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Born in 1946, they were the first wave of baby boomers. They were teen-agers when their president was assassinated, and the Vietnam War helped shape their adult lives.

They graduated high school with the class of 1964, when the last of their generation was born.

Once told to distrust people over 30, they're turning 60 this year - at the rate of almost 8,000 a day.

In all, about 78 million baby boomers were born in that 18-year period; today they make up more than 25 percent of the population.

In interviews with The Pantagraph, three Central Illinois baby boomers took pride in the way their generation advanced social causes and human rights while expressing regret over a national debt they're leaving for their grandchildren and concerns about the future of education.

"We've allowed a 'spend now, pay later' philosophy, especially in government," said Steve Vogel, senior director of public affairs at State Farm Insurance Cos. and former director of news and programming at WJBC radio. Born in rural Minonk, he's a son of James and Hazel Vogel, who celebrated 65 years of marriage a week ago today.

"We've let that (philosophy) saddle our children and our grandchildren and who knows beyond that. A growing percentage of our budget is merely paying the debt. That's a bad thing," Vogel said.

Bloomington High School alum Suzi Merritt, who'll soon retire from State Farm, said baby boomers made other decisions that are impacting the lives of young people today.

For example, her generation apparently didn't learn enough about war from Vietnam, she said. Led by President Bush, who also turns 60 this year, decision-makers in her generation "could have done different things in Iraq," she said.

But Merritt agreed with Vogel that baby boomers have made significant contributions to American society.

"I give our generation pretty good marks in the fight for social justice," Vogel said. "We've seen good progress in that regard."

Merritt's friend and classmate, Pam Zweng, a legal assistant for nearly 30 years, remembered a time when the future for women centered on careers in nursing and teaching, or on becoming a secretary.

"As the '60s evolved into the '70s, women were getting more education. Women were not frowned upon for not staying at home," she said.

Looking back

Long before he became a newsman, Vogel had a journalist's grasp of dramatic moments. He remembered sitting at his desk in a classroom separated from another classroom by a glass wall when someone told his group President Kennedy had been shot.

A "big Kennedy fan," Vogel recalled how he sat stunned, looking through the glass partition to the other class where students had yet to hear the news.

"I had a vivid memory of how life had changed for us but not for them," he said.

The president's death - followed by the assassinations of his brother, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King - shook baby boomers.

"I felt very safe until that (President Kennedy's death) happened," Zweng said. "After that, I didn't feel so secure. And as each one happened, you felt less secure."

Merritt wondered if the shared tragedies led to more cohesiveness among boomers. "I'd like to think with all that happening, it brought us closer together," she said.

As an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University, Vogel heard King speak there in 1966.

"Not until I heard the rebroadcast (years later) did I realize how powerful and beautiful it was. - I didn't fully appreciate it at the time. I guess I really wasn't really tuned into the issues midway through my collegiate career," he said.

He learned about a small country in Southeast Asia for the first time when he was sent as an IWU student representative to attend a symposium on Vietnam. He came away thinking America was there for the right reasons. But like many Americans, his attitude changed over time.

"I felt like we got in deep and didn't have an exit strategy," he said.

Vogel was a graduate student in Washington, D.C., after the long, hot summer following King's slaying. He was sent to cover a press conference featuring the black athletes who created a stir when they raised their fists in a black power salute after receiving their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Though organizers had requested only black reporters be assigned to cover the story, most members of the press corps were white. Vogel remembered hearing someone in the audience say, "String them up," referring to the media.

He was drafted from graduate school into the U.S. Army, but spent his time stateside and in Europe, where he read about a rock concert near Bloomington called the Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival.

Looking ahead

And as anyone who saw Mick Jagger strut his stuff at the recent Super Bowl can attest, age is relative when it comes to rock music - or to boomers for that matter.

"As a generation, we are redefining 'old,' " Vogel said. "I don't know anyone in my generation who thinks 60 is old. I guess I had the feeling that when I get to be 59 or 60, I would feel a lot different than when I was 30. But in many ways, I feel pretty young. I recall other people turning 60 and thinking that's pretty old. I don't feel that way at the moment."

Still, "I'm looking forward to it (retirement)," added Merritt, who will retire this summer from her job of 35 years in financial reporting and analysis. She shares the same birthday with her husband, David, whose retirement plans from Caterpillar Inc. are not quite as certain.

"I want to spend some time with family, do some traveling, do some things around the house that I don't have the opportunity to do while I'm working," she said.

Like Vogel and Zweng, many other baby boomers plan to keep working for a while. Zweng loves her current job and plans to stay as long as she can. Vogel may retire but then do other things. He lists author among his other talents.

Though a recent Associated Press survey found most boomers expect to retire around age 63, two-thirds will continue to work: 43 percent of that number will do so because they want to stay busy; 27 percent say they'll keep working to make ends meet; and 19 percent will keep punching the clock so they can afford "extras."

Vogel, Zweng and Merritt feel financially prepared for the next third of their lives.

"We've been saving," Merritt said.

"When you make $5, you should save $3," Zweng added.

While their vision of their own futures is positive, the three boomers share concern over the collective future of the nation.

"I feel apprehensive," Zweng said. "Other countries are pushing education and hard work. - In America at this time it costs so much to make a living. It takes two people to make a living. When it comes to educating people, there isn't much left. Education is key."

Up to now, each generation of Americans has been better educated than the one before it, but "I'm not sure that's true now," Vogel said. "When you see what's going on in other countries and how quickly they are building their technologies and education, I worry about that in terms of our economy and standard of living. Will our children be able to enjoy the same standard of living we do?"

Part of the problem, he said, centers on what he's heard described as the notion of "SKI-ing" into retirement " Spending the Kids' Inheritance.

"When you put it all together, the next couple of generations who may be expected to support the boomer bulge may not be all that prepared to do that because of the economy and debt. I'd like to be optimistic, but I'm worried about whether we've been selfish and lazy," he said.

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