Interview June 2009

“The Power of Adaptation”

Historian Donald Cole reflects on his life, career, and experiences as a member of the Grant Study.
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Donald Cole, 87, has been answering questions as part of the Harvard Study on Adult Development since he was a sophomore in the early 1940s. A historian who’s written books on 19th-century American politics, Cole served in World War II and spent most of his career teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. His next book, Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System, is due out in September. Joshua Wolf Shenk talked to Cole and his wife, Susan Wilson (known as Tootie), at their home in Exeter, New Hampshire. Excerpts from their conversation:

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Do you remember being selected for the Grant Study?

Yes, I do. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I was going off to war soon. I think I was a sophomore at the time. I do remember talking to Dr. Heath. He told me about adaptation. He pointed out that a lot of people who are scholars, who you would think would never be able to turn a nut or bolt on a truck, found out they could do it pretty well in the war because they had to.

I got the impression that some people considered it an honor to be chosen. I didn’t think of it too much. I was chosen because I was healthy and doing pretty well in school. I remember the Rorschach tests. It was amusing.

The focus of the study shifted quite a lot over the years. Was that apparent to you?

I thought they were shifting with our age. The interest in psychology was apparent right from the start. I remember very interesting questions about the war. As the study went on, of course, they began to ask me about marriage, about life in the family, and growing old. I sort of wish now that I had kept a copy of my answers to all their questions. We got questions about once a year. It would have been fun to see how I answered but I never did. I just sent them back in.

Tootie: Quite a lot of the questions were easy to answer, but then they get down to questions about how you are feeling. That was harder. Especially for men who don’t usually talk about how they are feeling.

Do you think that being studied in this way has affected your life?

Yes, by asking me how I live with my wife, how I get along with my children, it has made me think more.

Did you read George Vaillant’s book about the study, “Adaptation to Life”?

I don’t think I read it from cover to cover, but I read sections of it. I have always thought adaptation was a wonderful thing. I preached it to my children when they were going through things. Isn’t his theme that human beings adapt much better than animals?

As I understand it, there are unconscious mechanisms, like humor, that we draw on in order to function in a world where there is a lot of pain and difficulty.

That’s very true. In World War II, you always joked about things that you weren’t really joking about, like before our first invasion, we were all saying “here today, Guam tomorrow.”

Who would you say has influenced you the most personally?

Probably my wife, Tootie. We’ve been married almost 60 years.

How did you meet?

I was 16 and he was in his navy whites taking a friend of mine out. Then two years later he came up and got a job at Exeter and my friend reminded him that my father was in the history department, but we didn’t start dating for another year.

What’s your secret to a happy marriage?

Pick your battles. Compromise. Humor.

Keeping one’s mouth shut! When you have four children and ten grandchildren, a few bad things are likely to happen. You can’t always say something.

Having participated in this epic study, what do you think you’ve learned about health and happiness?

I think George is right about the power of adaptation. I find that generally I can adapt. Though, mind you, I haven’t faced many horrible things. I do have congestive heart failure, a leaky valve. And the only reason I bring it up is that it has changed my life. I take a lot of pills every day. If I do too much I get tired.

Do you have a temperament that’s accustomed to just rolling with what life gives you?

Well, I think I’ve had an easy life. I knew I had to go to school, so I went to Phillips academy. It was in town. I knew I had to go to college, and my father said, Harvard’s the nearest college, you better go there. He didn’t say Harvard’s a great institution! So I went to Harvard, and then I went into the war. Of course, I had to go into the war. Then I came back to Harvard, and they had to take me back as a veteran. I was moving along, when one day the head of the history department mentioned to me that there was an opening at Exeter. I went up and they hired me. It’s been pretty easy.

Do you consider yourself an ambitious person?

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