Dave Rye ended up a longtime TV news director and anchor in Billings.
Karen (Story) Dahn joined the Peace Corps, which began a lifetime of teaching and world travel.
Years after high school, Linda (Howe) Bennett surprised herself by working in sales and marketing. A national study she took part in during her sophomore year at West High told Bennett she’d be good in that field, though she doubted it at the time.
All three 1962 Billings high school graduates participated in Project Talent, a 1960 national study and the first of its kind gathered wide-ranging information from 440,000 high schoolers at 1,353 schools around the United States.
Now, 58 years later, some of those same individuals, including a number of Montanans, are being tapped for a follow-up study focused on memory and cognitive health.
Most comprehensive study
Project Talent is the most comprehensive study of high school students ever conducted, said Susan Lapham, director of Project Talent, in a telephone interview.
“Over 2,000 questions were given to the students either across two full days or four half days,” she said. “It was very extensive.”
Questionnaires asked participants, which included 4,063 Montanans in grades nine through 12, details about their demographics, health, homes, personality, academic abilities, interests and aspirations. It came, in part, as a response to a dramatic moment fomented a few years before by the USSR.
“In 1957, Sputnik was launched, and then came a huge outcry in the U.S. that our young people were not being prepared for scientific and technical careers, and we were going to lose the space race,” Lapham said.
Dr. John Flanagan, founder of the American Institutes of Research, proposed a landmark study to determine, in part, students’ aspirations and career strengths. Testing was mostly done in March 1960, so guidance counselors could share the results that fall with students and direct them into careers matching their strengths.
That was just the start of how the information was used, Lapham said.
“So many, many studies came out of the set of data collected in 1960, as well as follow-up studies at one year, five and 11 years after high school, up until 30 years,” she said.
The smaller-scale follow-up studies using sample populations of the initial group one. Economists used data from a follow-up study to expose the gap between gender and wage.
A book that used data from the 11-year study was the first to describe post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets. Now, with the original participants in their 70s, the latest follow-up will focus on cognitive health, and specifically on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our participants are now at an age where dementia is diagnosed, and is increasing in its rate in this age group,” Lapham said. “The other thing is dementia — especially Alzheimer’s disease — has increased over the last 10 years so there’s a lot more federal funding available and a mandate to study it.”
What adds significance to this study is AIR already has early life measures for each of the participants, she said. Researchers can study that early information and any follow-up studies, combined with what they learn now.
What they learn "may be helpful in predicting or preventing dementia," Lapham said.
While a sample of the original study has been selected to participate in the newest survey, anyone who took part in the 1960 study is invited to take part, she said.
Where Project Talent took them
In separate interviews, Bennett, 74, Dahn, 73, and Rye, 74, talked about what they learned from their participation in Project Talent and how their lives unfolded.
Rye remembers taking part in Project Talent, saying the scores he got back were extremes. He ended up in the 99th percentile for English and history, but got a 32 in math, “which fits with how my life turned out later.”
He admits he fell into his career. As a college sophomore he ended up at University of Montana, studying English and figuring he’s be an English teacher “since that was what I was good at.”
Then he met a guy involved in radio who thought Rye had a voice made for the medium, and the station offered him a job. Rye fell in love with radio and decided to take time off from school to devote himself to the job, until he got drafted.
After two years in the Army, including 14 months in combat in Vietnam, he completed his degree at UM. He got back into radio, first in Missoula and then in Great Falls.
“Finally, when I was 30, I decided I better grow up,” Rye said. “By then I had a wife and a child.”
He branched off into talk radio, which eventually led to 10 years as a news director and anchor at KULR-TV. After that Rye divided his time between politics, TV and radio, finishing his career in radio as news director for the Northern Broadcasting System.
After he retired, Rye became a lay pastoral associate. He travels to small towns in Montana and even Wyoming preaching in Lutheran churches on Sundays, filling in for sick or vacationing pastors.
