Friday, January 30, 2015

Kukla, Fran ... and OLLI

by Sheila Weinstein

In the late 1940s and most of the 50s Americans watched a charming little ad-libbed puppet show on TV called Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Charted for children, it counted among its devoted audience their parents, and as the show grew in popularity, adults from all segments of society…people like Orson Welles, Adlai Stevenson, and John Steinbeck, and, perhaps, more who chose not to reveal their love of the kiddy program.  When I had children of my own, there was Captain Kangaroo and then Sesame Street. Wonder-full  programs that taught something new while entertaining both children and parents. From then on I was convinced that the best way to teach and to learn was to have fun in the process. 

When I moved back to Jacksonville from New York City, I soon found myself wondering where I could find a place to explore new interests in a new place other than going back to school at 77. It didn't take me long to find it. A friend and neighbor invited me to a wine tasting, organized by a group that she said had begun in a program called OLLI. “What in the world is OLLI?” said I, remembering fondly the single toothed dragon.  

 I’m devoting this column to telling you what it is, because I am so grateful for what it offers us elders in terms of expanding our minds and broadening our intellectual horizons, and just plain having fun. I’m sure some of you already are aware of OLLI but I’m equally certain that there are some who have not heard of it and would benefit from what it has to offer.

OLLI stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Jeanette Toohey is the Director of OLLI, Jacksonville. Her enthusiasm for this program is boundless. She told me that OLLI in Jacksonville began in 2006 as a Learning in Retirement program. It was originally funded by Bernard Osher, a retired investment banker, who has three passions: Integrative Medicine, Lifelong Learning Programs , and the Arts. Today, OLLI Jacksonville generates its own income and is member owned and operated. Its mission is to “provide lifelong learning programs in an environment that fosters friendship and the mutual sharing of ideas and life experiences.” 

All Olli programs have to be attached to Colleges or Universities. Ours, including offices and classrooms, is at the University of North Florida, at the Adam W. Herbert University Center Building. There are also partner sites at Fleet Landing, Glenmoor and Westminster Woods on Julington Creek.  
Woodcarving Class
OLLI Jacksonville began with the availability of 11 Courses for its 100 members. Now it offers 300 programs annually and has a membership of 1400. It is geared for people 50 and ‘better’ but it welcomes anyone with a great interest in learning and teaching. The idea is to learn and have fun while you’re doing so. No tests, no grades.  Only your interest and participation are necessary.  The great variety of courses means that there is something for everyone.  Like French and Spanish conversation. Like Writing.  Like Current Events.  Like Literature.  Like Opera. Like Retirement Issues. Like Vegetarian Indian cooking. Like…too many to name! The courses are both practical and designed to “spark the intellect.” There are also field trips and tours out of class. All generated by the membership’s desires. 

OLLI Jaxport Ed-Venture
OLLI ED-venturers at the Times Union Center for the Performing Arts
Best of all, Jeanette says, is that OLLI is a source of new friendships. “Through social interaction that comes naturally from participation, OLLI is a great resource for so much you may have been searching for and didn't know how to find.” At OLLI, in every program, people bring something of their own life and experience to the group which, when shared, contributes to a feeling of community. “We all have had losses, are making transitions and our shared experiences make for new and rewarding friendships.”

In terms of membership, there are mainly singles. There are caregivers who need OLLI for respite and to “fill up their souls.” There are divorcees, widows and widowers. Jeanette emphasized the fact that OLLI is truly “a safe environment for singles who don’t want to go to a bar but who want to connect with folks who are interested and interesting.” Members are diverse in terms of life experience. There are those who haven’t gone to college and those who have PhDs; people who have worked at home and heads of multinational corporations. 

Of note is that instructors are unpaid. As a result, OLLI is highly affordable. There’s a fifty dollar annual fee. A one-time 90 minute course is 10 dollars. The most expensive course is Current Events and that is still less than 100 dollars. And OLLI is always on the lookout for people who have a desire to teach what they know. Hence the great variety of courses available. So whether you want to take a course or give one, OLLI wants to know you and your interests. If you have a passion for something and want to share it, OLLI is interested. 

To my question of what she believes is the need that OLLI fills in any community, Jeanette said: “It validates everyone who has interests. Some people are not aware of how much they are interested in learning until they are there. It provides instant community and a safe social environment. You know you’re going to meet people who have interests like your own and who are interesting people.”
If OLLI sounds like just the thing for you, please go online to or call (904) 620-4200.

I leave you with this: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin

About Sheila:

Sheila Weinstein is the author of "Moving to the Center of the Bed", an inspiring memoir of her journey of "dependence to being squarely in the center of my own bed, in the center of my own life" following the loss of her husband. She is a columnist for the Ponte Vedra Beach Recorder and a new member of the UNF OLLI program. To learn more about Sheila and see a sample of her book, visit her website at