News & Events

OLLI Celebrates 30 years of learning, laughter, and friendship

“OLLI truly is a pathway to successful, productive, vital, aging. This organization deserves to be celebrated and I’m proud that it’s a part of WashU’s presence in this community.”

That was the message Harvey A. Friedman Center on Aging Co-Director Nancy Morrow-Howell, MSW, PhD, brought to the 30th Anniversary celebration of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Washington University – School of Continuing & Professional Studies in late May.

The celebration, held at the Charles F. Knight Executive Education and Conference Center on May 30, was a chance for over a hundred OLLI members to remember, acknowledge, and celebrate the impact that OLLI has had on their lives over the past 30 years.

“I’ve been a big fan of OLLI for a long time. I am so impressed with the peer-lead approach to instruction, the number and range of course options, and the administration by paid and volunteer leaders,” Morrow-Howell said before exploring how OLLI provides all of the key elements science says are required for successful aging.

“Successful aging is not solely determined by genetics or luck,” she said. “By promoting health, maintaining cognitive and physical function, and staying engaged with life individuals can increase their chances of aging successfully and maintaining a high quality of life in later years.”

Morrow-Howell discussed a variety of studies, ranging from J. Rowe and R. Kahn’s 1998 book Successful Aging to more recent studies of “blue zones” (regions of the world with unusually high levels of centenarians) to Northwestern University’s study of “SuperAgers.”

She said the Friedman Center on Aging had developed a model and curriculum that recommends activities and areas of importance that retirees should focus on to maintain health and happiness as they age. Those key areas include cognitive and social engagement, a sense of meaning or purpose, contact with peers, and access to information about health and resources.

“OLLI provides pathways to each of these elements,” she said. “Some activities are even better than others because we don’t dread doing them. They are fun. We want to do it. We keep coming back. It gives participants, in one activity, multiple avenues to positive outcomes. Any one of these is valuable in its own right but OLLI groups them together and keeps us engaged not because it’s good for us but because we enjoy it.”

OLLI’s growth, sustainability during pandemic highlighted

Outgoing OLLI Executive Advisory Committee Chair Kelly Jordan reflected on how the organization has evolved and grown in the years since the pandemic, highlighting the resilience and determination shown by OLLI members.

“In the spring of 2020 when we were shut down, volunteers came together and offered classes on Zoom,” Jordan said. “None of us had ever heard of Zoom before but we soon realized this was all we had and we had to learn it together. This gave our members a connection that they truly needed during such a difficult time.”

Jordan also thanked OLLI Director Janet Gillow and OLLI Executive Advisory Committee Vice- Chair Joe Schlafly for their success in growing OLLI membership to almost 1,000 current members.

Founding, long-time members honored for their contributions

Jeannette Altman led a celebration of one of OLLI’s founding members, Ruby Lapin.

“I met Ruby in 2013. It was my first class in memoirs, and she was the facilitator,” Altman said. “After that first class I was hooked on memoirs, and I was hooked on Ruby.”

Lapin has served on both the executive committee and as president.

“She has been here for the whole 30 years,” Altman said. “The first class she facilitated was detective novels. When an opening became available for memoirs, she became a facilitator for many, many years and she is teaching it again this fall.

“Ruby, all of us have benefited from your dedication and devotion to the classes and the administration of OLLI,” she added. “Because of your leadership, we’re here today, 30 years later, strong and viable and looking forward to the next 30 years.”

Another long-time member, Karen Sterbenz, was recognized for everything she has contributed since joining OLLI in 1996.

“She has served as a member, or often the chair, of our creative writing group, the curriculum committee, and chaired the Executive Advisory Committee,” said Sarah Wilson, who led the recognition of Sterbenz.

“I am here now because of Karen,” Wilson said, noting that the writing class she took under Sterbenz sparked new passions, new friends, and a new commitment to the OLLI community. “She does extraordinary things with no fanfare at all. She routinely facilitates three classes a term and she’s in several writing clubs too. You might think that doing so much for so long would let her coast. You’d be wrong.”

Wilson said last year Sterbenz had convinced her to partner in leading a class focused on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

“Four people joined us and Karen and I each wrote 50,000 words,” Wilson said. “Two other people did too and one writer who was brand new to creative writing is now finishing up her sixth novella.

“Karen inspires,” Wilson added. “Her drive, creativity, energy, relentless determination, and generosity of spirit are something to behold. All of us at OLLI are lucky she’s in our corner.”