We could count on him
Jeff Strickler, Star Tribune, April 16, 2012 –
After more than three decades of compiling statistics on Minnesotans, state demographer Tom Gillaspy’s No. 1 priority is his retirement.
Tom Gillaspy has retired after nearly 33 years as the state’s demographer. But his definition of “retired” doesn’t mean not-busy. He is teaching a class on demographics at the University of Minnesota and has a busy speaking schedule. (Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune)
For a man who spent his career sorting and classifying people into categories, Tom Gillaspy is hard to pigeonhole.
Gillaspy, who retired in March after 33 years as state demographer, is the first to admit that he doesn’t fit the career’s stereotype of an introverted number-cruncher who is happiest when digging through mounds of data. “A lot of them are like that,” he conceded. “It tends to be a quiet profession.”
Best prediction: In 1995, his office issued an economic forecast titled “Within Our Means” that predicted that by 2010 the state would face major budget problems. The numbers turned out to be so accurate “that it’s almost spooky,” he said.
Biggest surprise: Economic downturns traditionally are accompanied by higher mobility as people move in search of jobs, but the current recession broke that mold. “In fact, mobility plummeted to the lowest level ever,” he said. As probable causes, he looks to the bad housing market and aging baby boomers, many of whom apparently decided they are too old to pack up and start over again.
Biggest trend in the making: The recession derailed urban sprawl. Some analysts predict it will resume when the economy recovers, but he thinks the change is permanent, with people opting to live in denser population areas closer to the city core. If his assessment proves true, “This would be a big one,” he said. “It would be a departure from six decades of behavior.”
Biggest concern: “By 2020 — which is just eight years from now — there will be as many Americans over 65 as there are kids in K-12 education, and that’s going to have a profound impact on society,” he said. “We’re already seeing declining funding for education and increasing costs for aging- and health-care, and it’s going to keep growing. Our support mechanisms need to change.”
And then there’s Gillaspy: an outgoing, people person with diverse interests — from gardening to hiking, writing poetry to teaching — that have exploded into a post-retirement schedule that keeps him on the run.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. “Yesterday I left the house at 10 [a.m.] and didn’t get back until 7:30 [p.m.]. Whenever I used to hear retirees say, ‘I’m busier now than when I was working,’ I’d say, ‘What a silly statement.’ Now I’m the one saying it.”
Not that he was lollygagging before. As someone who believes that numbers are only as useful as people’s ability to understand them, he made himself readily available to government officials and members of the media, to say nothing of the general public, to whom he delivered as many as 200 speeches a year — although, with his usual droll wit, he pointed out that in many of those cases it was the audience that kept changing, not necessarily the speech.
“Now that I’m teaching,” he said, referring to a class he’s leading at the University of Minnesota, “I have the same audience every day, so I can’t keep preaching the same sermon. I have to come up with a different sermon every time.”
He paused a couple of seconds before adding with a chuckle: “Of course, if I teach again next year, those students won’t have heard any of these.”
Going from the demographer’s office to the lecture hall wasn’t that big of a transition for Gillaspy, who always has considered education as one of a demographer’s primary functions.
“Our job was to establish a floor of fact for the debate,” he said. “If all we’re doing is arguing over the facts, we’re never going to get anywhere. Our essential role as demographers was to say: These are the facts, this is what they mean and this is what we can do about it.”
Tom Stinson, the state economist, said that Gillaspy’s ability to take complicated data and present it in an understandable fashion made him an invaluable part of the policymaking process.
“He understood that if people have a better information base, then they make better decisions and create more successful programs,” he said.
Over the years, Gillaspy tabulated data on just about every topic, from average daily commuting times (we’re 17th lowest in the nation) to the number of dentists per capita (we’re No. 11, best in the Upper Midwest).
“Throughout his career, Tom has used his insights as a demographer to help us understand what we look like as a state and how that translates into sound public policy,” Commissioner of Administration Spencer Cronk said in a statement. “His demographic research has shed light on state issues as diverse as health care for an aging population, rural population change, a changing state workforce and education trends.”
Career was rerouted
Gillaspy, who turns 65 in May, didn’t set out to become a demographer. The Texas native, who has a doctorate from Penn State, originally studied economics in expectation of a career in international agriculture.
“I thought that to work with people and food, I ought to learn about demographics,” he said. “One thing led to another, and before long I was working on aging and immigration issues. It was just one of those steering mechanisms that crop up in life.”
He was hired as a demographer for the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, but he and his wife, Cathy, didn’t mesh with the local lifestyle.
“The long and short of it is that we hated Los Angeles,” he said. “I realize that there are a lot of people who like Los Angeles, but it wasn’t for us. When the job opened in Minnesota, I applied for it. There were over 200 applicants, and I knew several of them. They were very good. To this day, I’m not sure why they picked me.”
The job changed profoundly in both form and focus over the decades. When he started, a high priority was figuring out how to gather and process data; these days, with so much information accessible on the Internet and a wealth of computer programming available to process it, the issue is figuring out which data to process.
“Now that we can ask an infinite number of questions, the emphasis is on what questions we should ask,” he said. “That’s the harder thing to tackle. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you don’t know what to ask. That’s going to be the challenge as we go forward. The questions we ask are going to affect real policies, real programs and real people’s lives.”
Welcomed the computer age
Gillaspy started his number-crunching with a calculator.
“I remember adding up columns and columns of printed numbers,” he said. “We had to cross-tabulate with a card-sorter. We’d make key-punch cards, and then we’d run them through a machine that looked like one of those old telephone operator boards, with wires and plugs that we could use to route the cards into bunches. Tabulating a couple thousand cards — which is a really small sample — would take an hour or two.”
In 1979, his office got its first personal computer. Even though it had less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the power of a modern-day smartphone, “We thought that was pretty uptown,” he said. “We were like, ‘Wow! What a deal!’”
In 1981, his office made history by using a computer to help redraw election districts.
“We digitized the geography of the entire state, the first time it had been done in the nation,” he recalled. “Then we fed it into a computer that took up half of an entire [office building] floor.”
But it worked, right? He hesitated before saying, “Well … we ended up with giant maps that we spread out on the floor. My enduring memory of that project is of us crawling around on the floor, drawing lines on the maps with markers that had noxious fumes.”
His decision to retire was a culmination of factors: His wife retired a year ago, they’ve become grandparents and he had other things he wanted to do, including teaching. Demographers tend to think in cycles, he said, and he found himself in a natural spot to step aside.
“The timing seemed right. The census data had been released and all that activity was over, the redistricting was done and it wasn’t a budget year. It would make the transition easier to do it now than to wait for another round [of projects] to start.”
Although he has spent his life immersed in numbers, he considers them to be a tool for helping shape public policy, not a magic elixir for society’s ills.
“Not everything can be solved with better numbers,” he said. “Good data and good information help, but they don’t solve everything.”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392
“Minnesota by the Numbers“ – A presentation by Tom Gillaspy and Tom Stinson at the 10th Annual Parent Leadership Summit, April 16, 2012, Parents United for Public Schools.