35th Anniversary Tina Fried Heller Speech

Once upon a time — or in the beginning — there were no lifelong learning programs in the DC metropolitan area. In fact, there were only three in the nation: one in California, one in New York City at The New School, and Duke University's program for retired executives.

It was 1980 and a friend and I had developed a proposal on retraining workers whose skills were becoming obsolete — for example, from typewriters to computers. We submitted it for funding to AARP and our proposal had included quality of life transitions. Our proposal was rejected.

Carolyn Alper, a friend who knew what I had been working on, suggested Jack Blum call me about the possibility of starting such a program. Jack had been at the Duke program, and since he was about to retire, was interested in starting something similar here.

He and I put together a proposal and an organizational outline. Our goal was to create a volunteer membership organization with intellectually stimulating study groups, peer-led, and one that also encouraged a sense of community with the added opportunity to make new friends. Jack was an alumnus of George Washington University and contacted the Deans of the Schools Education and Adult Learning at GW. We had many lunches with them, but a year passed and we were no further along in getting any commitment from them.

Fortunately, about that time Lee Abamowitz, a friend of Jack's, had been at a dinner with Richard Berendzen (then President of American University) and called him. Quick action followed. We were given a dean to work with, staff, and space in Nebraska Hall. We were off and running. We held focus groups in our homes to assess interest in our plans and we contacted friends, faculty members, and professionals who might be interested in teaching a course. We formed a board and Carolyn and Sylvia and AI Brown were enthusiastic members. Her [Sylvia Brown’s] daughters are here today. Al was practical, smart, and a great addition. Sylvia, we know, took classes until almost the end. She was smart, spunky, and always stylish.

We chose a temporary name, Institute for Learning in Retirement. No one, especially the men, was pleased with using “retirement” — it connoted rocking chairs and fishing poles. But the title remained until the Osher Foundation approached us in 2005-2006 with an offer of foundation grants if we would change our name and continue our connection to AU.

It was 1982 and we were ready to launch. We had 87 members and 10 classes. We all took as many courses as possible, so as to swell the class size and not discourage the teachers.

At the end of our first term, one member told me she was inspired to get her violin out and that she was taking a Spanish class. We were thrilled — she was nearing 70!

Carolyn and I were reminiscing recently and she recalled bringing her 2-year-old granddaughter into the class she was teaching to serve as a live model. Alex is 37 now.

In an effort to build AU/OLLI links, I asked the Dean of the School of International Studies (SIS) if the school would provide a course with a series of their faculty. It was a huge success. We then went on to the School of Public Affairs, the School of Communications, the College of Arts and Sciences, all at AU, as well as the Gandhi Center.

Faculty speakers have told us they enjoy their work with us. As Nancy Snider, who teaches the very popular course on music said, we are “stimulating and an excellent group of smart, challenging, and eager learners.” In other words, we are perfect students! Another faculty lecturer told me he had been writing a book and the questions asked and the discussion raised in class helped in his writing it.

We began 35 years ago and look at us now! Ninety-plus courses and 1200 members.

Society has changed in these past decades — no notions of rocking chairs or fishing poles attach to the term “retired. We know how vital and energetic a group we are!!