Gwen Garvey can’t wait for school to start. She doesn’t know how many classes she will take or what topics she will study, but she still can’t wait. As soon as the catalog comes out, she’s deciding. And if history repeats, she will likely take several classes.
Garvey, 75, lives in the Beaufort, South Carolina area, and she’s one of the star pupils at her local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute—known fondly as OLLI by the veterans. It’s a nationwide program, now offered at 124 locations, for people age 50 and older. All programs are affiliated with universities. The Bernard Osher Foundation, founded by the generous philanthropist, awards grants to the programs.
“I take 29 or 30 classes a semester,” Garvey says. It all started when her long-time friend Kathleen Jordan, who is on the curriculum committee at the University of South Carolina Beaufort’s OLLI program, suggested it would be a good activity after the death of Garvey’s husband, Jim, six years ago.
“She had no idea what can she was opening,” Garvey says. Since then, Garvey has taken several classes on local history, gardening and herbs and even one on dirt. That’s the class that taught her to read the class description before enrolling, she laughs. She headed off to a class, thinking it would be juicy local gossip.
“People came in with bags of dirt, and they looked like they were bringing in their poopy bag,” Garvey says. Always a good sport, she stayed, though she was dirt-less. “I learned about different layers, that there are fossils in our soil, that most of it is sandy and that no matter what you plant you aren’t going to get much to grow.” With all this new knowledge in her brain, Garvey says, “I always have something to contribute if I go to a cocktail party.”
Every state, as well as the District of Columbia, has at least one OLLI program, says David Blazevich, the senior program director at the Bernard Osher Foundation. “People join for the joy of learning and discovery,” says Blazevich, ”but we also want them to find community. There are no educational requirements, no tests, no grades.”
Each program develops its own curriculum at the local level, and offerings range from art, music, history, science, technology, current events, genealogy, writing courses, performance groups and even bands.
Bernard Osher is a poster boy for lifelong learning. “Mr. Osher is now 91 and he does independent study,” Blazevich says. He took up piano at age 80. He has taken up fly fishing.
The joy of volunteering
Jordan, of the Beaufort program, can’t wait for the school year to start either. She has volunteered for the last 12 years, and puts in the hours of a fulltime job when gearing up. One of her roles is finding teachers—who are unpaid. No problem, she finds. So far, ”our teachers include rocket scientists, artists, business leaders, ecology experts,” and others, she says. “We have an instructor who was a marine biologist and also a Cuban refuge when he was 7 years old.”
That would be Juan Carlos Jimenez, who is proud to say his classes fill up the day they are posted. Among his offerings are a class on cigar smoking. “Most of my students are women,” he says. “You would be surprised at how many women smoke cigars.” He tells them how cigars are made and what to look for when buying them. While there is no instructor pay, there’s payback. Jimenez and his wife run Tacaron, a boutique seller of cigars, wine and Cuban coffee.
Jordan’s husband, Jim, has published three books on history and architecture in the area and teaches classes on his topics, with book signings wrapping up the sessions.
Offerings vary at different locations, but the Beaufort program offers about 400 courses in the winter and spring, Jordan says, and another 50 in the summer. “Most are one session, just a few hours usually, and always with a Q and A,” Jordan says. However, at other OLLIs, the classes are longer, perhaps weekly for 8 weeks.
Annual membership costs vary, too. At the Beaufort OLLI it is $40; students can pay $120 a term for unlimited classes subject to seating availability or pay as they go, which is $10-20 per class, depending on the season and class. About 1,500 are members in the Beaufort program, Jordan estimates.
If Gwen Garvey has anything to do with it, those numbers will grow. As she goes about her routine, including a daily morning swim, she says, “I tell everybody about the classes. Really, I should have a business card made up.”
And it would say? “Gwen Garvey. Let me tell you about OLLI.”
Your turn: Curious if your area has an OLLI? The list is here.
If you had the opportunity, what subject would you teach? Let us know in the comments!