Pickin’ and Givin’: The retirement of pollster Garth Taylor

By Susan Rosegrant

Garth Taylor, photo by Eva Menezes/ISR

When Garth Taylor retired in 2010 from running a polling company in Chicago, he wanted to live life right. So, he explains, he devoted about a year to what Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir once called a vision quest. “I describe it as getting rid of everything I didn’t want to do and then finding out what was left,” Taylor says.

The 64-year-old former pollster, who has expressive eyebrows, an often mischievous expression, and an explosive laugh, peeled away the things he didn’t want. And what was left was music.  “I recorded an album,” he says. “And then I got the idea of starting a music school.”

Taylor did that, forming the School of American Music in the small Southwestern Michigan town of Three Oaks, near where he and his wife and son had kept a cottage for years, and where they now lived year-round.

The school gave Taylor plenty to do. But in addition to giving back to this small community through the school, Taylor wanted to give back to his chosen field. “I had gotten the idea of supporting dissertation research at places that are pinnacles of the public opinion profession,” he says.

Taylor began checking out future opportunities to support research at Berkeley and at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR). To his dismay, he discovered that the Survey Research Center at Berkeley had recently closed, a victim of California budget cuts. “To me that was a real wakeup call,” Taylor says. “Public education is under attack. That made me think I shouldn’t wait on this.”

In November 2013, Taylor established the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion Research at ISR. He did this even though he had never worked at or been a student at the institute. “We have benefited from a professional field, and if we truly believe in that field, we should support its continuation,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Garth Taylor

Taylor’s combination of statistics, guitar licks, and philanthropy came naturally. As a kid growing up in Minneapolis, he kept elaborate lists of baseball statistics. He traded his trumpet in for a guitar when he was in 9th grade, so he could learn the songs of an emerging band known as the Beatles. And as a member of the debate club in high school, he championed liberal causes.

After graduating from Berkeley, the one school his high school counselor told him not to consider (“creeping Communism”), Taylor spent a year back in Minneapolis playing guitar for a feminist theater company. Then, inspired by a social psychology class at Berkeley in which he’d done a rudimentary before and after attitude change survey, he went to the University of Chicago to get a PhD in sociology. “I wanted to learn how to be a pollster.”

Taylor studied statistics and methodology, gained the computer skills he needed, and, most important, dug into the riches of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), delving into data sets such as the Michigan Election Studies, whose roots at ISR go back to 1948. “I used to just sit there and read the code books, because it was so interesting to see what people’s answers were to these questions,” Taylor recalls. “I thought it was so mind-blowingly informative that I absolutely fell in love with it.”

After writing his dissertation on trends in American public opinion, Taylor taught both at the University of Wisconsin and at Chicago. But his loyalties were split. Though he enjoyed teaching, a part of him wanted to be outside the university working as a pollster—the ambition that drove him to NORC in the first place. When a position opened up for a director of research and planning at the Chicago Urban League, he took that. And four years later, when local foundations put together seed funding to create an organization that would do surveys of the Chicago Metro region and provide reports on policy relevant issues, Taylor jumped on it.

We have benefited from a professional field, and if we truly believe in that field, we should support its continuation.”

For the next 20 years, Taylor was executive director of the Metro Chicago Information Center, doing public opinion surveys and quality of life measures. Often, Taylor says, the work required a degree of improvisation that isn’t taught in schools. “Having done a very detailed reading of [ISR founder] Leslie Kish’s book on survey sampling probably gave us the single most important skill set that we had in our organization,” he says.

During those years, Taylor and his family would retreat on weekends to Berrien County, Mich., where he played in a jug band, taught guitar, and hung out with other musicians. So starting a music school in retirement wasn’t too much of a stretch. The school now has a dozen teachers, most of them volunteers, and about 50 students studying guitar, violin, banjo, mandolin, and other instruments.

And when he’s not teaching or playing music, Taylor looks forward to meeting the student who will receive the first Garth Taylor fellowship in the spring. “Public opinion was always the most interesting to me,” he says. “I just felt like I was reading the Book of Revelation when I was reading survey code books. Someone else is going to have that same experience.”

Watch Garth Taylor play guitar music: