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October 1, 2001

Staying Young with the Center for Learning in Retirement

It's been said that when people stop growing intellectually, they become old. That's not a worry for some 300 affiliated University students who, in their graying years, remain on a youthful journey of discovery.

Under the auspices of UConn's College of Continuing Studies, men and women from all walks of life are literally learning everything under the sun from the genetic engineering of food crops to sexual symbolism in myths, legends and folklore.

These senior citizens keep coming back to the aptly named Center for Learning in Retirement for more knowledge.

Now located at the Windham Cottage on the Depot Campus, CLIR was formed a dozen years ago and, as the cliché goes, has improved with age.

"The organization keeps us young," says David Markowitz, CLIR's president and professor emeritus of physics. "We have members in their 90s and I suspect they would not be a young 90 without the classes."

Take, for example, CLIR member Annie Hall, 90, of Mansfield Center, a former secretary at UConn who retired 28 years ago.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Hall, accompanied by her son David, a retired reading and language arts professor from Central Connecticut State College, attended a lecture on army ants in the cozy Windham Cottage.

"You get to see and hear things you wouldn't otherwise," says Hall, who particularly enjoys the Center's travel lectures. "You're never too old to learn."

For more than an hour, Hall and some 30 other CLIR participants were both entertained and informed on the life of army ants in tropical forests in a slide-illustrated lecture given by Carl Rettenmyer, former director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"From the front end, army ants look like a Hollywood monster," said Rettenmyer to laughter when he showed an enlarged, close-up slide.

"These ants clean themselves constantly and were used as the original surgical staple," he said, referring to the medical clamping device.

Rettenmyer and his wife Marian have studied army ants for the past half century and during that time have discovered 200 new species of guests that live only in colonies of these ants. He is currently working on an hour-long PBS documentary on insects.

CLIR's members not only have the opportunity to learn about the life of army ants, but about the Free Trade Act , the challenge of Putin's Russia to the Bush Administration, and some practical and useful strategies, such as how to cope with hearing loss; the benefits of exercise; and how to protect your personal assets during long-term care.

Coming up this month is a series of lectures on legislative issues for the 2002 session of the General Assembly. Speakers include State Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia; State Rep. Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield; and Amy Vas Nunes, a member of the Green Party State Committee.

Armchair Travel
In addition to the more serious lectures, CLIR members enjoy some exotic armchair traveling. The travel lectures are often presented by CLIR members, many of them veteran travelers.

In July, for example, a three-week lecture series brought the senior-citizen students to the wind-swept glaciers in Patgonia and to Bhutan where the trekking is reportedly rigorous. CLIR member Thelma Smith, a wife and mother who began travelling at the age of 70, reported on her Smithsonian trip to South Africa and neighboring countries. During the trip, she celebrated her 93rd birthday.

Professors emeriti like Markowitz, who retired in 1998, have not given up their teaching hats. They've just transferred those hats to, well, a more mature student body.

This summer, for example, Markowitz taught a three-week poetry course entitled "Insomnia Poems." While it may be rare for someone in the arts to learn mathematics, it's not so rare, Markowitz says, for someone in his discipline to be creative in the arts, too.

Markowitz says the creative process is "all patterns and relationships. I love poetry and write poetry."

His summer course involved a series of poems by Shakespeare, Keats, Frost, Dickinson, Eastern philosophers, and Native Americans. His students also shared their own poems on the subject before what Markowitz calls "a friendly audience."

CLIR is largely autonomous, but receives administrative support from the College of Continuing Studies.

"The programs that CLIR offers their members are excellent," says Krista Rodin, dean of continuing studies. "They offer high-quality programs on a very wide range of topics."

Classes are taught gratis by professors emeritus, current UConn faculty, and guest facilitators. Guest lecturers are often presented a small gift of appreciation.

CLIR's curriculum chairman Elliot Wolk, professor emeritus of mathematics, said that the Center's membership is made up of both retired and semi-retired individuals who have one major thing in common: they're all interested in learning and sharing.

While the membership caters to seasoned generations, it is open to individuals of all ages.

"About two-thirds of our members are women," says Wolk, who retired from UConn in 1988. "Most of our members have had some form of professional background, but then there are others who have had little opportunity until now for higher education." Wolk says the Center provides meaning to many of the participants' lives, and also serves as a social setting.

Typically the classes meet once a week for 90 minutes and the courses run from three to 10 weeks. CLIR runs four academic sessions a year, and mails out a curriculum flyer for each session that is designed for us by the College of Continuing Studies.

Best Buy
Tuition for CLIR is one of the best academic buys in the state. In addition to an annual $25 membership fee, a $15 enrollment fee is assessed for each academic session that allows a member to take as many classes or courses he or she desires for the particular academic session.

Morris Fried, who retired from UConn as assistant dean of Continuing Education and Director of the Office of Special Programs, was instrumental in establishing CLIR in the late 1980s.

He launched the Center after attending a seminar that introduced him to the concept of a learning center for retirees. With a core of volunteers and the support of the UConn administration, he says, "the Center took off."

Fried now lives in Columbia, S.C. He is still hooked on education, especially for those in retirement years. He lectures regularly at the Shepherd Center, a center for learning in retirement in Columbia that is part of a national organization. "I continue to feel energized by the classes," he says.

A native New Yorker, Fried is currently, and ironically, teaching a course on life in New York through the decades.

Claudia G. Chamberlain

More information on CLIR is available on-line at: continuing or by calling (860) 486-5383.

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