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Renaissance Institute teachers know their history

As teachers at the Renaissance Institute, retirees Sidney Leibovitz and Gregory Halpin fascinate their adult students with history courses ranging from the Chinese Revolution to French Connections.

Their own histories are fascinating, too.

Leibovitz's love of history dates to his service in the Army's 99th Infantry Division, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Halpin is also a former longtime director of what is now the Maryland Port Administration — and he's was a radio newscaster in the late 1940s, when television was in its infancy.

Halpin, who joined the institute in 1990, and Leibovitz, a member since 1993, are sharing their knowledge and life experiences in the College of Notre Dame of Maryland's adult learning program for people age 50 and older.

"I enjoy exploring different things that I've heard about or intended to learn about," Leibovitz said.

"There are very unique members who teach the courses that are usually faculty-taught." Halpin said. "We turn things around a bit."

Leibovitz: A lasting impression

Speaking over the downpour of rain on Aug. 14 at his Guilford home, Leibovitz, 87, who has taught more than 40 classes at the institute, sifted through documents and awards that illustrated not only his long life, but why he has become one of the Institute's favorite teachers and students, described by institute vice president Bob Fanto as "absolutely loved."

Leibovitz's interest in history began after his service in the Army's 99th Infantry brought him not only to the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge but also to work at the Nuremberg Trials.

Unable to afford college after high school, the young Leibovitz had gone to work as a civilian airplane radar technician, stationed at an Army air base in Maine.

Later drafted, he served in the 99th Infantry, which participated in three major campaigns and five engagements, conquering more than 30 German divisions and taking more than 72,000 prisoners of war.

The 99th Infantry, comprised of more than 15,000 men, lost 85 percent of its troops in three major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge, he said.

Leibovitz attended college in England during the war, taking classes in basic studies at Shrivenham University.

Discharged in March 1946, he ultimately earned two master's degrees back home, including one in computer systems from George Washington University in 1979.

He worked for the Social Security Administration for 41 years as a claims representative and director of several divisions, and as a historian, until he retired in 1991.

He and his wife, Adrienne, 72, joined the Institute in 1993 as students.

"It was something to do and for (the couple) to keep learning without going back to college," he said, "rather than us laying around the house."

Since then, the two have made a lasting impression.

Sid Leibovitz has taught more than 40 courses, and Adrienne is the committee chairwoman, who makes arrangements for social and academic activities held between the fall and spring semesters. They also take classes.

"I enjoy exploring different things that I've heard about or intended to learn about," Sid Leibovitz said. Among his favorite classes that he's taught are one on famous trials and another on the history ofIreland.

As a student, he has most enjoyed taking a class on current topics and a three-part series on the Civil War.

But he also enjoys aspects of the Institute beyond the classroom, including potlucks, trips and extracurricular seminars such as Baltimore Heroes and the Scholars Forum.

The couple brews coffee and sells it during Institute classes. Their efforts have raised more than $1,200 for group activities.

Sid Leibovitz has also assumed the role of Renaissance Institute historian, and has won numerous awards from the Institute for his leadership and coordination of courses.

And he is always willing to lend a hand.

"Whenever you begin a sentence, 'Would you ...,' you don't even have to finish it and he'll say 'Of course,'" Fanto said.

Halpin: Finding a new port

Greg Halpin left "a getting nowhere kind of job" as a radio newscaster in the early years of television to take a job in communications at the then Port Authority of Baltimore in 1959. He stayed 26 years, rising to become director.

In 1990, admittedly depressed in retirement, Halpin received what he called "a real-life ring thrown into the pool of my depression."

It was a phone call from the then-president of the institute, asking him to teach there.

Halpin met his wife, Pat, in the first class he taught. The couple became known as the "Renaissance romance" and will celebrate their 20th anniversary in September. They live in Towson.

The Renaissance Institute has given Halpin, the product of all-male schools, a new perspective on women in the classroom, which he never had in high school or at the University of Notre Dame.

"The only women we saw were the nuns who did the laundry," he said. "If you get into a discussion class and you listen to their (women's) reactions and how their minds process events, it really is different from men, and that is what fascinates me. I've never been exposed to that before."

He's taught a total of 29 classes, all in history, and is best known for his rigorous, 13-week "French Connections" class. Each class of 75 minutes is "only lectures, no discussions and no questions, because there's so much to cover," he said. "I try very, very hard to bring in human events."

It's also of the few classes at the Institute to have a textbook.

Halpin has also taught courses on the French Revolution, China, Japan, Spain, Italy, Ireland, World War I, World War II, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Jefferson and Madison presidencies, Russia, Maryland and the Constitutional Conventions. Halpin will also be taking a full schedule of classes himself this coming semester.

"For those of us in Renaissance, it's a major part of our lives," he said. "Ultimately, you end up running into other Renaissance people everywhere. And it really is what keeps us intellectually alive."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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