Folks you’ll find at Five College Learning in Retirement

  • Robin Varnum in her classroom at Lycee Jahan Malika, a girls' school in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 1972 or 1973. The photo was taken by her husband, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghazni at that time, and appears in her book “Afghanistan at a Time of Peace.” CONTRIBUTED

  • Robin Varnum in her classroom at Lycee Jahan Malika, a girls' school in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 1972 or 1973. The photo was taken by her husband, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghazni at that time, and appears in her book “Afghanistan at a Time of Peace.” CONTRIBUTED

For the Gazette
Published: 11/24/2022 3:32:59 PM
Modified: 11/24/2022 3:32:49 PM

My husband, Jim, and I have been members of Five College Learning in Retirement (5CLIR) for over 20 years, and have made some exceptional new friends via this organization. We mostly Zoom now (a real benefit in the winter), although some seminars meet in person.

This past fall we met three fascinating people whom we did not know well: Robin Varnum from Springfield, Richard Nicoll from New Salem and Nancy Coiner from Amherst.

Jim met Robin in a seminar on “The Golden Age of the Persians (600-330 BCE),” which was a natural topic for Robin since she has lived in Iran, Libya and Afghanistan (where, from 1972 to 1973, she was in the Peace Corps, and where she met her husband). Robin was in a number of political hot spots: at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967 she was evacuated from Tripoli, Libya, and in 1973 lived through a coup d’état in Afghanistan. Because of her background in Iran and Afghanistan she has a good command of spoken Persian.

Robin was born in southern California in 1950. From the age of five, she lived in Iran (her father was a petroleum engineer); the next year the family moved to Tripoli. She left for college at age 18; besides her undergraduate degree she has an M.A. from the University of Washington and an Ed.D. from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She taught English and chaired the English Department at American International College in Springfield for many years.

She and her husband have two daughters and four grandchildren.

She has also published four books: one on writing, one on comics, a study of the early 16th century Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and her latest, “Afghanistan at a Time of Peace,” was published in 2001 and is based on her Peace Corps experience. Robin joined 5CLIR in 2019 and has enrolled in many semesters of memoir writing. She is now working on a new memoir, based on her mother’s letters when the family lived in Iran.

Richard Nicoll was born in southwest England. He finished high school and one year of agricultural college, then embarked on a career he had not counted on: working with horses and carriages, privately at first and then for Colonial Williamsburg for 32 years. He met his wife, Martha Hanks-Nicoll in the U.S.; they have two daughters and four grandchildren who live nearby. Richard and Martha chose New Salem as their retirement home, as Martha is originally from Massachusetts.

His career at Williamsburg entailed being the director of coach and livestock and managing all their livestock and carriage programs. Richard is an expert in laying out courses for driving carriages in competitions, a career which brought him in contact with the late Prince Philip, also a fan of driving horses. Here is the link to an article which describes the contact between the two men, and has a photo of Richard driving the carriage bearing Queen Elizabeth and Philip on a visit to Williamsburg in 2007:

Martha, too, has much experience with judging horses, but they now have no horses at their rural home in New Salem. Jim and I recently visited with our small Border Terrier, Sophie; when Martha and I took her out, we were greeted by a large flock of wild turkeys which caused Sophie to stop in her tracks (they are way bigger than she is). Richard and Martha have a large garden and raise chickens; they had to learn how to protect them from marauding bears.

The Nicolls have been in 5CLIR for three years, and, as Richard said, “I like the wonderful presentations and interesting people you meet through the discussion of the various subjects you elect to take. It greatly helps in making you delve into new subjects and keeping one’s brain active.”

Nancy Coiner was born in Arkansas and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she had two very close friends, Laura and Janet. Though Nancy moved away, they are still in touch with each other; Laura and Janet, thanks to Zoom, are now active members of 5CLIR.

Nancy studied intellectual history at St. John’s College, got an M.A. from Oxford and a Ph.D. from Stanford. As she said, “I used higher education as a way of seeing the world.” She went to Israel to learn Hebrew and to work on a kibbutz, arriving shortly before the 1972 Yom Kippur War. She subsequently visited Europe and England, to study communes and to live on one.

She was hired to teach at Middlebury College, but then met her husband Michael Ponsor, a judge, and the author of two legal/judicial thrillers, and moved to Amherst (Michael is also in 5CLIR). Nancy taught English in a special school in the Berkshires to small classes of 6 to 10 troubled teenagers, who could leave their school whenever they wished, but most stayed. She thought up creative ideas such as: “Describe your own hell after reading Dante’s ‘Inferno.’”

Nancy joined 5CLIR in 2020. She has a penchant for assigning very long books, such as “War and Peace” and “Middlemarch,” but she has a loyal following anyway. As she said, “Even before I retired, I knew I was going to miss the classroom; after all, discussions are one of my favorite ways of getting to know people. It’s exhilarating to be part of a group of people who are sharpening their wits by bouncing ideas off each other, trying to express themselves as clearly as possible, and seeing their ideas subtly transformed by the impact of other people’s perspectives.”

As though all this were not enough, Nancy has also just published her first book: “The Magical Librarian of Tulsa, Oklahoma.” She said, “The novel has gotten some lovely reviews, but I mostly enjoyed the process of getting it written, edited and out into the world.”

For more information, and to join this organization, go to

You won’t regret it.

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