Jack Thompson of Phippsburg is not your typical student, but he is among a growing number of seniors who believe that education is a lifelong process rather than a terminal goal. He is among the almost 300 students, or “members,” at the Mid-Coast Senior College in Bath.

He and Nancy Wheeler are co-founders of the college that began in 1999. Thompson, 88, started taking courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Center in Portland and thought it would be a good idea to offer senior courses in the midcoast. More than 65 people attended the first planning meeting.

Thompson, a retired history professor from Indiana University. used to spend summers in Maine during his youth and working years.

“I was much attracted to the idea that seniors have lots of life experience and intellectual curiosity. The added benefit was the socializing effect. A lot of our students enjoy the fact they meet like-minded people and it expands their social network,” said Thompson, who has taught 20 different courses himself.

Thompson has taught courses on World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and other historical subjects and has taken courses such as Lincoln and the American Memory, literature and art courses and a course on animal behavior. Midcoast Senior College is offering 19 courses this fall including classes on the Tudor monarchy, Hitler and comparing the recent recession to the Great Depression.

Courses are taught at the Higher Education Center in Bath and at the Highlands in Topsham and at Thornton Oaks in Brunswick, two retirement communities.

“The growth in the number of courses and students says that seniors are interested in being intellectually active. Another message is that midcoast Maine is growing as a desireable retirement area,” said Mark Smith, the co-chair of the board of directors for Midcoast Senior College, who retired to Maine after working as a teacher, principal and superintendent in New Jersey, having spent summers here as a youth.

And, he added, there is research that brain cells can keep growing if you stay active.” There is also medical proof that we are living longer and more active lives.

“We are a very different generation of retirees,” said Susan Morrow, assistant director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Portland. “Retirement is very different now than it was 40 years ago. Study after study shows that if you are intellectually active, it prolongs the quality of life and it is fun.”

OLLI is a senior college program founded at the University of Southern Maine in 1997 by retired Rabbi Harry Sky and administrator Terry Foster for people who are 55 years and older. Rabbi Sky is 86 years old and still teaches courses today. In 2000, Kali Lightfoot was hired as the first full time executive director.

“When my parents retired there wasn’t something like this. You worked until you were 65, you retired, and then you died — you were taking it easy,” said Lightfoot. “The emphasis is on learning. People today are healthy and educated — this is contributing to this boom.”

There are no credits or grades for senior college courses. The typical student can be as young as 50. All instructors are volunteers. Courses cost around $50 each and can run from six to eight weeks, but the cost and length of the course can vary. There is also an annual membership fee of $25.

There are 18 senior colleges in Maine, 15 of which are affiliated with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and there are 118 OLLIs in all 50 states with another 400 Lifelong Learning Institutes nationwide.

“What OLLI offers the people of southern Maine is the chance to get together with very bright, active experimental people – people who like to try and learn new things. It is a real vital community here,” said Morrow.

One member of that senior college community is Martha Barnard, 66, of Portland. Barnard worked as a Spanish and substitute teacher in the Searsport and Belfast schools before retiring. Barnard started taking courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute about a year ago. Her first class was the geology of Maine, which got her hooked on senior classes, especially when the class took a field trip.

“There is a lot of camaraderie and the teachers are very good and very professional. I’ve taken classes such as the physical universe, which is not in my area of expertise but there was no worry about getting a failing grade,” said Barnard. “I just think it is a wonderful experience and everyone is from diverse backgrounds and so congenial.”

For more information visit www.Maineseniorcollege.org.


Cathy Genthner is a freelance writer who lives in Gorham.