Cork Oates worked as a mail carrier for many years. Walking with a bag for nine to 10 hours a day was a good job for someone who loves hiking. But it didn’t fulfill him on an intellectual level.
When he retired in 2013, the Charlotte man decided he was ready for that kind of fulfillment. He was ready to go back to school.
But Oates didn’t want to earn a degree. He wanted to learn.
A hiker friend told him about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC Asheville.
Since he became a member (one of more than 2,000) in 2013, he’s taken about 15 classes. And his interests are diverse. The history of the Supreme Court, bridge, how the Southern Colonies won the American Revolution, Stephen Sondheim, sports history, and realism and surrealism in Spanish painting are among the courses he’s taken.
Other courses offered this fall: “Get Over It: Letting Go of Disappointments” and the history of the Manhattan Project.
Oates gives his teachers high marks. The instructor in the history of the Supreme Court class is a retired Iowa Supreme Court judge. The Sondheim teacher was an exceptional pianist. “He played Sondheim songs in every class,” Oates said. “Class time was like a Broadway show every week.”
Catherine Frank, the program’s director, said many of the instructors at OLLI say the eager retirees “remind them why they love to teach.”
“No one’s just fulfilling a credit,” she said. “They’re here because they want to be here.”
No one’s worried about their GPA, either. In college, some may have shied away from a tough class for fear of getting a low grade and destroying an otherwise respectable GPA. At OLLI, students can study Einstein’s famous theory in “Relativity for Everybody” without fear of failure.
“Everybody’s encouraged to step outside their comfort zone,” Frank said. If you majored in math, take humanities classes. If you’re a word person, learn something about economics or biology.
She said the program offer fees by the term: $115 for the eight-week fall and spring terms, $90 for the six-week winter term and $75 for the six-week summer term. Participants sign up for three courses on the first round and as many as they can schedule after that. The average person takes between two and three courses.
Students don’t just learn from their teachers; they learn from each other. “Sixty percent of our members have a master’s degree or beyond,” Frank said. “But everyone belongs here. We have high school dropouts in classes with retired college presidents.” And everyone’s got something to contribute.
The concept behind OLLI, Frank said, is based on the thought that “a 30-year vacation may not be for everybody.” And that is especially true of baby boomers, who have made it clear they’re looking for enriching activities far beyond golf and grandchildren.
OLLI has 119 programs – endowed by the Osher Foundation – all over the country. There’s nothing quite like it in Charlotte, though, which is why Oates drives to Asheville once a week. He signs up for classes on back-to-back days and spends one night in a motel.
He doesn’t mind the drive. He’s getting the intellectual satisfaction his job never provided.
School for seniors
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC Asheville offers an annual Creative Retirement Exploration Weekend (CREW). For 25 years, CREW has been helping prospective retirees contemplate the idea of relocating in retirement. The next session is scheduled for June 3-5, 2016, and registration is open now. Cost: $400 per person before May 15.
In 2003, OLLI established Paths to Creative Retirement, where retirees who have made the transition discuss with new retirees their struggles and joys. Weekend sessions are planned for April and August 2016.
OLLI members take classes, but they’re also expected to contribute to the group in some way – by teaching, mentoring undergraduates or consulting. An annual membership is $70, olliasheville.org.