(Illustrations by Douglas Jones)

No small talent

In the 1960s the Small School Talent Search sought promising young scholars in rural areas. Fifty years later, one of those students gives his perspective on the program and its legacy.

Early one morning in September 1963, Lloyd Johnson’s dad finished milking cows on the family’s 80-acre Iowa farm while Lloyd, SB’67, helped his mother pack the car for the drive to Chicago. Lloyd’s family filled out a tax form every year but never had enough income to owe anything. In Minnesota Mary Ellen Kippley, AB’67, the eldest daughter of a tenant farmer, washed with a basin; her family of 11 had no indoor plumbing. Her mother had the day off from the Campbell Soup plant, where she worked deboning cooked chickens, and rode along as Mary Ellen’s grandparents drove her to Chicago. Versions of this story were repeated in Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, North Dakota, Montana, and Wisconsin. Forty-three other rural kids joined Lloyd and Mary Ellen on their paths to the University of Chicago. I was one of them.

In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton, 1991), historian William Cronon describes 19th-century Chicago as a center that gathered the raw materials of the Midwest—logs, grain, and livestock—to process them into lumber, flour, and bacon. We, Midwest youth of promise, were likewise being sent to Chicago to be transformed. In 1960 the University of Chicago instituted the Small School Talent Search program, informally labeled GRITS (“Grass Roots Talent Search”). By the early 1970s, 480 GRITS students had come to the University.

Few of us in the Class of 1967 had ever heard of the University of Chicago, and most had never been to the city. Jane Grady, AB’67, from Shelby, Montana, “vaguely thought of it like a city community college. … My competitive side liked the idea that you had to be smart to get in.” We were not all poor—my dad owned a small gas station—but most of us were the first in our families to attend college. We were all academic stars in our hometowns. Mary Ellen had attended a National Science Foundation summer course her junior year. Loren Nelson, AB’67, SM’68, PhD’79, had finished at the top of the Kansas State Science Fair. Fred Mannausau, AB’67, had won the Upper Midwest Spelling Bee as an eighth grader and gotten a free trip to Washington, DC. Both Fred and Mary Ellen were National Merit Scholars. Until our guidance counselors told us about the University of Chicago scholarships, however, we were considering state schools or small local colleges. We had not planned to go far from home.

The Small School Talent Search was born of necessity. Enrollment in the College in the 1950s was down by over 50 percent. After president Lawrence Kimpton and his staff met with hundreds of college counselors who had been sending students to Chicago, he told the trustees and faculty that the University had a reputation problem. Charles O’Connell, AM’47, director of admissions when the Small School Talent Search began, noted, “although the College attracted bright young people, it was considered to be a place for oddballs.” In his recent book, The University of Chicago: A History (University of Chicago Press, 2015), College dean John Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, writes of the steep drop in enrollment Kimpton faced. Additionally, the recruitment of high school sophomores and juniors during Robert Maynard Hutchins’s presidency had led to a “collapse of trust among local high school officials, alumni, and parents in the University’s traditional markets.” The backlash, writes Boyer, “meant admissions officials had to try to expand the applicant base of the College by recruiting more students from distant and unfamiliar areas.”

Two accounts of the program’s beginnings are on record. James Vice, EX’52, AM’54, then a part-time assistant in the admissions office, recalls stumbling onto one of these distant markets when he visited four small schools in Indiana. The high school principal in Rochester told Jim he was the first representative of a major private university to ever visit the school and that his students had never even been invited to look beyond their state for colleges. Vice says he then returned to Chicago and presented the idea of recruiting from small Midwest towns to Margaret Perry, the associate director of admissions.

In a different origin story reported in the May/64 University of Chicago Magazine, Perry herself had the idea, after a conversation with a UChicago student from a small Western town, and brought it to O’Connell. Perry had close ties to a Wisconsin village and was eager to preach the gospel of the University of Chicago to small schools. She added Montana because she had visited English department colleague Norman Maclean, PhD’40, at his Montana home that summer and loved the state. Perry would become the program’s champion over the years.

However the idea reached him, O’Connell liked it. Thus began a program its creators called an “experiment.” No one in admissions had any idea whether it would work.

