‘Never too late’ to learn at Five College Learning in Retirement

Laste modified: Monday, December 09, 2013
SOUTH HADLEY — Though biologist Dottie Rosenthal has been retired for 20 years, she stays well-informed on the newest scientific developments, and likes to share her knowledge with others.

“People who are retired still have intellectual interests, and interests in various fields,” said Rosenthal, of Amherst.

Rosenthal, who worked as a high school biology teacher and college professor, was among over 200 former doctors, teachers, lawyers and other professionals who enthusiastically filled the Willits-Hallowell conference center at Mount Holyoke College on a recent Saturday, when the spring course offerings for the Five College Learning in Retirement program were revealed.

The program, now entering its 25th year, offers retired people a chance to explore new interests or revisit old ones through a set of seminars on topics that include science, art, history and a range of others. All seminars are taught by program members, who prefer the title of “moderator” over “teacher,” Rosenthal explained, because everyone participates.

“We try to guide the discussion, but not dominate it entirely,” she said. Rosenthal retired from teaching in 1993, but continued working as a consultant until 2001.

Other than an office manager, the program is completely led by volunteers. Now with about 300 members, Marybeth Bridegam, co-chairwoman of the program’s curriculum committee, said the number of applications for new membership grows every year. She said the spring preview event drew 45 nonmembers who came to check out the program for the first time.

“People are in better and better health,” said Bridegam, of Amherst. “As people retire they’re physically and mentally active. They want to do something beside sit in the rocking chair.” Lining the conference room were information booths for the 24 seminars to be offered in the spring, with the moderators sitting at each.

Spring seminars are scheduled to begin the week of Feb. 24 and will meet weekly for 10 sessions. In addition are special programs that meet monthly and include a book interest group, a travel interest group and a class on writing one’s own obituary. There are also about 10 events in January and February that are part of a winter session.

Rosenthal’s booth, where she displayed a book and other information on her biology seminar, “Extreme Life,” was particularly busy with passers-by inquiring as to what the course could be about.

She took time to explain patiently. “This is a whole new field in biology that’s just developing,” she said. Extreme life is the study of organisms that live in “extreme” environments such as hot springs, arid deserts, and ice-covered Antarctic lakes, according to a course catalog.

The book for the seminar is “Weird Life” by David Toomey, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Several visitors at her booth asked her if it is a “readable book.” She responded, “A very readable book.”

Rosenthal, a member of Learning in Retirement since 1999, said there is no need for previous expertise to take any of the seminars.

“You don’t have to have been an academic or Ph.D. or something like that to be able to participate fully in the organization,” she said in a later interview. “It’s a matter of motivation and interest, not necessarily of professional credentials.”

Also among seminar moderators is Corrado “Dean” Poli, UMass professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, who will lead a history seminar called “Urban Americans in the Gilded Age,” which explores the development of social classes in the period before World War 1.

“A lot of people are getting a chance to read up on topics they didn’t have time to when they were working,” said Poli, of Amherst.

Retired attorney Richard Szlosek, of Northampton, said he appreciates the opportunity to enjoy learning without the competition for grades and success that was present in school.

“People just enjoy learning and being in each others’ presence,” he said. “You’d be amazed at the experiences and the traveling. I enjoyed immensely just talking to people.”

Szlosek knows the exact date he retired — Feb. 1, 2010. In the spring, he will moderate a seminar called “America in the 1920s.”

He said he learned that a similar course was offered in the first year of Learning in Retirement, and now that the program will celebrate 25 years, he thought it would be a good time to bring it back.

Each seminar can take up to 16 members. If more than 16 sign up, there is a lottery to determine who gets a seat. Bridegam, who retired in 2004 from owning a travel company in Amherst that is now called Cross Culture Journeys, said she hopes to make it into a seminar called “Modern Turkey.” “That part of the Middle East is so interesting because it’s more and more in our news, and we don’t really know much about that part of the world,” she said.

Joan Rosner, of South Hadley, who retired from selling real estate in 2009, said she is glad she has been able to learn about technology through the program.

Bridegam said that out of the 300 members, only around seven or eight do not use e-mail. At a tech fair last year, Bridegam said she learned how to sustain the battery life on her new iPad by closing programs before putting the device on sleep mode.

She said she hopes the program gives retirees a message that it’s “never too late” to learn.

“I think people are in good health and they say, ‘Why not? Now is the time to learn these things I always wanted to learn, or do those things I always wanted to do,’” she said.

For more information on Learning in Retirement, visit the program’s website at 5clir.org.