They helped give rise to the University of Wisconsin System. They shaped an important social theory. They challenged conventional thinking about retirement.
They confirmed that men and women have different views on sex, even later in life.
For 50 years, a third of the graduates from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 have answered questions on topics ranging from money to menopause. In doing so, they have served as a sociological Petri dish in one of the country's longest-running studies.
Dubbed the "Happy Days cohort," after the 1970s television sitcom set in Milwaukee in 1957, the 7,000-plus people in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study are now giving researchers a window into issues of aging, such as Alzheimer's disease.
As many of the enrollees gather this summer to reminisce at class reunions, they're pausing to reflect on their long-lasting role in science.
"It's important to have down-to-earth people in these studies - average people, people right here in Wisconsin," said Carol Kussow, 67, of Madison, who graduated from West High School. "It's good for researchers to learn why people do what they do."
For Tom Mohs, 68, also a graduate of West, being in the study has fulfilled a sense of duty.
"We did it because we were asked," said Mohs, of Madison, whose wife, Nancy, also participates. "It's as simple as that."
SURVEYS WERE SPORADIC
The study is funded mostly by the National Institute on Aging, a federal agency that has contributed $24 million since 1991. It is led by Robert Hauser, 64, director of UW-Madison's Center for Demography of Health and Aging.
His wife, Tess Hauser, 65, is also a sociologist at the university. They are among more than 50 researchers involved.
Surveys of the graduates - and some of their family members - have been sporadic: in 1957, 1964, 1975, 1977, 1993-94 and 2004-06.
"One of the reasons this works is that we don't bother them very often," Robert Hauser said.
But the scientific impact has been continuous, said Richard Suzman, director of the National Institute on Aging's Behavioral and Social Research Program.
Researchers have written nearly 400 journal articles, papers, dissertations and book chapters based on the study, half of them during the past decade. It's the longest-running broad-based study funded by the National Institute on Aging, Suzman said.
"It gets more valuable every year," Suzman said. "To understand trajectories related to aging, you need to know where people start off."
COLD WAR ROOTS
The study's roots lie in the Cold War. In the 1950s, with growing U.S. technological competition with the Soviet Union, Wisconsin's state government wanted to better understand the aspirations of high school students, Robert Hauser said.
In 1957, Kenneth Little, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, surveyed the state's more than 30,000 high school seniors.
The students expressed a strong desire for higher education. That helped lead to the creation of the UW System in 1971, Robert Hauser said. The state combined UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee and two other four-year campuses with mostly smaller state and county colleges.
After Little's initial survey in 1957, the survey was mostly forgotten, its punch cards lingering in the basement of Bascom Hall.
That changed in 1962. William Sewell, a UW-Madison sociologist who later became chancellor, realized the potential for a longitudinal, or ongoing, study of the graduates.
Sewell selected a random sample of 10,317 students, a third of the total. He matched their 1957 survey answers with test scores, grades, household income and other factors.
In 1964, Sewell and other researchers surveyed the graduates' parents. In 1975, they questioned the graduates. Two years later, they queried some of their siblings.
One result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was the Wisconsin Model of Status Attainment, a prominent social theory. It says that social background affects people's school performance, and that both factors influence the expectations others have of them; those expectations, in turn, determine people's aspirations for education and careers.
"That was never documented until we did it," said Robert Hauser, who joined the study in 1969 and became director in 1980.
FOCUS ON HEALTH
In the 1990s, with the graduates in their 50s, the study started to focus on health.
One unexpected finding: Few women reported problems with menopause, especially when compared with previous studies.
That might be because other studies mostly included women whose symptoms led them to doctors, Robert Hauser said.
In the Wisconsin study, nearly all women said menopause had no effect on their family life or their feelings about being a woman - or that the effect was positive and negative. Less than 4 percent of women reported only negative effects.
"We had a whole list of questions (about menopause) we were unable to ask because women said it wasn't that terrible," he said.
Another surprise came from the 2004-06 survey: retirement is a fluid concept. When participants were asked if they were retired, many said yes. When asked if they were working, many of the same people said yes again.
They had retired only to take other jobs, Tess Hauser said. This may be because some hadn't saved enough money for retirement, some didn't expect an economic downturn and some wanted to stay active by working, she said.
