Writer and director David Grubin, who has produced more than 100 documentaries, flew to Oklahoma recently after hearing that Putnam City High School's class of 1963 was sitting on a gold mine of national significance.
The treasure he was after, quite simply, was their story.
Members of the class had witnessed racial segregation, a race to the moon, a missile crisis, a booming economy, a fight for race and gender equality and a deadly war, and they had been chosen for a nationwide study.
“This was a generation that lived through major historical changes,” Grubin said. “Everyone wants to hear the ‘what became of them' stories; that's why high school reunions are so popular. I'd like to look a little deeper and know how what was going on at the time affected who they became as individuals.”
The curiosity that led Grubin to the 50th reunion a week ago was the same curiosity that led members of the American Institutes for Research, backed by the United States Department of Education, to conduct a massive study of American students in 1960.
The study was based on the belief that in 1960, when business was booming and soldiers were fighting abroad, the pending state of the nation could be found not in a board room or in a war zone but in a classroom.
Project Talent called for the testing of about 377,000 high school students from geographic areas across the nation. Putnam City High School was one of 1,200 schools to participate and the only school selected in Oklahoma.
The test was composed of 400 questions that assessed knowledge and cognitive abilities, 150 that assessed personality, 200 questions that captured vocational interests and 394 that collected information about family characteristics, health, college plans, career aspirations and military service.
The result, Project Talent spokeswoman Sabine Horner said, was an unprecedented breadth and depth of information about America's youth.
“There was never a test so huge,” Horner said. “The data that was collected has contributed to studies on health, aging, quality of life and even genetics.”
Horner said participants have been questioned sporadically over the years since they took the test, so researchers could compare data collected then to that collected in the present day.
In 1975, a sample of 500 men and 500 women took part in a quality of life study conducted by Project Talent. The published findings of the study indicated that a lack of adequate vocational and education guidance in high school interfered with the quality of life of the participants later in life.
A study in 2011 by the National Center for Health Statistics National Death Index, in collaboration with Project Talent, found that several personality characteristics identifiable in the 1960 base year data strongly correlate with early mortality.
The study found that men who reported behaving more impulsively in 1960 had a 15 percent greater chance of being deceased by 2012, compared with those who reported being less impulsive.
The study found that for women, having a calm personality reduced the risk of premature death by 16 percent, and women with increased cognitive ability had a decreased mortality risk overall.
Perhaps most surprising to test makers and takers was that the academic areas participants scored highest in were the areas they gravitated toward later in their careers.
Putnam City High School class of 1963 graduate John Ford was always gifted in art and now makes documentaries for a living. He said his most cherished memory is the first kiss he shared with his wife and high school sweetheart, Karen.
Ford's classmate, Diane Lawson, worked as a legal secretary but is most proud of supporting her two children through college and watching them get their master's degrees.
“I regret not going to college,” she said. “But I think I made up for it with them.”
Carola Smith said she always wanted to be a nurse and became one after high school. She said she is proud of her involvement in her church and the strong faith she's maintained.
Donna Wright-Hammond is a retired nurse and self-proclaimed “loudmouth broad.” She said her drama teacher brought her out of her shell, and that she and her best friend from high school, retired Putnam City School District Fine Arts Program Coordinator Barbara Gabel, have maintained their friendship through the decades.
“Sometimes it's what you don't see on paper that counts,” said Jack McCallister, who was class president.
McCallister was a Marine in the Vietnam War before returning to Oklahoma to work in business and have 10 children with his wife, Meredith.
“It's an honor that we got to participate in this program. It's allowed us to reflect on our lives as we went about building them,” he said. “But I think at this reunion, 50 years later, I've realized that it's not about how much money you have, what you did with your career or how much you owe in bills or on credit cards. It's about the lives that we've touched.”
David Poindexter said after 50 years he feels confident giving today's young people advice.
“Don't sweat it,” he said. “Things have a way of working themselves out.”
This group, he said, has proof.