It’s 1:30 p.m. on a recent Monday afternoon inside Lewis House, a building at the southern edge of the Eckerd campus in south St. Petersburg. A group of about 60 people, most of them of retirement age, have gathered for a weekly “interest group” organized by the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College, better known as ASPEC. The subject is Current Events — specifically, dissecting the Perspective section of the previous day’s Tampa Bay Times.
“So this was an interesting issue. Tell me what you guys thought about it?” asks Woody Dulin, who’s moderating. After a pause Joan McKee, sitting in the front row, asks, “Isn’t that a strange title? ‘War might be good for us?’”
She’s referring to the lead story in the section, an essay penned by a Stanford classics professor that originally ran in the Washington Post. The piece pointed out that, while 100-200 million people died in war around the world over the last century, that number represented only 1-2 percent of the population.
Lively conversation follows on war’s benefits (or lack thereof), world fertility rates, climate change, columnist Daniel Ruth, a PolitiFact finding, and a New York Times story on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, before Dulin concludes the hour-long session at exactly 2:30 p.m.
Though the interest group is being run on a college campus, this isn’t a college class. It’s just an hour in a typical ASPEC day. The membership organization is an intellectual home for approximately 292 seniors living in or near Gulfport and St. Petersburg, with interest groups offered through the week in about 40 areas ranging from T’ai Chi to foreign affairs, from philosophy to chair yoga.
“The wonderful thing about ASPEC is, people think you have to be a brain surgeon or a scientist or a great philosopher, because everybody has such interesting backgrounds,” says Pat Baldwin, a former Tampa Bay Times food editor who’s been involved with the group for over eight years. “You don’t have to say anything. You just sit there, and listen, and it’s like the best dinner party you ever went to, because everybody from all these different backgrounds and disciplines has an opinion on everything, because everybody has a great curiosity.”
Though there are more than a few PhD’s and other high achievers in the ASPEC mix, an advanced degree is certainly not a requirement. The majority of the members are linked just by an insatiable desire to learn more.
“I was bored before I joined,” says Ashok Kalro, 70, a native of India whose presence brings some diversity to the mostly white group. Kalro’s background is in engineering, having spent most of his career as a telecommunications planner for Bell Labs. He stands out during the Current Events discussion, offering an informed take throughout the hour.
Kalro doesn’t golf, and except for PBS and other public affairs programs, isn’t enamored of television. “This venue gives me a chance to interact with others who have opinions on the same issues. It’s a very big part of my life.”
According to a recently released report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s 65-and-older population will double from 43.1 million in 2012 to an expected 83.7 million in 2050.
And what today’s retirees want, according to a 2009 George Mason University study, is an environment that’s active, intellectually stimulating and intergenerational.
ASPEC offers those qualities and then some.
In addition to the various interest groups, members of the organization helped partner with the James B. Sanderlin IB World School a year ago, mentoring and tutoring students; ASPEC officials take pride in the fact that sixth-grade reading scores at the school subsequently jumped 17 percentage points. The group has also provided scholarships for Sanderlin students to attend an Eckerd science “splashcamp” and awarded grants to Eckerd faculty to do Intergenerational Learning Projects (via a sponsorship from SunTrust Bank, which has been working with ASPEC for years).
ASPEC should not be confused with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) that many universities host on campus, including Eckerd. Those programs offer courses that must be paid for separately. “That’s à la carte and we’re smorgasbord,” says ASPEC Director Ken Wolfe.
And it shouldn’t be confused with “university-based retirement communities” — or UBRC’s for short — that have a formal or informal relationship to a nearby university, and as a result, offer their residents academic benefits.
Several ASPEC members do get directly involved in the Eckerd academic community, though: they help professors teach courses. Retired Brigadier General John Reppert, recently elected president of the group, tells the faculty, “I will agree to teach anything you ask me to, as long as I don’t know anything about it, because then I won’t be learning anything.”
The organization formed on the Eckerd campus in 1982 and a few years later was given its own space in Lewis House, formerly used as the university president’s home. Organizers say they’re always looking at ways to keep their membership robust, and recently concluded that it was time to reduce the initiation fee to $500 for an individual member and $750 for a member and an associate (usually a spouse). That’s down from $1,500. Annual dues are still over $800 a year.
“We realized [the fee] was a barrier to entry,” says Wolfe, who is also an employee of Eckerd College.
Although the backgrounds of the membership are varied, there is a preponderance of academics, perhaps not surprisingly. But there are also folks like Woody Dulin, the leader of the Current Events discussion.
Dulin worked at IBM for 27 years in Atlanta, but made most of his money as a real estate investor. He and his wife joined ASPEC in 2008 upon the recommendation of St. Pete Beach neighbor Reppert.
Dulin, who believes he’s one of the few in the group without a college degree, considers himself a conservative. But, he adds, “I’ve become more liberal over the last four years simply by being exposed to people with different views.”
Another ASPEC enthusiast is Bob Grutow, who during the Supreme Court discussion oh-so-casually dropped the fact that he had once argued a case before SCOTUS, when he worked in the Attorney General’s office in Tennessee.
For years the 64-year-old and his wife spent their vacations at a time-share in Pass-a-Grille, before deciding to move there permanently when retirement kicked in. They attended one of ASPEC’s public forums and were instantly hooked.
Grutow says that, just in the year he’s been a member, the organization has opened the door to friendships he never would have had otherwise. “What I found was an incredible opportunity as a retired professional to continue to learn new subjects and, very importantly, be challenged by new ideas, and different viewpoints.”
ASPEC officials need to keep things fresh when it comes to recruiting, for one obvious if somber reason: attrition by extraction. Members can tell you of people they’ve loved and lost, and most are in the fourth quarter of their lives, in terms of mortality.
“Because of our age group, we do lose a lot,” Woody Dulin concedes. “It’s part of life.”
For more information, go to eckerd.edu/aspec or call 800-456-9009 or 727-864-8834. Organizers consider October through May to be their “peak” season, so there will be fewer interest group meetings this summer, but some special programming.