“If I had life to do over again, I’d do clergy,” he said. “But my own faith journey didn’t really start till I was 40.”
Dahn doesn’t remember a lot about Project Talent, but that its intent was to follow the arc of her life to see where she went and if she achieved the goals she’d set. When tested for possible career paths, teaching always came up.
“Growing up in that era the two things you were probably going to do was be a nurse or a teacher, or get married,” she said. “Sometimes if you got married it was harder to get a teaching job.”
Dahn’s father was a music teacher, and she’d been involved in music since she’d been in elementary school. An accomplished violinist, she was awarded a music scholarship to the University of Denver, where she graduated in 1966.
Then she arrived at a crossroads.
“The day I was interviewed at an elementary school in Denver as a music teacher and was offered a job, I came home and there was a letter from the Peace Corps,” Dahn said. “I’d been accepted to join an education program to teach in Liberia, West Africa.”
She chose the Peace Corps. Dahn served two years, first teaching elementary students and then high school.
“I liked it so much I re-upped for one more year,” Dahn said.
She then taught at a prestigious Catholic boys’ school for another two years, all the while exploring many different countries on the continent. Then, after traveling through the Sahara Desert and Europe, she came back to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in English as a second language at Columbia University’s teachers’ college.
In 1975, Dahn married a native of Liberia, and the couple returned to the African country a few years later, where she was hired as associate Peace Corps director for education in that country. The couple eventually had a little girl, but unrest in Liberia eventually sent them to Lesotho in South Africa.
The family moved back to the United States in 1988, to Athens, Ohio. Dahn held different positions at Ohio University, including as assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Later Dahn and her husband divorced. She retired in 2012, and since has kept herself busy, staying physically active, joining a group of former Peace Corps volunteers, volunteering with a historical society.
Coming full-circle, she belongs to a choral program at the university and is learning how to fiddle. Where she ended is a far cry from where Dahn thought she’d be.
“I never in my remotest dream would have imagined doing any of those things I did, except maybe teaching,” she said.
When Bennett heard Senior High had been chosen for Project Talent and two days of testing, she remembers she and her classmates were excited.
It got them out of class and it was something different. Even more significant, she said, it was the first time she and her girlfriends started thinking about who they were and where they were going.
“I realized I did have aspirations, I had hopes and maybe I had desires,” she said. “It started a curiosity in me about what doors I could open, where I could go.”
Bennett, whose father worked for Northwest Airlines, had lived a number of places growing up. She knew she wanted to travel after high school.
She spent two years in Japan, where she worked in a MASH unit as a social worker with a Red Cross unit, aiding American soldiers wounded in Vietnam. When Bennett came back to Billings, she attended what was then a two-year community college in Billings and then went on to Montana State University.
Thinking she might want to be a physical therapist, she took a special course of classes.
“I had to petition to be in a couple of classes because I was the only girl,” Bennett said. After she graduated, she studied physical therapy, but didn’t complete the degree.
Eventually Bennett moved to Seattle and ended up selling medical supplies and equipment for almost 20 years. Then she sold computer components for 15 years.
Ironically, that’s what Project Talent told her she’d be good at even though Bennett didn’t believe it at the time.
“I look back on it and I think Project Talent told me I would be very good in sales and marketing,” she said. “It surprised me because never in a million years as a little girl going through school did I think I’d grow up to do that.”
She married at 37 and had a daughter at 40. Now retired, Bennett and her husband spend part of their year in Mesa, Arizona, and the rest traveling around in a motor home, visiting friends and family and enjoying life.
They stay mentally active, reading and playing pinochle. At home, Bennett does aerobics, is involved in a computer club and teaches others how to use their computers and mobile devices.
It’s a life she couldn’t have predicted back in 1960.
“I think my life has been better than I thought it would have been,” she said. “I could never have dreamed this. I’m lucky. I’m very blessed.”