Harry Truman was president in 1946 when Mervin Field used $2,000 in poker winnings to launch Field Research Corp. as a one-man operation in Los Angeles.
Today Field Research, publisher of the Field Poll, is a national, full-service public opinion and consumer research firm headquartered in San Francisco, regarded as one of the most respected survey research companies on the West Coast.
Field, 91, who moved to Tiburon five months ago from Belvedere where he'd lived for three decades, says he still serves as a consultant to the Field Poll, though he rarely visits the office.
"I don't need to," Field said. "The electron has taken over from the ball bearing a long time ago."
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said, "He's like a walking encyclopedia of California history and politics, so I don't think there is any better source for me to consult when we're devising questions."
DiCamillo said, "Merv basically sold the company and went into semi-retirement, but he never lost interest in politics." DiCamillo said it was his idea to change the name of the California Poll to the Field Poll "because everyone associated it with this living legend, Mervin Field."
Field was born in New Brunswick, N.J. on March 11, 1921, the son of a cabinetmaker who emigrated from Russia. His parents died when he was young and he lived with an aunt and uncle in Princeton until they left New Jersey in his sophomore year of high school.
He chose to remain in Princeton where he finished high school while supporting himself with a variety of jobs: caddying, bagging groceries, delivering newspapers and parking cars.
During his junior year in high school, Field won a four-year scholarship to Columbia University. He was a good student and editor of the school paper; he had his sights set on becoming a newspaperman. But Field let his girlfriend copy some exam answers, and they were caught. As a result, he flunked the course and his scholarship was canceled.
After that, Field spun his wheels for a time trying to work his way through college. He worked for six months for Opinion Research Corp. in Princeton, then two months for the pioneer pollster George Gallup in Canada before joining the Merchant Marine during World War II. It was the money he won playing poker during the war that he used to found Field Research Corp.
Field said the biggest challenge for pollsters today is reaching people.
"Earlier, polls were a novelty and people liked the idea of being interviewed," Field said. That was a time when pollsters knocked on people's doors instead of bombarding people with robocalls during dinner.
Field said that despite the vogue of the Internet and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the telephone remains the professional pollster's most reliable tool.
"The problem with Internet samples is it is still a case of self-selection," Field said. "There are people who are still not skilled on the Internet."
Some things don't change though. On most days, Field eats brunch at the Tiburon Diner, a eatery that he has patronized regularly for more than 30 years.
"It used to be Tom and Dave's, then it became Dave and Mike's, and now Dave sold out and Mike is the sole proprietor," Field said.
Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at email@example.com
©2012 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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