Letters were sent to 25 rural high schools with fewer than 800 students in six Midwestern states. They promised funding to qualified students. “Since we have found that students from small towns nearly always need help, we tell the high schools: If you find us the type of student we are looking for, we will offer him financial assistance.” Even so, there was no new money or endowment for the program. Vice recalls, “We applied the same admissions standards but juiced up the financial computation a bit to lessen the shock.” Fifteen schools produced applicants, and in the fall of 1960 the first nine SSTS kids entered the University. The following year, applicants were recruited from 50 schools in 11 states, producing 19 enrollees. In my Class of 1967, the 45 SSTS students comprised nearly 8 percent.

Arriving from northeast Kansas, Loren Nelson found Chicago to be “dingy, dangerous, and it was also an explosion of new experiences. I met my first communist, my first PhD, my first psychiatrist, my first Jewish person, my first somebody from another continent. I’d led a pretty sheltered life.” Gene Evenskaas, EX’67, from a tiny high school on the Montana plains, says he was lonely in his new urban environment and struck by the poverty in parts of the city.

The academic challenges were also daunting. “My entire knowledge of chem was covered in the first three minutes of the first chemistry lecture while kids from the Bronx High School of Science were looking bored,” recalled Jane Grady. Doug Petersen, AB’67, ThM’69, had earned As for his writing in Worthington, Minnesota. When he distributed an essay on his hometown to his English class, it was ravaged for its naiveté and poor writing by his more worldly classmates, as well as by the professor. Anne Studley, AB’66, SM’72, PhD’73, part of the previous year’s SSTS class, discovered that among the 16 students in her English class, three were famous authors’ sons, including the future Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s (EX’39) son Greg Bellow, AB’66, AM’68. Lorry Sallee, EX’67, from Coin, Iowa, recalls a group of guys talking about the play Antigone. The kid that first mentioned it pronounced it “Anti-gone” and was razzed by all the others for the mispronunciation—except Lorry, who also thought it was pronounced that way. Learning had been easy in our hometowns, but Evenskaas speaks for most of us when he says he “studied seven days a week just to try and stay not too far behind.”

Comparing classmates to her family in Montana, Jane Grady “liked that people not only spoke in sentences, they did in whole paragraphs.” A nondegreed alumna who grew up on a 250-acre farm put it this way: “Coming from a small community, … five or six or 10 of you who were basically bright hung out together since first grade. … And you’re kind of bored with them, and they’re bored with you. It was neat running into lots and lots and lots of people who were cool and had done interesting things.”

According to Muriel Beadle, the wife of University president George Beadle, the Small School Talent Search had as one of its goals “to leaven,” or to change the campus by modifying the mix of students. A major barrier to leavening was that, like all young adults, we wanted to fit in. Robert Mitchell, AB’68 (Class of 1967), MBA’73, came from a mining town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His first strategy for fitting in was to “ditch the trappings of the UP,” he says. “I reinvented myself, very quickly,” and “scrapped my wardrobe after three weeks,” going downtown to Marshall Field’s for new clothes. In her award-winning book Packinghouse Daughter (Harper Perennial, 2001), classmate Cheri Register, AB’67, AM’68, PhD’73, from Albert Lea, Minnesota, describes returning home after her first quarter at Chicago intent on buying a blue work shirt to better fit in. Her father—a millwright in the meat packing plant—presented her with one from work stained with hog’s blood.

Mitchell also avoided classmates from the Small School Talent Search. “I just didn’t think they were very sophisticated,” he recalls, “but I developed this enormous respect for Jewish kids from New York.” Breaking the cultural barrier and making friends with students from urban backgrounds, especially from Chicago and the East Coast, was a key to successful integration for the GRITS kids. But it required some give and take. Lynn Kant, EX’67, from Waupun, Wisconsin, had dreamed of coming to Chicago since she was a high school sophomore and got exactly the roommate she wanted, a sophisticated girl from New York City. But the cultural gap turned out to be larger than Kant anticipated, and after six weeks she switched, getting a roommate whose background was more similar to her own.

