University of Minnesota Alumni Association


A Wilder Life

Alumnus Paul Mattessich spent 40 years leading research on social issues at the Wilder Foundation

Photo credit John Autey / Pioneer Press

In 1978, Paul Mattessich saw an ad for an 18-month position at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul. All these years later, after retiring in July from the organization, it’s clear he was on a long extension.

Mattessich (Ph.D. ’77) served as executive director of Wilder Research for four decades. The group provides invaluable knowledge to the wider community on areas ranging from homelessness to aging. In fact, related to the latter, a study on people 60 and older is what brought Mattessich aboard for that first position. “I never would have expected to be there [that] long, but the job never remain[ed] the same,” says Mattessich.

The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to improve the lives of individuals and communities through social research work, he explains. “We look into aspects such as effectiveness of programs in fields of public health, education, housing, criminal justice, and more,” he says. “We look at studies of quality of life. This can involve living conditions or needs in neighborhood cities and beyond. Some of the users of our research are nonprofit organizations, foundations, and government agencies.”

At the close of his career, Mattessich supervised the directors of various projects through the Foundation, including a popular initiative he once directed himself.

“Minnesota Compass [, an initiative that tracks progress across Minnesota for various social challenges] relates to our work on quality of life,” he says. “We developed that website because community leaders asked if there was a way to identify critical ingredients for community success and set up a system for monitoring them through some indicators. The goal was to make it user-friendly so people who want to promote community improvement and social change at any level could do it, whether an informal community group interested in a small neighborhood, or a government agency interested in a whole city. This would give them something that supports their work.”

Another key Wilder Research project Mattessich worked on is the statewide study of homeless Minnesotans that the group conducts every three years.

“We designed it to be scientifically accurate and where it would incorporate the work of a large number of volunteers that we train and send out on one particular night every three years,” he says. “They gather intensive data on Minnesota’s homeless population, focusing on who they are, what their needs and activities are with respect to health, employment mobility, a variety of dimensions of life. That has been extremely useful for planning and services for the homeless.

“Before this study and the data, agencies who wanted to help homeless people spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the dimensions of the issue were. Sometimes there would be ... arguments about what was really needed. The study enabled people to come around to the same table and use our data to help develop policies and programs.”

Mattessich says his career was inspired by the work of both Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, and it was further nurtured by the U of M’s sociology department when he was a doctoral student.

“The instructors brought social scientific training that was excellent,” he says. “A couple of professors that really influenced me were Reuben Hill and Michael Patton. The mentoring was the largest part, but they were caring teachers. The general culture of the University of the time and the culture of the Twin Cities involved a real interest in discovering and innovating. There was a great interest in figuring out how we could make society better and how social programs could [help] do this.”

Mattessich, who taught undergraduate and graduate courses at the University for a few years after graduating, was proud to return in 2012 as an adjunct professor in the sociology department, a position he still holds.

“It [brings] back memories and it’s fun to help and support young people,” he says. “I taught an introductory course for those without research experience, and I love being able to introduce students to new ways of gaining knowledge, looking at the world, and developing tools that will be useful in their jobs. I was lucky, my professors ... took the same attitude towards me.”

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