Note: A shorter version of this story aired on your local member station.
Fifty years ago this month, Life magazine published its take on the 100 most promising young professionals of the midcentury. The special issue, titled "The Take-Over Generation," highlighted some of the "young movers and shakers of the country," Roy Rowan, the magazine's assistant managing editor at the time, tells reporter Richard L. Harris.
Rowan recalls searching for young people "who were innovative and doing new things and might have a real impact on the world."
Rowan and his team whittled the list to 100 politicians, writers, scientists and businessmen. And they were mostly men — only nine women and a smattering of minorities made the list.
"The glass ceiling was pretty solid in those days, and it was very, very hard for women to get into leadership roles," Rowan says. He says a current list would be a much more diverse group. "It wouldn't be this lily white list at all."
Most of those profiled in "The Take-Over Generation" were in their 20s and 30s and just beginning to make a name for themselves. Some went on to become household names, like authors Philip Roth and John Updike, and opera diva Leontyne Price.
Others, like Harold Brown and Pete Peterson, reached the power elite, becoming Cabinet secretaries, while Daniel Inoyue, now the most senior U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was described as "the first Oriental to serve in the House of Representatives."
Newton Minow, Martin Marty and Frank Drake all made "The Take-Over Generation." Each went on to become a powerful player in his respective field. The three men spoke with Harris about being selected, the life and times of the 1960s, and the world we live in today.
Chicago attorney Newton Minow, now 86, was profiled as the "outspoken new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission" under the Kennedy administration.
On his youth at the time he was appointed
A week before President Kennedy had appointed me, I had been turned down for a position on our local suburban library board because I was too young.
On recommending legal intern Barack Obama for a fellowship two decades ago
"I had not said he'd become president, but I did recommend him for a fellowship, and I said he's going to become one of the most important people in the country. So I never thought at that time that he would be president, but I knew that he would be exceptional."
On how much the world has changed since 1962
This was before Vietnam, this was before Watergate, this was when people had more trust and faith in our institutions and our government. It was before all the cynicism had set in.
On his now-famous 1961 speech that criticized television as a 'vast wasteland':
"I'm afraid when I die the first words on my obituary will be 'vast wasteland' where I'd prefer they write about what we did to create public television, public radio, the communications satellite program, cheaper long distance telephone rates, cable, UHF. Those are the things that were important, rather than the two words 'vast wasteland.' "
Martin Marty, now 84 and a renowned religious historian, was described in the 1962 magazine as "a penetrating, outspoken critic of suburban church life in America."
On being selected for the magazine
"I'm a Nebraska country boy. You don't expect big things to happen. And a lot of things happened."
On the rate of religious participation in the United States in 1962
"I think about 47 percent of the American people said they were regular worshippers, and it's never been that high again. And it plunged during the '60s and gradually went down ever since."
On the dramatic increase in diversity in America in the past century
"In 1924, we clamped down on just about everybody who wasn't from Western Europe. In 1965, everything just changed. ... [Today] you constantly hear, 'We've got to take America back,' things like that. You're not going to take America back, because there are too many Americas out there now."
In 1962, Life described Frank Drake, now 82, as "one of the First Americans to get a Ph.D. in radio astronomy." Today, he's chairman emeritus of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.
On the national passion for space exploration in the 1960s
"Sputnik had been launched; the Space Age had begun. And that opened people's eyes to the idea that there are other worlds out there that we might visit."
On changing attitudes about the possibility of extraterrestrial life
"One of the things that has most impressed me these last 50 years is how the minds of people on Earth have changed on the subject of intelligent life in space.
"Back in the 1960s it was a taboo subject. In a few decades, we should be doing searches that actually have a chance to succeed. I'm afraid I won't have a chance to see that, but within the next hundred years, a lot of humans will."
On his surprise at being selected for 'The Take-Over Generation'
"I was very young and not very well-established, so I thought they were ahead of time anointing me with this honor."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Time capsules have been buried throughout history, to help future generations understand the past. But they're not always deep underground. This summer in West Virginia, Richard L. Harris discovered that sometimes, they're hiding in plain sight.
RICHARD L. HARRIS, BYLINE: There they were, deep inside a vast, Berkeley Springs antique store - bins of cellophane-wrapped Life magazines, published weekly between 1936 and 1972. One in particular caught my eye; a special issue, titled "The Take-Over Generation: 100 of the Most Important Young Men and Women in the United States." It sold on the newsstand for 20 cents. The date? September 14, 1962 - exactly 50 years ago today.