Whether other students and the campus culture were much changed by the SSTS kids is unclear. Doug Petersen was among those who made a mark. He was recruited from a physical fitness test and soon found himself starting on the varsity basketball team. Having been active in a Worthington Presbyterian youth group, Petersen attended Sunday services at Rockefeller Chapel and eventually became head usher. He joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity where, as president, he successfully increased the size of the pledge classes. As a result, he was invited to join the Maroon Key Society, consisting of well-rounded students who advised the deans. Members were often asked to guide visitors around campus. Having a basketball-playing fraternity president and church member from a small town representing the University to prospective students and parents broke with UChicago stereotypes of the era.

I was lucky to find a kid from New Jersey, Paul Fleischman, AB’67, who shared my love for the outdoors and read Thoreau; he became my best friend, teacher, and mentor. I thought the learning was all one-sided, but 50 years later he recalled, “I looked upon the world that you showed me, in Portage, as remarkably secure, embedded in the safety of a large democracy on a vast continent, where the citizens owned their own homes (rather than living in apartments as I and my parents did) and where the people had nothing to worry about, and so pursued aimless hobbies like hunting and storytelling. Where I came from, everything was dire, unstable, filled with palpable terror, warfare, and volcanic cruelty. No one had a hobby that wasn’t connected in some way to self-improvement or survival. No one felt free.” So maybe we did make a difference.

A much more achievable goal than the transformation of the College was the transformation of SSTS students’ lives. In Where Has All the Ivy Gone: A Memoir of University Life ( Doubleday, 1972), Muriel Beadle wrote, “It’s wasteful of the nation’s intellectual resources to let a really bright youngster become a home economist or a high school football coach when he or she is capable of becoming a statistician or a physician.” Although her sentiments deprecate many Americans, they are not surprising coming from the wife of someone who had grown up on a 40-acre farm near Wahoo, Nebraska, and gone on to win a Nobel Prize. And they reflect the program’s ambitions.

The transformative effects of the University on us were dramatic. Fred Mannausau, the spelling champ, grew up on a hardscrabble farm his grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Even in the mid-20th century, when Fred was growing up, the farm had no running water or electricity. As his reputation as a speller grew, he began to receive a weekly shipment of books from the librarian in International Falls, Minnesota, about 20 miles away. Chicago was the only school he applied to. Fred went on to become the chief financial officer for Chase Manhattan’s credit card business and later the chief financial officer for a group of American Express businesses. He credits his success to learning how to think critically at the University of Chicago.

Of his five brothers and sisters, Fred is the only one who went beyond high school. When I asked what he thinks would have happened to him had he not gone to the University of Chicago, he immediately said, “I never think about that. The second I start thinking about that question—and I have occasionally—two seconds later I say, well, I am not going to think about that.”

Jane Grady, who spent her career as an administrator at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, responds to the same question: “I don’t know—it makes me sad to even think about. Losing all that rigor that Chicago provided. I blundered into the best decision I could have possibly made.” Anne Studley says, “I thought I would become a teacher and marry my high school sweetheart. Who knows?” Instead she became the first female deputy director of the National Science Foundation and held professorships at Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Penn State.

But while the SSTS program brought us to Chicago, it sometimes had a hard time keeping us there. Of the first nine students who arrived in 1960, only three graduated. Of the 19 admitted in 1961, 12 withdrew, a dropout rate of 63 percent. Press releases from the admissions office tried to put a good light on the program, noting that by our third and fourth years our grades were as high as the other students’.

Seventeen SSTS students in the Class of 1967 (38 percent) left Chicago without degrees. For the rest of the class, the dropout rate was lower, suggesting we were underprepared and not sufficiently supported, a conclusion consistent with the tales of culture shock and struggles to keep up in class. But what happens to a UChicago dropout? This is a question I have worried about since college. Did the University, for its own interest, recruit students from the countryside who would have done better elsewhere?

Gene Evenskaas, who came from Plentywood, Montana, ran out of money after four quarters, took a train home, and borrowed money from the local bank to attend Carroll College, a Catholic liberal arts school in Helena. He kept his costs down by living with his sister, who taught at Carroll, and graduated in 1967, on track with his UChicago cohort. He went on to a career on the trading floor at Bank of America.

Stephen Schempf, EX’67, lost his funding because of low grades, so his father pulled him out to attend the much cheaper University of Minnesota, 35 miles from his hometown of Elk River. He too graduated on time in 1967 with a degree in zoology and went on to the University of Colorado Denver health sciences center with a fellowship to study pathology.

