Lifelong learning program at Pikes Theatre gets rave reviews

Usually a whirling dervish of energy and conversation, Nancy Garfinkel paused for a moment when asked for her title as related to the lifelong learning program she oversees called Food For Thought : Lectures To Nourish Your Mind.

"I'm the owner, director, CEO – whatever you want to call me. Most of all, I'm the schlepper," she said with a laugh. "I schlep everything around to the classes."

A 68-year-old Mount Washington resident, Garfinkel single-handedly started Food For Thought last spring as an intellectual and social platform for people who live in Northwest Baltimore, particularly senior citizens. She operates the for-profit program — which is open to all ages — as a one-woman show, save for the instructors and occasional assistance from her husband, Darryl J. Garfinkel.

Food For Thought's classes are held exclusively early in the day — no later than noon —- in the stadium-style cinemas at the Pikes Theatre, at 924 Reisterstown Road in "downtown" Pikesville. Students come from Owings Mills, Pikesville, Lutherville, Howard County, Upper Park Heights and even York, Pa.

An independent, noncredited, nondegree program geared toward the liberal arts, Food For Thought has been a hit with the community, and its courses have mostly sold out, according to Garfinkel. She said there is a waiting list for some courses.

Occasional onetime lectures, such as a recent one by New York attorney David L. Auerbach on the life of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, have also been sold out.

"My students love it and have been so supportive of me and the teachers," Garfinkel said. "Here, there are no papers or tests or grades. It's just for the joy of learning. The enthusiasm from people has been overwhelming. They're so appreciative, and it's me who should be thanking them. I love it."

Food For Thought has not advertised its offerings anywhere, so students largely have learned of the program by word-of-mouth. Many were already on a mailing list for the industrious Garfinkel's other business, Travel Treks LLC, which offers day trip excursions around the region.

"I was counting on my base coming," she said. "And they've really come through."

Classes for each course are held once a week, and semesters run four to 10 weeks, depending on the instructor and course content. Courses cost from $40 to $65, depending on the teacher's background and the length of the course.

For this fall's roster of courses, Garfinkel said approximately 350 students are already signed up. With topics covering politics, Broadway and classical music, art history, film and literature, Food For Thought's teachers come from a variety of backgrounds. The faculty includes Jonathan Palevsky, program director of classical music radio station WBJC-FM, local artist and educator Joseph Paul Cassar, and Baltimore Sun writer Fred Rasmussen.

"There was definitely a need in the Pikesville area for some kind of learning classes that involved real thinking," said Barbara Blumberg, a veteran local educator who will teach a sold-out Food For Thought course this fall on the history of women's fashions. "Nancy has tapped into that need. She's the Energizer bunny. She's bright and funny and creative, and she'll go to great lengths to make things happen.

"These are high-level courses with knowledgeable instructors, and the students are of a very high caliber."

Garfinkel, who worked as coordinator of the Community College of Baltimore County's Senior Institute for 13 years until last December, said she first conceived the idea for Food For Thought more than four years ago. She said she initially jettisoned the concept because she could not find an adequate venue.

"I just couldn't find the right space to house classes four or five mornings a week," Garfinkel said. "So I kind of gave up on it and moved on. Life was good, so why rock the boat?"

She revisited the idea last year when contacted by her friend Ira Miller, president of Horizon Cinemas, about his decision to branch out to the Pikes. The Pikes had not operated as a cinematic venue since 1984, but Miller has taken it over and resumed showing films, according to a 2013 Baltimore Sun online article.

She decided the time was ripe for her adult enrichment concept, so she arranged with Miller to lease the Pikes from Horizon in the mornings, before scheduled movie viewings.

Holding lifelong learning classes in a movie house is a unique concept that works well, Garfinkel said, particularly because of the historic Pikes' central location.

"It's been a dream of mine to go out on my own and do this," said Garfinkel, who is former executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. "Ira and I decided the Pikes was the right place for this. This way, it's in the community and people can just roll out of their pajamas and come to class. It's a win-win for everybody."

She continued: "I know what my people want. They want real quality and real teachers to learn from ... I know what stimulates them. They want to be entertained, but they also want to learn. They want substance."

Mel Winer agrees. A retired Social Security employee who lives in Owings Mills, Winer took a class at the Pikes last spring on the Civil War and is enrolled in the politics course this fall.

"Nancy does a great job of getting great instructors and speakers to talk about interesting subjects," he said. "Most of the people who attend the classes are very well-read. These are bright people who want to keep busy and sharp. They don't want to stay at home all day."

Garfinkel said she personally knows most of the teachers she hires for Food For Thought from her previous professional experiences and from being an active community member locally and in Naples, Fla. She said she works with instructors on the ideas for the courses — largely culled from newspapers, radio, books, magazines and television — but trusts them to develop and flesh out curricula.

"I'm only as good as my teachers," she said. "We have got such great resources in this town. We live in a great city with great colleges. My teachers are all top-notch people."

Although a former physical education instructor who has a background in social work, Garfinkel herself harbors no interest in teaching for Food For Thought.

"What I bring to the table is a lot of enthusiasm and networking and organizational skills," she said. "I'm not the leader of the discussion or the intellectual star. I just make things happen. I'm happy to sit back and be a follower. I just want to hang with people who have a world view and are intellectually curious."

While she's aware of the other myriad lifelong learning and adult enrichment programs in the area, Garfinkel believes she has tapped into something special with Food For thought.

"I really think this is the wave of the future," she said. "People are not going to stop learning after college. They want to keep growing and being stimulated intellectually."

Despite the program's success so far, Garfinkel does not envision expanding Food For Thought or branching out to other venues.

"I'm happy with it as it is," she said. "Frankly, I'd like to keep it this size. I'm doing this because I love it and I love the students. They're like family to me. It's beyond a job. It just keeps me going. I'm excited about it."

Food For Thought's fall semester begins Sept. 29. For information about the program, call 410-978-6688 or visit http://www.foodforthoughtlectures.com.

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