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Thursday, September 27, 2012 9:11 PM

Photo by Bobby Burch/The Ottawa Herald

Lifelong learners Stanley and Alice Jo DeFries, both 83 and formerly of Ottawa, are pictured Thursday at their Lawrence home. Through the years, the couple has participated in several of the University of Kansas’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute courses, some of which soon will be offered at Ottawa University. OU and KU announced Wednesday their plans to offer two Osher Institute courses at OU’s campus this fall.

‘Learning for the joy of it’

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer

Until 2004, it had been nearly 40 years since Stanley and Alice Jo DeFries entered a college class as anyone other than the instructor.

As former educators at Ottawa University, the two had spent plenty of time in such a setting, but on this particular occasion the couple entered a University of Kansas’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course as students of Irish history and literature.

“The presenter was excellent and even proposed to teach us how to speak some Gaelic,” Stanley DeFries, 83, Lawrence, said of the class. “It was a great class, and that’s the thing — I don’t think I’ve ever attended [a course] that was boring.”

“[The courses] are all taught by first-class instructors,” Alice Jo DeFries, 83, said of the four courses the couple has attended through the years.

The DeFrieses hadn’t returned to education to complete another degree, but rather to satisfy their insatiable appetite to learn.

And now — thanks to an academic alliance between KU and OU — Franklin County seniors, or any other residents with an intrinsic interest in learning, can soon take advantage of college-level courses in Ottawa for a fraction of the cost. The two universities announced plans Wednesday to offer two Osher Institute courses at OU’s campus this fall.  

“We are excited to partner with KU’s Osher Institute,” Dennis Tyner, OU provost, said. “This program — designed for folks 50 and over — reflects the value Ottawa places on continuing education, and offers us a great opportunity to share our facilities with this special segment of the Ottawa community.”

The Osher Institute at KU, which was founded in 2004, is funded by the philanthropic Bernard Osher Foundation, based in San Francisco. The KU institute was made possible through several grants from the foundation, and was expanded further throughout Kansas and the Kansas City metro area after it successfully reached benchmarks of participation. After less than 10 years, the institute has expanded to 120 universities in 49 states, according to its website.

KU’s program offers 37 courses and six special events throughout Kansas and Missouri designed for those 50 and older, Jim Peters, director of KU’s institute, said. While the program caters to an older crowd, Peters said, interested parties of all ages are welcome to join the courses.  

“The whole idea is basically just learning for the joy of it,” Peters said. “There is no testing, no homework, no pressure and no papers. It’s just learning for the joy of it.”

More than 1,700 people participated in KU’s Osher courses last year, Peters said, adding that the institute continually is working to expand its offerings throughout northeast and central Kansas.

The institute recently expanded its partnerships to Washburn University, Kansas State University, OU and William Jewell College.

In addition to several universities, the institute aims to provide courses and special events through partnerships at retirement communities, which is how the DeFrieses came to know of the program.

“That’s one of the reasons why we got to take these courses free of charge, since Brandon Woods [a senior living community in Lawrence] partnered with [the institute],” Alice Jo DeFries said, adding that each course at the community was sold out. “People were coming from all over town to take the course, but we were just fortunate that we could walk to [the class].”

Similar to its connection with Brandon Woods, KU’s Osher Institute also has reached out to Ottawa Retirement Village to form a partnership.

“I was pretty excited about hearing [of the OU-KU partnership],” Dee Shaffer, Ottawa Retirement Village executive director, said. “It provides a good opportunity for residents and our staff to get educated without any pressure and to stay involved in the community.”

If it receives much involvement from its residents, Shaffer said, the retirement community would provide rides to and from OU for the courses. And while she hasn’t yet informed residents about the courses, Shaffer said she’s anticipating an enthusiastic response.

“I’m expecting a positive reaction,” Shaffer said. “I think they’ll be interested in [the courses] and we’ll have a lot of participation.”

Peters, who has acted as director of KU’s institute for seven years, said the courses frequently draw a lively crowd that offers a breadth of personal experience with the subject matter. About 50 percent of its participants have a college education, Peters said. Often times, he added, students challenge the professor with other facts and observations, which can be refreshing for instructors.

“We have a lot of faculty from many institutions, and they repeatedly say how much more fun it is to teach this crowd and these classes than undergraduates,” Peters, who also teaches “The Life and Times of Harry Truman” for the institute, said, noting that the average course attendee is 77. “What we all find is that when you go into the class, your students bring 60 and 70 years of life experience into this class and they’re not going to just sit there and take what you say for granted or at face value — they’ll challenge you.”  

Some courses offered by the institute this year include: “Amber Waves: The German Russian Settlers of Kansas,” “Social Media for Seniors,” “Tales of Terror: Forbidden Texts in the Bible,” “Wrestling with Emily Dickinson” and “The History of American Political Campaigns: The Viewpoint of a Political Memorabilia Collector.”

The first of two courses to be offered at OU is “Understanding Your Rights: The Supreme Court in American History,” taught by Dr. John Mack, an adjunct professor of history at Johnson County Community College and an online instructor for the University System of Georgia. The course is set for 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 9, 16 and 23 at the Ward Science Building, room 101, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.

The second course — “The Silk Road: from Marco Polo to Mao” — will be taught by veteran Osher instructor Nancy Hope, associate director for special projects at KU’s Confucius Institute. The course is expected to be presented 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Nov. 12, 19 and 26 at the Ward Science Building, room 101, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.

Cost for one course is $40 or $65 to attend both.

For those debating whether the courses are worthwhile, Stanley DeFries offered a resolute opinion.   

“It’s a wonderful program,” he said. “We were thrilled to hear it is coming to Ottawa.”

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