ROY ROWAN: I wasn't sure I'd be here 50 years later. (LAUGHTER)
HARRIS: Roy Rowan is very much here. Now 92 years old, he was the assistant managing editor of Life magazine in 1962. This issue was his idea.
ROWAN: I called a couple of the domestic bureaus and bounced this idea off of them; of doing an article I was thinking of then, on some of the young movers and shakers in the country who were innovative and doing new things, and might have a real impact on the world.
HARRIS: So they whittled the list down to 100 - politicians, writers, scientists, businessmen. Yes, mostly men; only nine of the 100 were women. And there was only a smattering of minorities.
ROWAN: The glass ceiling was pretty solid in those days, and it was very, very hard for women to get into leadership roles. And of course, today, so many of them are running corporations. Yeah, if you did this list today, obviously it would have many, many more women; many, many more Hispanics and blacks. It wouldn't be this lily white list at all.
HARRIS: Most of those selected in 1962 were in their 20s and 30s, just beginning to make a name for themselves. And some would become household names - authors Philip Roth and John Updike, opera diva Leontyne Price. Others would reach the power elite. Harold Brown and Pete Peterson became Cabinet secretaries. As you scan the profiles, you can almost hear the excitement and tumult that was the early '60s.
(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely ...
...Thursday, the marshals would show up, and that you and the others would step aside, and Mr. Meredith would come into the university...
AMBASSADOR ADLAI STEVENSON: And let me say something else: Those weapons must be taken out of Cuba.
ROWAN: We were seeing aerial photographs of the missile sites in Cuba and the Cold War, of course, was pretty much at a high. So it was a dangerous time; it was a time of uncertainty.
NEWTON MINOW: This was before Vietnam, this was before Watergate. It was before all the cynicism had set in.
HARRIS: Newton Minow, another of the red-hot 100, was a young Chicago lawyer tapped to be the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
MINOW: A week before President Kennedy appointed me, I had been turned down for a position on our local, suburban library board because I was too young. (LAUGHTER)
HARRIS: A year before this special issue of Life, Minow - now 86 - delivered a now-famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, criticizing television programming; a speech that's still quoted 50 years later.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MINOW: I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air, and stay there for a day. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
I'm afraid that when I die, the first words in my obituary will be the vast wasteland; where I would prefer that they would talk about what we did to create public television, public radio, the communications satellite program, cheaper long-distance telephone rates, cable, UHF...
HARRIS: Just a mile away, in Chicago, religion historian Martin Marty, who's 84, says he was delighted to be included among Life's red-hot 100.
MARTIN MARTY: I'm still kind of a Nebraska country boy. Well, you don't expect big things to happen, and a lot of things happen.
HARRIS: Religion, for one. Marty says 1962 was the high-water mark for religious participation in this country.
MARTY: I think about 47 percent of the American people said they were regular worshipers, and it's never been that high again.
HARRIS: But unlike the early '60s, when John Kennedy had to promise voters that the first Catholic president wouldn't take orders from the pope, Marty doesn't believe Mitt Romney will face the same kind of resistance to his Mormon faith.
MARTY: I don't think it's going to be that big a thing now, as it was with Kennedy.
HARRIS: Thanks, he says, to immigration. His hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, has more than 50 languages spoken in the public schools. We're not as homogeneous as we were in 1962.
MARTY: You constantly hear, we've got to take America back - things like that. You're not going to take America back because there are too many Americas out there now.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)
FRANK DRAKE: Sputnik had been launched. The space age had begun. And that opened people's eyes to the idea that there are other worlds out there we might visit.
HARRIS: Frank Drake has been thinking of extraterrestrial life since he was 8. The chairman emeritus of the government-funded SETI - Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence - is 82 now. Though he pioneered the search for life beyond our solar system, he was surprised to be included in that Life magazine.
DRAKE: I was very young. I was not well-established. So I thought perhaps they were ahead of their time.
HARRIS: Perhaps no one else in this group of 100 has spent an entire lifetime on a goal he's unlikely to reach.
DRAKE: One of the things that's most impressed me, over these last 50 years, is how much the minds of people of Earth have changed on the subject of intelligent life in space. Back in the 1960s, it was a taboo subject. In a few decades, we should be doing searches that actually have a chance to succeed. And so, I'm afraid, I won't get to see that but within the next hundred years, a lot of humans will.
HARRIS: Selecting future leaders is always perilous. But one of the Life 100, Newton Minow, hired an intern 20-odd years ago at his law firm, and would write him a recommendation for a fellowship.
MINOW: I said, he's going to become one of the most important people in the country.
HARRIS: His name? Barack Obama. I'm Richard L. Harris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.