Nov. 21, 1997
Students Find Winters, Elderly Memories Don't Match
By Maria Rohl-Franco
UW-RF News Bureau
It isn't every day that a college student conducts a study that goes public in four states. But UW-River Falls geography major and River Falls native Mike Tronrud did with his senior thesis comparing local elders' memories of past winters to actual weather data from the same years.
The idea for this study was one that Tronrud's mentor, associate geography Professor Don Petzold, says he had in the back of his mind for the past 20 years, but never had the time to complete. When he suggested the idea to Tronrud, the student admits he thought it was a little "weird," but liked the idea of doing original research.
Tronrud compiled the data for his study by interviewing elderly residents living in a River Falls retirement home, ranging in age from 65 to 94 years.
He says that his research activities found him listening to stories much like those we've all heard grandma and grandpa tell about walking to school (uphill both ways) in blowing snow and frigid temperatures. Most certainly under conditions that were much worse than we have ever experienced.
To test whether their recollections were accurate, Tronrud then plotted and analyzed winter climate data for western Wisconsin, including the mean temperatures and snowfall for each year and each decade from 1920 to the present.
When Tronrud compared the data from the two sources, it was apparent that the seniors' memories did not correspond to the records. What Tronrud concluded was that the elderly people he surveyed tended to recall one severe winter and then apply it to an entire decade.
For example, 51 percent of the seniors referred to the 1930's as being the coldest decade in history. In reality there was only one unusually cold winter in those entire 10 years, from 1935 to 1936.
Thirty-five percent of those surveyed claimed that the 1950's had the most snowfall. In reality, that decade produced the least snowfall overall. However, the winter from 1950 to 1951 did produce the third highest snowfall ever in River Falls and surrounding areas.
So which decade in this century had the worst temperatures and snowfall? The 1970's.
But only one respondent mentioned this decade.
The need to express the hardships of their youth was evident from the responses in Tronrud's study. "Today, many people tend not to understand or respect what life was like growing up in the 1920's or '30's," Tronrud concluded.
If you think the results of the study take away the bragging rights of the elderly, as to the struggles of their childhood, keep in mind the key word in many of their stories: "walking."
As Tronrud's conclusion points out, "A direct relationship links their memory of the severity of winter weather with the years in which they walked to school."
Okay, so maybe it wasn't uphill both ways, Tronrud says, but also keep in mind that today buses pick up and bring home school kids over roads that have been plowed and salted. Winters of the past, without these and other technological advances in clothing, heating, and transportation, were much harder to deal with, even if they were a few degrees warmer or a little less snowy.
Tronrud was prepared to hear exaggerations in the seniors' memories, having heard childhood stories from his own grandpa and great-uncles. But he says he had no idea what to expect from the weather data. Now, Tronrud sees that their exaggerations make sense.
"They were smaller then; everything looked bigger. They were not as mentally mature in those years that they walked to school. The conclusion here is that technology advances, but memories do not," he reasons.
A syndicated column about Tronrud's research was written by columnist Steve Hannah of Milwaukee. It found its way into 18 newspapers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Madison Capital Times, the Rochester Post Bulletin, and the Rockford Register Star, among others. The article circulated to more than one million people through daily newspapers.
Hannah humorously called it the exposing of "one of the world's oldest ongoing frauds." He wrote, "Besides bad perms for men and dumb disco music, the '70's also was the coldest decade in recorded weather history. And the average annual snowfall in this part of Wisconsin was deeper than any time since Herbert Hoover was in the White House."
But Petzold says he doesn't want the seriousness of the study to get lost in the humor of it. "This is a fairly serious study, and Mike did an outstanding job of researching and presenting it," he says.
Tronrud gave his presentation to the Wisconsin Geographical Society, and won first prize in the student's competition. The study is now in the process of being reviewed for publication in a refereed journal.
Petzold says Tronrud is one of his best students. He is a member of the geography honor society, has been on the Dean's list for several semesters, and will graduate with honors from the University, "It is rare for an undergraduate to do work - publishable work - of this caliber," Petzold adds.