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A new boomer era

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


PHILADELPHIA - Not all people would relish their birthday making national news, but Kathleen Casey Kirschling can handle it.

"When you're turning 60, you don't have any qualms about airing your thoughts," Kirschling said.

Which is a good thing. Because ever since Money magazine tracked down the Kirschling 20 years ago and dubbed her the nation's first baby boomer - born one second past midnight Jan. 1, 1946 - each passing decade has set Kirschling's phone a-ringing.

With almost 8,000 boomers set to turn 60 every day next year, Kirschling once again finds herself the poster child for her generation. The "Today" show is preparing a segment, she's been interviewed for a forthcoming Smithsonian magazine article, and she was noted in a recent American Heritage piece.

Though she doesn't claim to speak for all 78.2 million living Americans born between 1946 and 1964 - who represent more than a quarter of the U.S. population - Kirschling's life spans the arc of the boomer experience.

"We had a great, great ride," said Kirschling, of Cherry Hill, N.J. "We had opportunities like no other generation. And we had fun. We dared."

Kirschling was one of 3.4 million babies who launched the boom in `46, up from 2.8 million the year before, when the GIs started coming home after World War II.

As the middle daughter of a homemaker mother and a father in the tool-and-die business, she had the requisite Hula Hoop and Slinky. In her teens, she threw a sweater over her Catholic school uniform and danced the Locomotion on "American Bandstand."

As an adult, Kirschling did the Hustle, the corporate shuffle, and the motherhood-career juggle. She's once divorced, twice married and the proud grandmother of five. A youthful 59 - credit aerobics and attitude, she says, not Botox and liposuction - she has re-created herself several times, in true boomer fashion. And she's not done yet.

In September, the health educator traveled to Louisiana to help Hurricane Katrina victims. Soon she'll train as a Red Cross disaster-relief instructor, and she is interviewing for consulting positions in community health education.

For better or worse - and Kirschling will tell you it's been both - hers is a generation that makes its mark on society at every stage of its life. Don't get her started on Congress, that boomer in the White House who also turns 60 next year, the war in Iraq, what's been done to the environment, and what isn't being done for poor.

As the oldest among them prepare to enter their seventh decade, Kirschling hopes that the baby boomers' legacy will be "giving back," making good on the altruism of their youth. That's what she plans to do in this, the next chapter of her life.

It's been quite a ride, indeed. Like a lot of early boomers, Kirschling can recall a childhood of school air-raid drills and grown-ups stockpiling food.

"We always thought the Russians were coming and we were going to get A-bombed," she said.

Like everyone else, Kirschling knows where she was on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot (12th-grade math class). And she remembers when that loss of innocence was reconfirmed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy within two months in 1968.

Television was the boomers' portal to a fast-changing world. Yes, it brought the Beatles - Kirschling was a Paul girl - but it also brought home the war in Vietnam and civil-rights abuses.

"Television put everything in front of us and we said, `These things aren't right,'" she said.

Kirschling also had reservations about Vietnam. But unlike many later boomers, she didn't take her views to the streets. In 1966, she was a 20-year-old X-ray technician married to Charles Wilkins, a young doctor drafted along with 382,010 others that year. Kirschling wanted to show her support.

Wilkins wrote her 365 letters during his Army hitch and tore up every one the day he returned home, Kirschling said. "It was a bad war."

Back home, as the country convulsed with change, the couple focused on starting a family. In August 1969, while 400,000 people converged on Woodstock, Kirschling was home with their first baby, Beth. In 1970, the year the United States invaded Cambodia, their daughter had a little sister, Jennifer.

The Women's Liberation movement was in full swing: In 1972, Congress passed the never-to-be-ratified Equal Rights Amendment, which would have banned discrimination by sex. Now, more than 26 million women with children school age or younger work outside the home, according to the U.S. Census; in 1970, only 12 million worked. Kirschling, whose grandmother told her she could be anything she wanted to be, chose to be a stay-at-home mother. But that would change.

"Remember, I was at the top of the boom. I was still partially picket fence and partially independent woman," she said. "Well, the independent woman kind of started to take over."

Kirschling enrolled at Camden County College, where she took classes one night a week. When Jennifer started first grade, she took on a heavier load. She made the girls' activities her first priority and studied after they went to sleep. Her surgeon husband worked long hours.

"I put a lot of stress on myself so they wouldn't be considered latchkey children," Kirschling said. "At the same time, I had all these goals."

Finally, in 1983, she graduated magna cum laude from Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, with a degree in family and consumer science.

The year 1985 was a watershed. Kirschling and her husband began divorce proceedings, putting them among the 38 percent of baby boomers who have had a failed marriage, according to a new Pew study. It was sad, she says, but the two remain friendly.

Also that year, Kirschling started grad school at St. Joseph's University. And she learned she was the first baby boomer.

Unbeknownst to her, archival material had led author Landon Y. Jones to tag Kirschling as Boomer No. 1 in his 1980 book "Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. Five years later, Jones was editor of Money magazine and his staff set out to locate Kirschling, by then on the cusp of 40.

"I thought they were trying to sell me magazines so I kept hanging up," Kirschling recalled.

When the Money article appeared, other media took interest. The "Today" show. Then a TV newsmagazine. By the time Oprah's people phoned, the reluctant celeb had had enough: "I was going through a divorce. I was breaking out in hives."

But her 40th birthday turned out to be one of her best. She was given a champagne toast at the office of Money and taken to lunch. And she considers Jones a friend; he interviewed her for the forthcoming Smithsonian piece.

All the inquiries have given Kirschling incentive to contemplate her generation's place in history. Living in a time of so much turmoil, "we were always changing," she said. "We always had to be in motion. We always had to be challenged."

The second half of the have-it-all 1980s found Kirschling in the corporate world as a regional trainer for NutriSystem, the weight-loss program. She worked long hours, wore power suits, and made good money.

"It was a great company, a wonderful women's company to grow in. If anything, it built your self-esteem," said Kirschling.

Yet as they did for others in her age group, life events changed her priorities. On Valentine's Day 1992, at 46, she married Patrick Kirschling, a food-marketing professor at St. Joseph's University. It was his second marriage, too.

"You learn from the first marriage, and I think that happened to a lot of baby boomers. ... Our goal was to really work on the relationship."

So Kirschling left the corporate fast track. For about a dozen years, until last January, she taught middle-school health in Pennsauken, N.J., and the couple enjoyed summers off. Theirs is a good life, with a New Jersey condo, a second home on the Chesapeake Bay, and a 42-foot trawler they named "First Boomer."

So what will her generation leave behind?

A more diverse society, Kirschling said. More opportunity for women - not as much as she'd like, but more than existed 20 years ago.

On the flip side, she said, boomers are a fairly cynical bunch: "We were lied to a lot. We learned to lie from the pros." And many gave in to arrogance and greed. Kirschling said she's "embarrassed" by her generation's role in scandals such as Enron and WorldCom.

She uses the e-word, too, to describe her feelings about politicians of both major parties. Her hope resides with regular, good-hearted baby boomers, such as those she met while working in the aftermath of Katrina.

"There is greatness in our generation. We just don't have it in our political leaders, and I have no problem saying that," Kirschling said.

She also has no problem with turning 60. She's excited about a spirited history, called "More Than a Bathroom Guide to Baby Boomers," that she's self-publishing with two boomer friends. And she looks forward to time with her grandchildren and to good works still to be done.

"Maybe we can change things," said Kirschling. "We certainly could. We have the numbers."


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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