Mervin Field: The King of Data Long Before Data Became King

Mervin Field: The King of Data Long Before Data Became King

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Mervin Field, founder of The Field Poll, died yesterday at his home in Tiburon at the age of 94. He will officially be remembered as a trailblazing pollster. But he was more.

"As much as any writer or journalist of the post-war miracle, Merv imagined California whole," says author Richard Rodriguez. "Even while he recognized the differences and fault lines among Californians, what he saw was a state forming itself into a veritable nation-state, at a time when East Coast pollsters tended to see California as a colony on the traditional power map of America."

Merv was a great champion of Pacific News Service and our offspring -- YO!, the Beat Within and especially New America Media (formerly known as New California Media). He was our first "Chairman of the Board", which in the early decades of PNS meant meeting over dinner with our other board members several times a year,  and writing recommendations to foundations (both of which he did with enthusiasm).

He lent credibility to PNS early on, attended our events,connected us to distinguished
academics and decision makers, and shared his admiration for PNS writers.

He inspired NAM to start our first multilingual polling initiative in 2001 to measure the reach and impact of ethnic media-- and to project the voices of California's non-English speakers -- already some 40% of the state's population -- into the public discourse.

Orphaned early in life, Merv put himself through high school and never graduated college. He told me about going back to his high school reunion once only to discover that the girlfriend for whom he'd gotten in trouble for writing her term paper, didn't remember him. He came to San Francisco for the first time while serving in the Merchant Marines -- he'd recount the story of how he'd won a shore leave from another sailor in a poker game when their ship was anchored off shore. Always self-deprecating, he could spout quips and witticisms like there was no tomorrow. His one regret, says his close friend Jerry Lubenow, was that he never became a standup comedian.

Merv was recognized as one of the three most trusted pollsters in the US, and for much of the last half century, as the most trusted source for reporters outside the state on what was trending in California. He was the king of data before data became king. He could count the number of petrale soles he'd eaten at Sam's Restaurant. He was never too busy to answer the phone, to take every reporter's question seriously. The most cynical reporter from the East Coast. smirking about yet another example of California being "the land of the fruits and the nuts", would come away from a conversation with Merv rethinking his or her own assumptions.

Learning was Merv's great aphrodisiac. "Anyone could talk to him," remembers author and journalist Frank Viviano. "He invariably found something worthy and interesting in what they had to say. When he asked a question, no matter what the topic or who was questioned, he concentrated his full attention on the response, as thought it might hold the secret to a better world." Long after he retired, he was in daily touch with his colleagues at the Field Poll and at the Institute for Governmental Studies. When he could no longer commute to downtown SF, he wrote a blog from his home in Marin, mastering digital media skills in his late 80s.

When Merv turned 92, the town of Tiburon, where he lived, gave him an honorary salute in the form of a large reception. After receiving kudos from everyone from Obama and Jerry Brown to notables and friends across the country, he came to the podium and said, "Gee, I don't deserve this. But I don't deserve my back pain either."

Ever the optimist, he would tell me about how, in the early years of his firm, he used to drive out late at night to borrow money from friends and clients to cover his payroll.

"Things get better after you turn 60," he'd say, "because you know that many more people."

I was fortunate to be one of those people.

Sandy Close is Executive Director of New America Media.