties and towns. Their economies went far beyond agriculture. He helped show that federal policy and funding based mostly on farming didn't help the majority of rural people whose incomes came from other things. And he helped define rural. Government agencies now use what are called Beale codes to show how rural places really are, and whether they might qualify for rural programs.

Dr. JOHNSON: And what Calvin could do was to put all of that local sort of snapshots together and sort of understand the complex quilt of rural America.

(Soundbite of Calvin Beale's road trip)

Unidentified Waitress: Gravy on your rice?

Mr. BEALE: No, thank you.

Unidentified Woman: Ooh, they've got hominy here?

BERKES: On that rode trip five years ago, Beale was invited out to lunch by the county judge in Homer, Louisiana. She'd seen him taking photographs of the courthouse and was curious about this tall stranger with a thick, white mustache, large glasses, a broad-rimmed straw hat, and a sport coat. He looked like a Southern gentleman, but it was obvious he wasn't when he resisted gravy on his rice. Beale called these trips his one indulgence in life.

Mr. BEALE: Not everybody goes to the casinos, or the ocean, or wherever. I find it much more interesting to visit places that have some social and economic or cultural meaning.

BERKES: Beale's colleagues say he paid for these trips, not the government. He preferred it that way. And he returned with more than reality checks on demographic data. He took photographs of hundreds of county courthouses and reveled in their architecture. And he squirreled away in his memory facts and figures and histories of the places he visited. But despite five decades steeped in rural life, Beale's own demography was urban.

Mr. BEALE: I've never wanted to live in a rural area. I'm a city person, I guess. I was born and brought up in the city. I like the amenities of the city. I like all of the facilities that are available.

BERKES: Beale then detailed the cultural, social, and practical characteristics of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood. This is what he might add now. He never married, he was wedded to his job. And he died earlier this month at age 85 after 60 years in government, including 55 at the Department of Agriculture. He never retired. And friends say Calvin Beale lamented in his final weeks work left undone at the office and a list of counties he would never visit. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

HANSEN: To see some of the video from NPR producer Jim Wildman's 2003 trip with Calvin Beale in rural America, go to

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