Lynn Kant and Lorry Sallee fell in love, and in June of our first year ran off to get married in Michigan (men had to be 21 to marry without parental permission in Illinois). They left the program when they couldn’t keep up with their scholarship requirements and Kant’s pregnancy caused her to leave the campus job that paid her tuition. Later Kant would get a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh and, later in life, a master’s degree in library science. Sallee would build a career with the paper company Kimberly-Clark, starting as a technician in the research department and, with the help of internal training, retiring 30 years later with the title of senior research scientist.

The classmate who grew up on a 250-acre farm counts not getting a college degree as one of the negatives about her Chicago experience. She eventually married a UChicago graduate—one who sat in on the 50-yard line protesting the return of football in 1963—raised kids, and tutored in public schools. On her way to Botswana when I interviewed her, she wrote: “I didn’t become a world shaking leader in something, but had never thought to do that. Think there needs to be more brighter people without world changing agendas, and who value their space on earth rather than their position on earth.”

The most consistent criticism of the program from the GRITS kids 50 years later was captured by Loren Nelson: “They pretty much just said welcome, we’re glad you’re here, and threw me in the deep end.” The program had been developed by admissions, and after we matriculated they seemed to think their job was done. But we who had grown up in tight-knit rural communities expected swimming lessons and coaches when tossed into the pool. Even small things could become a source of anxiety, like when Jane Grady got an invitation to a dinner party and realized she had never had dinner at someone’s house who was not a relative. Another GRITS kid recalls realizing after her parents left that she had no idea how to get home to Wisconsin. No one had written Urban Universities for Dummies, explaining how to live in a city, or among strangers.

Except for a mimeographed list that did not give room addresses, we had no idea who else was struggling like us. The only time we were gathered together was for a tea and sherry evening at associate admissions director Perry’s elegant apartment in the 13-story Cloisters on South Dorchester Avenue, where we mostly felt like Jane at her dinner party. How much more comfortable and instructive it would have been if George and Muriel Beadle had hosted a Midwest cookout in their backyard, where we could hear a Nobel Prize winner describe his struggles going from Wahoo to the University of Nebraska.

Miss Perry, as we called her then, did not entirely ignore us. Some got to her office on their own when they needed help; others she kept her eye on. When Doug Petersen got a D in the second quarter of Hum 1, Miss Perry called him in and gave him her usual pitch, “You have to work harder.”  A girl who dropped out at the end of the first year recalls meeting at Miss Perry’s apartment for counseling and getting the same advice. “Well, I was working my fingers off,” she says.

In many cases, it wasn’t that we didn’t work hard—it was that we didn’t work very smart. I was spending two hours a day mindlessly typing up my math notes. It took a stunningly low grade on my first exam to get me to Izaak Wirszup’s (PhD’55) office, where the Quantrell teaching award winner gave me a lesson on how to study math. That coaching led to a B at the end of the term. What saved Doug Petersen was the basketball team. Worried that they would lose a starting player if he flunked out, the team organized a study group and brought in a Greek classmate who had experience interpreting sculpture. As a result, Doug got an A in the comprehensive exam in June, erasing the advisory D of the winter quarter.

The second great deficiency from today’s vantage point is that no one ever evaluated the success of the Small School Talent Search. While called an experiment, it was not one in the scientific sense of the term. I could find no record of assessments or follow-ups with those who dropped out. Nor were the SSTS graduates and dropouts tracked along with control groups of other students to determine the effects of the program over time, positive and negative.

The University of Chicago Small School Talent Search was initiated in part to meet the recruitment needs of the University, and some hoped it might change the campus culture. Predictably, the University changed us more than we changed it. Little was done to help with our deficiencies and bridge the cultural chasm between our small towns and a great urban community of scholars.

But for the graduates and even those who left without degrees, the University of Chicago changed them in lasting ways. “I think that this talent search was harder on my folks than it was on me,” says Loren Nelson. “You know, I went far away and I became corrupted. I met communists in school … I became less religious. I think they probably regretted that I went, although I loved it.”

Tom Heberlein, AB’67, is professor emeritus of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and in the School of Forestry at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.