Seniors celebrate 25 years of Notre Dame University's Renaissance Institute

At 91, Isaac Rehert, a former farmer and journalist, and now a longtime retiree, is enjoying something of a renaissance.

The Medfield man has been a member of the Renaissance Institute, a lifelong learning program at Notre Dame University Maryland, since it opened in the fall of 1989.

Rehert shared in the celebration Sept. 12 — indeed, reveled in it — as the year-round institute for people 50 and older marked the start of its 25th anniversary in the university's Fourier Hall.

"You're only young twice," Rehert, a former teacher at the institute and still a student, told a crowd of about 100 people, most of them seniors, who have taken courses in subjects ranging from Shakespeare to the history of prostitution. They pay a one-time fee of $385 a year for as many courses as they want to take.

"I was the keynote speaker when they first started," marveled the former Cecil County farmer turned Baltimore Sun feature writer, who retired in 1988 and became a poet. He briefly considered going back to a traditional college and studying modern poetry, but couldn't quite see himself sitting in classes with a bunch of young people.

At the institute, "They don't care about a grade, they don't care about the exam, and they're all in the same situation (as seniors) that I am," he said. "Where else can you get that?"

As Rehert talked, senior Betty Nell Wagner, of Roland Park Place, was rushing off to a class in haiku.

"I just love it," said Wagner, 84, an original member of the institute. "I'm going to stay here until I can't."

"The Renaissance Institute is home for people who are committed to remaining intellectually and socially engaged as they consider retirement," Diane Finlayson, director of the institute, said in a press release announcing the silver anniversary. "This is a community of people with fascinating histories who continue to grow and share what they've learned over a lifetime."

Wagner, who raised seven children in the North Charles Street-Lake Avenue area, said the institute has "filled a big gap" in her life, because she never went to college until she was almost an emprty nester in 1981, and then slowly earned a liberal arts degree in Notre Dame's old continuing education program over the next eight years. The same year she got her degree, the Renaissance Institute opened.

It was then that she realized, "I can just stay here and study for the rest of my life. You don't have to get an 'A,' and you can't fail."

Wagner is one of at least 20 Roland Park Place residents who take classes at the institue, as well as similar classes that Roland Park Place offers, said Bridget Forney Deise, a spokeswoman for the continuing care retirement community.

"Lord knows, I'm busy," Wagner said.

Bill Miller, of the Roland Park-area subdivision Roland Springs, has been taking courses there since he retired in 2006 as executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. He took the history of prositution class ("It was wonderful," he said) and an equally memorable course on the history of Islam.

Miller said he also enjoys a program called "Potpourri," weekly talks by members who had specialized careers such as aviation engineering and a program called "Au Courant," which features weekly speakers from outsde the institute.

He is also one of the teachers of "Views of the News," a 13-week class, which on Sept. 12 covered hot-button topics including Syria, gun control, government spying and college athletes getting paid.

"One of the things you get in this organization is people who speak their mind," said Miller, 73.

The institute even has its own elected council, of which relative newbie Ken Pfeifer is president. Pfeifer, wearing a silver hat in honor of the milestone, said the institute has held steady over the years at 200 to 300 members (it's currently 290) and runs 50 classes in each 13-week semester — "everything from art, poetry and finance to an introduction to computers," he said.

The Timonium resident, 69, is a retired international consultant who built payment systems for countries around the world. Now, he's taking classes outside his career comfort zone, including one on modern poetry.

"It was an opportunity for me to take courses that I didn't have time to take when I was working," he said.

And in doing so, he has run into people he used to know, including former neighbors, like a woman whose daughter used to be a babysitter for his family.

"It's just a great group of people," Pfeifer said, adding that they often get together for potlucks, shows and art exhibits.

It's also something of a social club. After the anniversary celebration, which was promoted as a rally, members began to set up a table for a bridge club, which is actually a class.

"It was an opportunity for me to take courses that I didn't have time to take when I was working," he said.

While the celebration was a time to reflect on the past, it was soon back to the start of another fall semester of lifelong learning.

""We're all glad you're here," Pfeifer told the audience. "Have a great year."

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