Every 10 years for more than half a century, Norman Brown has pounded the pavement helping Americans fill out census forms, rallying fellow foot soldiers and befriending neighborhood pets—all with one singular purpose.
"Everybody in America needs to be counted," says Brown, 74, a great-grandfather in Oakland, Calif., who has been counting Americans for the U.S. Census Bureau since 1960.
Brown was just 24 when he moved to San Francisco from Rochester, N.Y., and learned that the Census Bureau was hiring temporary workers to knock on doors and ring the doorbells of people who did not respond to mailed questionnaires.
"I really knew nothing about the census," recalls Brown, who was assigned to canvass Nob Hill, a neighborhood atop one of San Francisco's highest hills. "It was quite a challenge walking up and down those hills—very steep."
In addition to strengthening the muscles in his legs, the six-week job helped Brown develop the communication skills necessary to approach residents wary about participating in the nationwide head count.
"For the first two days, I got no positive response at all," he recalls. "I was baffled because I thought people would understand that participating was a civic duty. But you just learn how to present yourself and how to appeal to peoples sense of patriotism and humanity. You try to get them to volunteer to do something that is required by law."
Since working on his first census, Brown has been training other census-takers, first in San Francisco and, beginning with the 1980 count, in nearby Oakland. He sets a strong example for rookies.
"Norman is very adept at getting doors opened to him and then at presenting our message with sincerity," says Tony Gonzales, 68, a Census Bureau manager in Oakland who is working with Brown on their third decennial count. "He's a great communicator who mixes well with all segments and all ages."
Brown took leaves of absence or time off from his full-time jobs—first with the city of San Francisco and later as a Sears sales associate—to resume his census work for a couple of months each decade. Today, he manages an apartment complex in Oakland.
"The census is something I believe in because I know firsthand how important it is," says Brown, citing a youth jobs program that he managed from 1964 to 1982 for the San Francisco mayor's office. "I wondered at first why other areas of the country were getting more funds than our program was. Turns out, it was because of our census count. That's the data the federal government uses in its formula for distributing funds."
His passion for an accurate census makes it easy for Brown to perform his 2010 assignment: speaking to community groups, college students and church congregations about the importance of participating in Census 2010. "The vast majority of Americans," he says, are civic-minded people who want to help and want to see things done right, while those who don't return their questionnaires often just need to be asked.
"The census is like voting," he says. "Don't complain about the services you're not getting, or about losing your congressperson to another state, if you're not being counted. Were fortunate to live in a country where were permitted to participate."