Close to 60 years ago, Baldwin High School students in the classes of 1960 to 1963 sat down to take a multi-day aptitude test known as Project Talent. For some, it was something they thought about quite regularly in the following decades.
“I do remember wondering several times throughout my life whatever happened to Project Talent?” said Richard Burg, a 1963 graduate who now lives in California. “It seemed like a significant enough thing, so much so that I remembered its name.”
David Martin, also a member of 1963’s graduating class, said he forgot about it during college “and then for decades thereafter.
“There was a total lack of contact until I was curious about what follow-up they had made with the participants,” Martin said in an interview conducted over email as he prepared to move from Arizona to Oregon.
Now, the Baldwin participants, and hundreds of thousands of others in the United States, are about to once again hear from Project Talent, as they take part in a national study on Alzheimer’s disease.
The test’s purpose
More than 440,000 people who took the test will be asked to take part in a follow-up study focusing on memory and cognitive health, whose answers — paired with those they gave in the original test — will be used to identify resilience factors in teenagers that protect people from dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.
The second test will then be followed up by another exam conducted over the internet — a tablet will be provided to those who may need one — and the telephone to measure cognitive ability, such as how fast one answers the questions. Project Talent has kept in contact with the participants, asking them to alert test organizers of any moves or other major life events.
Dr. Jennifer Manly, a principal investigator for Project Talent and an associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center’s Neurological Institute, said she wants to know what aspects of education best protect someone from Alzheimer’s.
“I’m interested in the role of education and educational quality on later-life cognitive function and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Manly said in an interview. “I want to compare what these schools were like and find out what it was that really provided an advantage, or provided a con.”
The researcher said the factors could be anything from the extracurricular activities the subjects had as students to who their friends were.
“My work has pointed to education being very important,” she said, “but we don’t know exactly how yet. What is it about education that’s good for you?”
Baldwin alumni look back
The participants who spoke to the Herald said they don’t remember much about the original test.
But Martin said he was intrigued by its intended purpose.
“I think it was interesting to try to predict future use of natural talents as tested and then to follow up and find actual path taken,” he said.
There was one thing that stuck with Nancy Herbst (née Wolff) a 1960 graduate.
“They kept asking us, would you rather do this or that, and one of them would have to do with pig farming,” Herbst said. “A lot of us joked about it after the test.” She also recalled how it got her out of classes for two days.
The Freeport native, who now lives in North Carolina, joked that she might not be the best candidate for the follow-up study.
“I’ve always had a terrible memory,” she said.
Burg, who grew up in Rockville Centre, said he “doesn’t remember very much about it at all.
“I really had no clear memories of what being involved meant.”
Martin, too, doesn’t remember the actual test.
The Baldwin High grads’ memories of the hamlet are much clearer than that of the test.
For Martin, his recollections of Baldwin center on “the academic challenge of the advanced classes, which a group of about 24 to 30 students participated for six years together from seventh through 12th grades.”
Wolff also had fond memories of her time at Baldwin High.
“I know it might sound weird, but I loved school,” Wolff said.
She was a member of the chorus, choral leaders, Future Teachers of America, the homemaking group and French Club.
Burg remembered being one of the only people who rode his bike to the high school. “Pretty much on a regular basis,” he said, “probably until the end of my senior year.” He also tried to play sports, but found his greatest success on the mathletics team.
An ‘interesting time’
Manly said that the generation of people tested decades ago lived “in an interesting time.”
“There was the Vietnam War, a lot of change in what jobs demanded; there was a lot of social upheaval at the time,” she said. “These are a perfect group of people to study, now that they’re in their 70s.”
Herbst, too, recalled a different social climate at the time.
“I took the freshman tour at Hofstra,” she said. “Our guide stopped and pointed to a girl across the quad and said, ‘Look. See that girl in the blue dress? That’s her! That’s Stephanie. She’s an engineering major.’ Gasps all around as well as a few chuckles. How things have changed.”
Where are they now?
Burg didn’t spend much time in the hamlet after high school, as he moved to Oregon to attend Reed College — the “Harvard of the West,” as Burg called it — and never went back East. He had four careers, ranging from field director for a research project to consultant. He’s now retired.
Martin moved to Arizona in 1976, where he started an appliance store that he ran for 33 years. He became a diagnostic and repair expert in the field, he said, and ran an internet-based telephone help line for 14 years before he retired in 2011.
Herbst, like most women in the 1960s, had limited career options. Later in life, she worked for the North Carolina state parks. She is now retired.
Whether the former Baldwinites’ answers will provide a path to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s, which studies indicate will affect 16 million Americans by 2050, is yet to be seen. But Manly said she was hopeful.
“I’ll hopefully be able to use this data to answer whether there is anything about the schools themselves that’s good for people as they get older,” she said.
The Herald thanks Edward Daly of the Baldwin Public Library for providing copies of the 1960 to 1963 yearbooks for this story.