85-year-old tells students how to make most of life


Marie Neunsinger Larsen tells her class of senior citizens they don't have to live in the "vast archives of ignorance," then she skips lightly but confidently through her own archives of knowledge. They are considerable.

At 85, Ms. Larsen displays an enormous energy of mind and spirit as she picks through the subjects of art, literature and music for the weekly two-hour classes attended by a dozen seniors who live at the Timothy House Apartments in Towson.

"This started last February as an informal writing class," Ms. Larsen says as she pushes a grocery cart loaded with materials to a meeting room across the hall from her apartment. "It just kind of grew from there."

The affair actually is more of an experience than a class, a mind-expanding exercise to help its participants -- and the teacher -- keep a vigorous hold on life.

Ms. Larsen considers her tutorage a privilege.

"They give me a gift when they come," she says of her audience.

She quotes the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery for her students: "What is essential is invisible to the eye."

"That's from 'The Little Prince,' " she says, holding up a thin paperback. "It costs $4.95, less than two boxes of cereal. How can you resist it? And what are the invisible essentials? Love, caring, hope, understanding."

She passes out an excerpt from "Truth," by Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century English writer. It reads, ". . . but the Truth will make you free, doubt it not."

"Doubt it not," she repeats.

Ms. Larsen's intensity dominates the meeting.

"What do you say when you get up in the morning?" she asks, looking around the room.

"I'm happy to make it one more day," someone answers.

"You can go farther," Ms. Larsen says. "You say, 'I am alive, alert, awake, joyous and enthusiastic.' That's what you say."

Ms. Larsen grew up on Monument Street in East Baltimore, near the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her father made birch and ginger beer for a living. "It had no alcohol," she says.

She went to the Maryland Institute, the Johns Hopkins University, and Columbia University, and taught art for 11 years at Towson State Teachers College, forerunner to Towson State University. She married a Swede, Bror Larsen, a designer of men's clothing, in 1941 and is the mother of three sons. Mr. Larsen died in 1967.

Her paintings and drawings have been shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Peale Museum, and the Smithsonian Institute, among other places.

"Someone asked me how long it took me to do a particular painting," she says. "I said, 'Seven hours and 70 years.' It was the sum of my life to then."

She asks a "student," Edith McCord, to read her homework assignment, a brief passage about her childhood in rural Indiana.

"I grew up in a town with two fiddlers and one saloon," Ms. McCord read. "My father went to the saloon every night, until my mother went to the saloon owner, Mr. Elliot, and complained that he was taking a father away from his eight children.

"He closed the saloon. He cut trees for a living, and one day TC tree fell on him, and I remember to this day the body being carried to the funeral home," her story read, in part. "Mr. Elliot had a heart of gold."

Ms. Larsen speaks to her class about change, learning and understanding.

"If you don't believe in change, you're already horizontal and six feet under," she says. "Change is a constant in life."

She quotes from another book, this one by Terrence H. White: "Learn why the world wags, and what wags it. Learning is the thing for you."

On understanding, she offers an anecdote:

"My friends and I go to McDonald's for Sunday breakfast. They sometimes scowl at young people with long hair and earrings. I have to remind them that Shakespeare had long hair and wore an earring," she says.

When someone asks her thoughts on the recently televised NAFTA debate, she replies, "I would rather read 'Walden' or 'The Little Prince' than listen to [Vice President] Gore and [Ross] Perot."

But she concedes to the contemporary.

"I read Louis L'Amour and cowboy stories," she says. "And I watch 'The Young and the Restless.' I don't know why."

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