A Taste of the Country

It is more than likely that you've never heard of Calvin Beale, a rural demographer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who died of colon cancer on Monday, at the age of 85. He was a quiet, courtly bureaucrat in a city where those qualities tend to go unremarked.
by | September 5, 2008

  It is more than likely that you've never heard of Calvin Beale, a rural demographer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who died of colon cancer on Monday, at the age of 85.

He was a quiet, courtly bureaucrat in a city where those qualities tend to go unremarked. In Beale's case, though, generations of reporters benefited from his generosity with his time and knowledge, which is why he rated an obituary in The New York Times.

What made Beale unique -- and I use that word to mean that there was never anyone like him before and won't be anyone like him again -- was his extraordinary knowledge of this country's fine-grained diversity. He had a near-photographic memory, a love for quarrying the forgotten lowlands of knowledge -- he once read every soil survey done in the 1920s, '30s and '40s by the old Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, because they contained a few pages of history on the settlement and cultivation of every rural county in the U.S. -- and a determination to see the places that to most demographers were simply names and numbers on a page.

By the time of his death, he'd visited 2,500 of the nation's counties -- and for him, "visit" didn't just mean setting foot in a place. He had to go see and photograph the county courthouse and spend some time poking around. All this allowed him to read a page of Census statistics the way the rest of us read novels: with curiosity and an eye for nuance and change.

Beale was a luminary in what the Penn State geographer Wilbur Zelinsky once called "The Invisible College of North American Landscape Voyeurs" -- a company that included the writer John McPhee and the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson. And, like them, Beale's true gift lay in sharing what he knew.

You couldn't spend time with Beale and not emerge with both awe and admiration for the incredible patchwork of the United States -- the Chinese laborers who once worked the Mississippi Delta, the German Catholics who settled parts of Iowa, the Italian miners, Scottish loggers, Punjabi motel owners, Laotian meatpacking workers and others who gave and still give this country its human immensity.

Beale leaves behind a large body of writings and a small cadre of USDA colleagues who learned at his side. He was still working up to a few weeks before his death, largely because he couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Still, they can't replace his calm way of explaining abstruse demographic details, his fingertip command of the history of human settlement and movement across the landscape, and his infectious amusement at the constant surprises that rural America offers to the curious.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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