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Happy Birthday, Osher

Older students partake in lecture

For three days each week from September to May, the halls and classrooms at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus bustle as retirees ponder such topics as philosophy, religion music, history, politics and literature.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, without a doubt, is an integral and vital part of the Montgomery County Campus. During the 2015-16 academic year, Osher celebrates two milestones: the 30th year of the program at JHU, and the 20th year the program has been offered in Rockville.

More than 700 retirees partake in lecture classes in the auditorium, or smaller discussion groups in Gilchrist Hall and the Academic & Research building. They are here for two reasons: They love learning, and they enjoy the social opportunities provided to them through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

“At a time when people are feeling uncertain about their future, they walk into a place that has a caring feel,” said Susan Howard, program supervisor.

The Osher recipe clearly is successful.

Osher offers non-credit, daytime classes to retired and semi-retired adults. The program fosters a stimulating learning environment, with courses taught by faculty drawn from JHU, the region and the connections of members.  Osher students sign up for yearly memberships, enabling them to take classes and granting them access to JHU resources, such as the library and Peabody events. There are no entrance requirements, no tests and no grades. As Osher members like to say, the program is “learning for the sake of learning.”

Osher’s History

Before there was Osher, there was the Evergreen Society.

In 1986, Stanley Gabor, dean of the JHU School of Continuing Studies, decided to start a program targeted to recent and soon-to-be retirees, according to a history of Evergreen written by former Osher member Samuel Joseloff. “With recent medical, psychological and social advances, increasing numbers of retirees were facing more years of active and useful life than in the past,” Joseloff wrote.

Gabor hired Kathy Porsella to determine the feasibility of developing a lifelong learning program at Hopkins. Porsella felt confident it would work and became the program’s director. Evergreen was based in the Hopkins School of Continuing Studies, and courses were offered in Columbia since it was accessible to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The name Evergreen was chosen as a nod to the Hopkins Evergreen House, a JHU mansion that was home to the Garrett family; John  Garrett was president of the B&O Railroad. The name Evergreen also connects to the evergreen leaf, which remains green and fresh.

The program had 30 members and three instructors in its first year. Despite some bumps – enrollment stagnated for a while -- the program was successful.

In 1991, Evergreen expanded to Grace Methodist Church in Baltimore and membership grew.

In 1995, Evergreen expanded to the Montgomery County Campus in Rockville. The number of course offerings and number of members continued to grow. Data showed that once a person had attended Evergreen for two consecutive years, that person likely would be a longtime Evergreen member.

By 2001, Evergreen had grown to more than 550 students.

Today, approximately 1,230 students are enrolled, including more than 700 at the Montgomery County Campus. The wait list has swollen to 450 people at the Montgomery County Campus, with new requests every day.

Some of that success is attributed to Osher’s course offerings. Osher has had some prominent faculty members, including journalists Eleanor Clift and brothers Martin and Bernard Kalb. Saul Lilienstein is an immensely popular music instructor; Stan Levin teaches a notable film class. These instructors are known to pack the 268-seat auditorium in Gilchrist Hall.

Mary Kay Shartle Galotto, director of Osher at JHU, puts it this way: “It isn’t just coming here to take courses. They are becoming part of a community, a learning community. The goal is to make retirement healthy. That means intellectual stimulation and social interaction and networking. That’s the mission.”

Member Carol Cuthbertson of Silver Spring couldn’t agree more. At age 85, she’s been a member since 1995, joining shortly after her husband died. She attended a preview session about upcoming Osher classes and “that day, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” She values the courses she has taken and the friendships she has made, often coming to campus an hour early to mingle with her friends.

“It’s made me much more aware of what’s happening in the world,” she said of not only the classes but of talking to friends about what books they are reading and their views on current events. “I feel so lucky to be part of this.”

Evergreen Becomes Osher

Through the early 2000s, Osher continued to thrive but change was afoot. In 2007, Osher became part of the JHU Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. The following year, the Evergreen Society received a $1 million grant from the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation to be used to engage additional faculty, provide scholarships and enhance outreach to prospective students. In recognition of the grant, Evergreen changed its name to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Today, 119 universities throughout the country have Osher programs.

At the Montgomery County Campus, courses are offered Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays. Other current Osher sites are at the JHU Columbia Campus, Grace Church, Vantage House, Asbury Village and Ingleside at King Farm, a retirement community. This summer, Osher launched a pilot program at Fox Hill, a senior-living community in Bethesda. One course was called the “Three B’s” of Classical Music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Another looked at the history of American comedy.

Osher does not offer courses on basket weaving or knitting or even photography.  Hands-on courses haven’t been considered part of Osher’s formula.

“The whole point of Osher is supposed to be intellectual stimulation, the life of the mind,” Shartle Galotto said.

Yet Osher has evolved. As the program has moved to an electronic registration system, Osher leadership realized members needed to know how to use the Internet and e-mail. Osher now offers a few hands-on classes focusing on technology and social media.

Mixing and Mingling

Osher has a thriving social scene.

Lunch is a focal point of the Osher experience, with members gathering at noon in the café and the second floor of Gilchrist Hall to catch up on each other’s families and share thoughts about their classes. Friendships are formed.

“We send sympathy cards. We celebrate birthdays,” Howard said.

Birthdays are definitely a big deal at Osher; members have had many occasions to celebrate members turning 100 with cake and other treats. Several current members are 100 or older. The eldest member is Milt Baer, the father of Porsella, the original Osher member. He will be 105 in October, Howard said.

Osher has committees that help oversee several aspects of the Osher experience, including the hospitality committee, which organizes lunches for special events.

Osher members can opt to go on field trips; recent excursions include trips to the theater, Nationals Park, the Eastern Shore and the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This fall, Osher members will cruise from Baltimore to Halifax, with stops in the Northeastern United States and Canada.

It’s no wonder, then that Osher reports at least a few members who have met their spouses through the program.

Fundraising and the Future

Through the years, Osher has undertaken fundraising campaigns and has received several $50,000 bridge grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation.

The most recent fundraising campaign began in 2013 and is ongoing.

A few months ago, Osher at JHU received a $1 million grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation, the second million-dollar award made to the institution. As part of the application, Osher at JHU had to show the foundation that members are committed to the organization. Members raised approximately $128,000 and took leadership roles in organizing the fundraising effort, including setting up tables in the lobby of Gilchrist Hall and arranging a New Year’s event with musician Darryl Davis.

In the award letter, the president of the Osher Foundation said the Hopkins program has “established a standard of excellence and a model of active member involvement that have become hallmarks of the institute.”

Beverly Wendland, the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (of which Osher at JHU is still a part) said at the time the gift is a testament to the expertise of the people who operate and teach in the institute.

“At Johns Hopkins, we follow the premise that learning is a lifelong activity,” Wendland said. “Osher at JHU allows intellectually curious adults an opportunity to explore big ideas, learn something new about the world around them, and engage with others who share their desire for scholarly stimulation.”

Howard and Shartle Galotto look forward to Osher expanding and continuing to flourish. As JHU develops a strategic plan for the Montgomery County Campus, Osher looks forward to being part of the future.

“People don’t want to go to Florida or Arizona,” Shartle Galotto said. “They want to stay in their community, where they raised their kids. I hope we will continue to grow and serve the community.”

CATEGORY: Academics, In The Community