While at the meeting he learned more about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI, pronounced "Ollie"), which is housed at the University of Minnesota. The organization offers hundreds of courses and Watkins, looking for an intellectual challenge, immediately signed up for four of them.
He quickly discovered a "very diverse" group of people who were "interesting and interested, who are there for the excitement of intellectual engagement." OLLI attracts the kind of folks who often led accomplished careers but seek an outlet for keeping their minds sharp and their wits engaged, he says.
OLLI, which has the tagline "Health Club For the Mind," was the brainchild of Stephen Benson, its executive director. He started the program as the Elder Learning Institute in 1995 after having worked at the university's public radio station for much of his career. In 2004 he joined the organization to the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Institute's elder learning network that supports 116 learning institutes at colleges and universities around the country.
The move into the Osher network led OLLI to secure additional endowments that have totaled more than $2 million. The Twin Cities' chapter, with more than 1,200 members, is one of the nation's largest, Benson says.
Participants pay $195 annually for the privilege of taking six courses during the year. They can take more courses at no additional cost as long as classes have open seats. Adults who cannot afford to join have the option of applying for scholarships.
"The scholarships we give out are not means tested or anything like that," Benson says. "They pay what they think they can afford. We don't think that anyone should not participate in OLLI because of financial considerations."
Many courses are taught by retired university faculty members who look forward to being in the classroom again, he says, but OLLI also taps the younger generation through a "scholars" program which offers 16 graduate students $1,000 each for teaching a course. Its own members can suggest or teach courses, too.
The class catalog is a rich cultural smorgasbord of interests and includes more than 350 courses on politics, public policy, jazz, art, literature, writing, architecture and a variety of other topics. For those with an aversion to classrooms, OLLI offers more than a few courses that focus on visits to museums, ethnic markets, restaurants theaters, parks, the university's arboretum and other places around the region.
Importantly, there are no grades or tests given for OLLI courses -- repeat, there are no grades or tests. OLLI recognizes age should have some advantages.
The organization also sponsors "special interest groups" that may focus on books, bicycling and other endeavors. A popular one that Benson and Watkins both like focuses on discussing a major article each week from the New Yorker magazine.
OLLI generally hosts courses at libraries, churches, synagogues and community centers around the Twin Cities. In return for free classrooms the organization offers host institutions a chance to offer their patrons an opportunity to take the courses for free.
So what's a typical member like? "There's no such thing as a typical member," says Benson. "People in OLLI come for the intellectual challenge and they stay for the friendships and relationships they make. They come from all kinds of backgrounds but are interested and curious, the kind of people we think of as seekers and travelers who are exciting to be with and inquisitive. And they all enjoy the simple joy of learning."
Agewise, members tend to be in their 60s and 70s, though people in their mid-to-late 50s have joined, Benson says. OLLI has no age limit, he notes, though it tends to attract people who have retired and can take courses during the day.
Among OLLI members is Cherie Hamilton, the volunteer head of marketing and membership. A member for 16 years, Hamilton has taken dozens of classes and taught a few, a common trait among some OLLI members. She's taught courses on the cuisine of Portugal and taken members on a trip to Brazil. "Travel is a very popular topic," she says.
Lately she's planning seven special events intended to attract new members and engage current ones. "The great attraction for me is meeting new people who have become my friends," Hamilton says.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts docent and OLLI member Pat Wuest teaches themed art history courses, among them one this fall on American art. The museum becomes the classroom for the popular art courses, which draw 40 people who separate into two groups. "The art courses are always popular so we need two docents to manage all the people," she says.
As a charter member of OLLI, Wuest has over the years had class loads consisting of jazz appreciation, ethnic dining, knitting, books and history. This year she's headed through an OLLI course for the Nobel conference at Gustavas Aldophus College in St. Peter. "It will definitely be the highlight of my fall," Wuest says.
Some former OLLI members still sing its praises even if, because of health issues, they can no longer participate. "When I went to classes years ago for the first time it was like a new world, and it was wonderful for me," says Alice Thompson. "I stuck with it for 10 years until I had to have a hip replacement. I couldn't give a higher recommendation to anyone than to try OLLI, it's that good."
Karl Willson, OLLI's president, jokes that members are just like the residents of Lake Wobegon. "The most important thing for me is to interact with people who are all above average," he said. "It's an interesting and fascinating bunch of people in the organization and the courses are so good at covering all our interests."
For Watkins, a lover of books and intelligent debate, OLLI has filled a void. Having lost his wife in 2010, he found in the courses an opportunity to "get outside myself" and his comfort zone with new experiences. The classes are full of talkative people with strong opinions and no fear of voicing them in discussions ranging from health care to anti-intellectualism in America, he discovered.
A classical music fan, Watkins developed a behind-the-scenes course on what happens before an orchestra plays a symphony and found a former Minnesota Orchestra manager to teach it. "I can't wait to take it," he says.
Frank Jossi is a freelance writer in St. Paul.
For more information about Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, go here.