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Free work built knowledge and a bank account for these curious elders

Gretchen Bersch, one of the founders of OLE senior education group, poses for a photograph in her living room in Anchorage, Alaska on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Three times a year, a group of retired people contacts the smartest and best-educated experts in Anchorage with a surprising offer.

They ask professors, authors, executives, lawyers, doctors and other busy, well-compensated people to teach multi-session classes. In exchange, the adult education program will pay them nothing.

Each time more than 30 say yes. Why?

"We don't have much, but we have a reputation," said Gretchen Bersch, board chair of Opportunities for Lifelong Education, known as OLE.

Each term, almost 400 paying OLE members — almost all retired people — join academically serious courses, which this fall include offerings in history, law, literature, art, politics, science, music and languages, including Spanish and Latin.

There are classes on African-American cinema before 1946, on the novels of E.M. Forster, on crime scene reconstruction, and on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act — the last one taught by a pair of experienced attorneys who have worked with the law for decades.

A few years ago, oil companies in Anchorage bought OLE memberships so they could send employees to a class on the history of their industry taught by author Jack Roderick.

For instructors, the quality of the program and the people it attracts are the main attraction. Money is beside the point. Also, Bersch pointed out, it would be impossible to pay most instructors enough for their time — to pay nothing is more respectful.

The organization's only costs are for room rental, internet and some administrative support.

"We have 100 grand in the bank. Can you imagine that?" Bersch said. "It's self-sustaining. I still think that's the brilliant part."

After surviving 10 years, the organization will spend a little of its hoard for a celebration of its anniversary Monday at the Anchorage Museum.

Over the decades, other community education programs in Anchorage failed financially. Programs in other cities have struggled even after receiving large grants.

OLE thrived on a different model: goodwill.

A curriculum committee led by retired medical anthropologist Penny Cordes reaches out to potential teachers. Instead of offering money, the recruiters offer logistical support and interested students. There is no need to grade papers — OLE classes may have readings, but no assignments or tests.

I've taught a couple of classes. It's hard work, but rewarding, because the students pay attention and ask great questions.

"We're fun, we're serious, we're intelligent," Cordes said.

I agree, but I admit I expected something else the first time. Old people meeting in the middle of the day for a social event, finding a way to spend extra hours, and probably not interested in a lot of complex material.

Instead, I looked out at a class that contained scholars far more qualified to teach than I was. A sophisticated discussion followed my remarks, with ideas as sharp as I've heard when speaking to professional conferences or the faculty of famous universities.

And the discussion was open and respectful, additive rather than argumentative.

"Maybe that's part of being older, that you don't need that ego trip anymore," Bersch said. "People come together because they want to learn."

Bersch has been an anchor of the program from the start. Her big laugh and radiating warmth have brought in many teachers.

But Bersch said she got something out of her decade helping lead OLE too. The program allowed her to continue the work that defined her life after she retired with the honor of professor emerita from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"I never wanted to quit teaching. From the time I was 10, I wanted to be a teacher, and I got to do that my whole life. It was cool. And I still get to do it, even though it's completely unpaid. I take courses and I teach courses," Bersch said.

At UAA, Bersch designed the master of adult education program then taught it for many years. By the time she retired in 2006, she had chaired 100 thesis committees for the program.

No one taught Bersch how to teach adults. She figured that out on her own. Her career began in rural Alaska in the 1960s, where many adults had grown up in communities without schools and lacked basic skills, but were motivated to learn.

One of her early challenges was creating curriculum to teach math to bright village adults who had barely been exposed to formal education. She also taught villagers to become teachers for their peers.

She recalled a student in Kaltag who learned how to factor polynomials in one night and went on to become an adult education teacher for others in her region.

For many years, Bersch said, she taught introductory algebra to terrified Anchorage adults, including a bank vice president, a business owner and an 82-year-old. Students needed math for their work or to move toward a first college degree.

She believes everyone is capable of doing math, but many of us learn otherwise as children in school — especially girls. As a teacher, she sought to understand those moments of past classroom trauma that created math phobia in adults.

"I always felt like two-thirds of it was the psychology," she said. "How could I get inside somebody's head to see how they processed the information? And that's why teaching the same course for years and years and years never got old or boring. Because it was intriguing to see how I could figure out and help this person to know how their brain worked."

People who really love their work don't want to stop when they retire. I've thought about that as I've advised my children on their careers, and looked back on my own.

It would be nice to have earned more money, but, like Gretchen Bersch, and the many teachers and students at OLE whose minds remain fresh and hungry, I'd rather do work that I would keep doing without getting paid.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of Penny Cordes.

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