"This group is suggesting that retirement is not the picture people had of it before," she said.
With the ranks of retiring Americans about to swell, the finding could have implications for policy makers. Most of the 1957 graduates were born in 1939, six years before the beginning of the baby boom.
ETHICAL MIDDLE GROUND
Of the original 10,000-plus study participants, 7,300 completed the last round of interviews. About 1,300 others died, and the rest dropped out.
Participants haven't been paid - until the 2004-06 survey, when they received $10 and a refrigerator magnet. That was part of a federal effort to create an ethical middle ground between giving people a lot of money, which might coerce them to stay in the study, and offering them nothing in exchange for their time, Robert Hauser said.
Two-thirds of the ongoing study participants recently agreed to a new request: They mailed in saliva samples. Researchers will screen the samples for a gene mutation that increases the risk of Alzheimer's. The researchers plan to track who gets the disease and identify other factors that also influence the risk.
Similar DNA studies of cancer, depression and other diseases could follow, the Hausers said.
The next survey, in 2010 or later, could be the first conducted in people's homes, the Hausers said. They want to assess people's strength, gait, mental competency and other factors that are difficult to measure over the phone or through questionnaires.
Kussow, the West graduate from Madison, said she plans to continue in the study as long as possible. "I think it will be very valuable to the researchers," she said.
Her husband, Wayne, also takes part. Kussow, a retired physical education teacher, joked that she and Wayne may account for some of the differences in how men and women report their sexual activity.
In the latest survey, 23 percent of men said they had sex at least once a week; 16 percent of women said the same. Two-thirds of men said their sexual relationships were pleasurable; half of women agreed.
As for the flexible notion of retirement, Mohs, who helped Kussow plan West's class reunion last weekend, is a prime example. An engineer, he is the founder of Fitchburg-based Placon Corp., a maker of plastic packaging for the food and medical industries.
At 68, is he retired?
"It depends on who's asking," Mohs said. "As far as the IRS is concerned, I'm fully employed. With the casual person on the street, I say I go into the office two or three days a week."
Marcia Burmeister, another West graduate in the study, said she keeps up with the study "because I've had experiences other people haven't had."
She moved into Madison's Oakwood Village Apartments a few years ago after hurting her wrist and shoulder in two falls.
The 67-year-old, who had seizures and other medical problems while growing up, worked for many years at the state Department of Transportation.
Judy Pollock, 68, who graduated from East High School, said being in the study has been easy - except for having to spit into the DNA-saliva kit. "I didn't like that part very much!" said Pollack, a homemaker from Madison.
Sandy Crossman, a retired dairy farmer from Lake Mills, graduated from Lake Mills High School. She likes the study because of its potential for medical advances.
"Maybe we can help get a breakthrough for a disease," the 68-year-old said.
Phil Little of DeForest is probably the Class of 1957 member most interested in the study without being in it.
Little's father was the education professor who conducted the initial survey of the state's high school seniors. But Little, a West graduate who was a Dane County deputy coroner for many years, wasn't picked for the follow-up.
Still, Little said, he's glad to see his father's legacy continue. He thinks many of the study's findings boil down to what his father called the "3 C's."
"It's the chances you get, the choices you make and the circumstances surrounding them," Little said. "That pretty much tells where you end up."
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN SOCIETY IN THE PAST 50 YEARS?
The Wisconsin State Journal posed this question to these 1957 Wisconsin high school graduates who are in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.
Marcia Burmeister, 67, Madison, West High School
"Kids today think they have to have everything. They don't appreciate the value of money like we did. Our folks went through the depression years. They taught us how to budget."
Tom Mohs, 68, Madison, West High School
Madison has changed in such a nice way. The way our community has developed is marvelous. When I compare the Downtown to other cities, I'm convinced people will look back at this era and marvel at the growth spurt we've had."
Judy Pollock, 68, Madison, East High School
"I think women should have equal rights and all that. But when they entered the workforce, the family structure failed a little bit. They don't have time for family."
Sandy Crossman, 68, Lake Mills, Lake Mills High School
"Kids have too many toys, too many things. Years ago, we didn't have all that. You had to make your own entertainment. It's such a hustle and bustle in today's world."