Lifelong Learning

Photograph by Nathan Sparks

Senior adults can find a class for nearly every interest, from Brexit to beekeeping.

Henry Ford didn’t mince words when he talked about the importance of lifelong learning: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty,” he said. “Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”
Ford would agree that a lot of young seniors must live in East Tennessee.

Opportunities abound here for learning for senior adults. Classes range in scope from watercolor painting to lure making. They allow participants to travel or take part from their favorite recliner. There are programs exclusively for seniors and others open to anyone interested in learning.

Here are some of the options available.

Seniors for Creative Learning
For seven weeks each in the spring and fall, the University of Tennessee’s Non-Credit Programs and the O’Connor Senior Center partner with the Seniors for Creative Learning (SCL), an all-volunteer group, to present lectures on a wide range of topics. The fall program launched just after Labor Day and offered participants age 50 and over everything from talks on current concerns like Brexit and climate change to UT sports history and Knoxville ghost stories. Each session also includes a few field trips; this fall members went to the Hermitage in Nashville, for a cruise on the Star of Knoxville, and to visit a 3D printing facility in West Knoxville.

Joe Clarke, chair of the SCL board, says 159 members are currently enrolled. Membership is $40 per person or $55 for a couple (which can also be a couple of friends) for each session; once someone has enrolled he or she can attend any of the programs. Programs are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the O’Connor Center. This fall, 25 programs were offered. Current offerings and registration info is at

On the first day of the fall session, Clarke said 70 people attended a lecture by Knoxville attorney Wanda Sobieski about women’s suffrage and Tennessee’s role in women getting the right to vote.

Dianne Whitaker has been attending SCL programs for five years, having moved to Knoxville the year prior. She tries to attend as many of the lectures as her schedule permits. “I always learn something new,” she said. “It has made me more informed about Knoxville. I look forward to hearing any history of the Knoxville area. “One talk about Russia was absolutely captivating; we heard the real story of the people. It’s speakers like that who’ve kept me attached and going.”

O’Connor Senior Center
Apart from the programs offered through SCL, the O’Connor Senior Center offers lots of options for seniors age 50 and over who want to try something new or expand the knowledge they have. The clubs and classes there can help participants learn languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish. Other programs help seniors brush up on their needlework, learn mahjong, bridge, or chess. They can trace family history, hike, sing, dance, and even play a little softball. On average, about 200 people come through the door every day for the various activities, says acting manager Calie Terry.

Free Lunch n’ Learn classes primarily offer health-related information twice a month, and the Council on Aging offers health- and welfare-related programming. There is no membership fee to come to the O’Connor Center, and most of the O’Connor programming is free. A few are donation based when there are supplies that need to be paid for. For info about everything there, go to or call 865-523-1135.

“It’s a lot of fun here,” Terry says. “There’s always something interesting going on.”

Knox County Senior Centers
In addition to the programs offered at the O’Connor Center, activities and classes are offered at the half-dozen senior centers sprinkled around Knox County. Offerings are different at each one, and fees are minimal or nonexistent. For information, go to

UT Non-Credit Programs
Seniors who are looking for in-depth learning can register for classes directly through the university’s non-credit programs department. Many classes include multiple sessions over a period of weeks, and topics again are wide-ranging. Though the programs are open to any age, Leah Rauhuff, communications specialist with Non-Credit Programs, acknowledges that an older demographic takes advantage of many of the personal development classes, most especially the arts-related, finance, and gardening classes. Costs vary by class. For a current catalog, call 865-974-0150 or go to


Instructor Marshall Hall teaches a class on bass fishing and lure making at Pellissippi State.

Pellissippi State Community College
UT isn’t the only educational institution in Knox County that offers lifelong learning for all ages. Pellissippi State also has a robust class catalog that ranges from beekeeping to bass fishing and motorcycle riding. Some classes meet multiple times and others are one-time programs. Costs vary by class. For a current catalog, call 865-539-7167 or go to

Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning
Though the Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning, or ORICL, has no age restriction, the vast majority of participants are senior adults, says administrator Susan Perry. The program has been active for more than 20 years, begun after Oak Ridge residents became aware of Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and wanted something similar here. ORICL partners with Roane State Community College, where most all the classes are held, though it’s ORICL’s curriculum committee that determines class offerings and identifies the volunteer instructors willing to lead them.

A $100 annual membership fee makes dozens of classes available in three sessions: fall, from mid-September to early December; winter-spring, from February through April; and a short summer session in June and July. Perry said 83 classes and trips are being offered this fall. Its more than 400 participants come from throughout the region, including Knoxville, Oliver Springs, and Kingston. For a catalog and registration info, go to

Murray Martin, head of the curriculum committee and an ORNL retiree, got involved with ORICL around 2000 when he took a friend’s music class. Since then, he’s taught several music appreciation classes of his own, shared travelogues of overseas trips he’s taken, and moderated a DVD film series on Western European art. What keeps him going is the interest of the participants.

“Years ago, I taught a couple of math courses, and the thing that bothers any professor is the lack of interest on the part of the students,” he says. “In ORICL, people are here because they are interested, they ask intelligent questions, it’s a lot of fun interaction.”

Roane State Community College
Like UT and Pellissippi State, Roane State offers personal development classes and other programming apart from ORICL. Want to learn how to fly a drone? Make money on eBay? Those are just two of the classes being offered this fall. The college was still adding classes to its fall offerings as this issue went to print. To find them, go to Costs vary by class.

Road Scholar
Does wanderlust accompany your love of learning? You might want to look into Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), an educational travel company that caters to adults age 50 and up. Its mission is to inspire adults to learn, discover and travel. Each year it hosts more than 5,000 trips to all 50 states and 150 countries – some that even include grandchildren! Some trips offer very detailed itineraries and lots of activity; others are lightly structured with lots of free time built in. All of them are led by knowledgeable guides who share information about the sights and take care of the bothersome details that travel often entails. A catalog of their offerings is available at

West Knoxville resident Vivian Vega took a Road Scholar trip to Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, last year. Over the course of about a week, the group visited eight or nine gardens, including the spectacular Butchart Gardens in Victoria. Though Vega traveled alone, she said her 23 traveling companions – all but two of whom were women – were welcoming and easy to travel with.

The cost of the trip, which includes tours, meals, and lodging, was not inconsiderable but Vega said it was well worth what she spent.

“I would do that exact tour again; I was very impressed with it,” she said. “The gardens were beautiful, and there was always somebody available to answer a question. I saw things I’ve never seen before, I learned local folklore, the weather was perfect, the food was great. I can’t say enough about it.”


1 Comment
  1. Susan Perry says

    Thank you for including ORICL in the article! We appreciate you calling and interviewing us.

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