The Birth of Senior College at UMA: a Friendly Affair


This legacy of friendship has been passed down from the first dreamers who imagined Senior College to those of us who continue to benefit from their foresight and hard work.

Did you know that our beloved UMA Senior College might never have existed without a fortuitous chain of events? Recently, over a bowl of chicken soup at Panera, Chuck Acker explained the twists and turns that led to the founding of UMASC.

The story actually starts in—Portland! There, two great friends, Rabbi Henry Skye and University of Southern Maine President Robert Patenaude were seeking intellectual stimulation and companionship opportunities. It seemed likely that the new generation of retirees could look forward to a longer and more prosperous life than their forebears. Perhaps these “golden agers” would also enjoy the chance to expand their intellectual horizons and meet new people. So Skye and Patenaude founded Senior College at USM in 1996.

What does that have to do with our Senior College, you ask? Well, it turns out that Chuck Acker had friends too. In particular, he had a lot in common with Julian Sacks, a retired psychiatrist. One day Sacks mentioned a program in Portland for older people and proposed that they try it out. So in 1997, he and Chuck began attending USM Senior College classes in Portland every week.

There, Chuck took a course on psalms from Rabbi Skye—along with some very serious-minded church ladies. He wrote his own psalm for a homework assignment; his first published piece was printed in the USM Senior College newsletter. He then took another class, and Chuck confessed, The instructor kind of…annoyed me. Chuck thought he could do better and wrote a course proposal, resulting in a class about evolution and religion, the most provocative topic he could think of. Chuckling, he admitted he planned to get a rise out of those ladies…

Meanwhile, Julian Sacks and Chuck began to dream of creating a Senior College for Kennebec County. Julian considered Augusta an arid desert when it came to intellectual stimulation for older people, or any social life, for that matter. The two men had another friend, a pal called Inge Foster. According to Chuck, she was quite a firebrand. He noted with amusement that some Mainers were confused when she told them that she was born in Dresden as theyd noted her distinctive German accent. Curiously, Inge actually did live in Dresden, Maine!

So the three friends began to plot, and they managed to arrange a meeting in May 2001 with the Provost of UMA, Bryan Blanchard. But they needed more support. Fortunately, Chucks wife had friends too!  And one of these was Sylvia Lund, who had lots of friends in all the right places, for example, the State Board of Education. Chuck called Sylvia, fully expecting to be turned down. Instead, she gave him a list of people to contact, and he was even more surprised when all of these folks were happy to help. When it came time to meet with the Provost, Chuck had amassed quite a crowd. The Provost had gotten wind of this, so he had assembled an even larger crowd of his own.

The plan was to offer courses for seniors and perhaps some opportunities for socialization. However, it was clear that Blanchard was threatened by a proposal from an outside group, particularly as it could cost money. The Universitys budget had recently been slashed by about $1,000,000. Furthermore, the supporters’ ardor was problematic, and Blanchard was clearly concerned by the possibility of bad publicity for the University if things didn’t go their way. Chuck suggested that Blanchard had visions of ladies in sneakers marching on the campus brandishing signs criticizing the University for its lack of enthusiasm for their project.

The meeting ended on a low note because the Provost wouldnt commit himself. However, Josh Nadel, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, noticed how discouraged they were, and he advised them not to worry. Blanchard was about to leave UMA and would, in fact, soon be on his way to the presidency of Vincennes University in Indiana.

Two serendipitous events would now come into play that would turn everything around and lead directly to the creation of UMA Senior College. First, remember Rabbi Skye and USM President Robert Patenaude? They had lots of friends too, among them Bernard Osher, a wealthy philanthropist. He had created The Bernard Osher Foundation, whose purpose was to consider programs targeted toward more mature students not necessarily well served by standard continuing education curricula. Bingo! The Senior College at USM received the very first endowment grant and promptly changed its name to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). And the Augusta organization could obtain a start-up grant ($5,000) from this foundation as well, mitigating the financial issue that had so concerned Blanchard.

Second, Kali Lightfoot, an administrator for the OLLI program at USM, met the newly appointed President of UMA during a flight to Aroostook County. They got to talking, and he learned about senior colleges from her. He was enthusiastic about the idea and came to Augusta ready to support more talks.

Along with the people suggested by Sylvia Lund, an exploratory committee was formed. The group was fortunate to have the counsel of Josh Nadel (who would soon be Provost). He had had prior experience with another external committee—Forum A and had learned much from this. Every year Forum A offered a series of concerts, and the committee had lots of good ideas, but they didnt always stay within their budget, leading to their demise. Nadel insisted that the new Senior College prioritize the establishment of a budget and bylaws. At the July 2001 meeting, the exploratory committee already had a tentative budget. By the August 2001 meeting, Pat Brewster, one of the first members and a lawyer himself, had begun work on the bylaws, and these were finally approved in March 2002. By September 2001, Penny Higgins had designed a brochure, and Duane Prugh would produce it. The first semester at UMASC began on March 22, 2002, with eight classes and ten instructors. Chuck proposed that Senior College publish a newsletter, but it wasnt until March of 2003 that Nancy Greenier, editor, sent out the first edition.

The first annual meeting of the University of Maine at Augusta Senior College took place on April 12, 2002, and as Chuck said, The rest is history. People have sometimes credited Chuck as the founder of Senior College. He insists, however, that it was actually Julian Sacks who was the father of Senior College, but his friend always refused to accept paternity!

When asked about his proudest moments at Senior College, Chuck mentioned the annual faculty meeting where it is abundantly evident that UMASC attracts people eager to teach new courses. These folks love to teach, and their students love to learn what they have to share. The sense of collegiality is palpable and is key to who we are as members of the University of Maine at Augusta Senior College. This legacy of friendship has been passed down from the first dreamers who imagined Senior College to those of us who continue to benefit from their foresight and hard work. And for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the many people whose dedication, enthusiasm, and skills made UMASC possible.

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