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Find the Good Life After 50 at Baltimore's Renaissance Institute

by Louise R. Sheldon
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Self-governed and peer-taught, the Renaissance Institute—based at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland—is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Perhaps you spent the best years of your life doing something you absolutely adored—as a roving ambassador, a writer or a teacher. Or maybe you were stuck in a job you loathed! Either way, you may now be fifty years old—or more. Don't be alarmed—these next years could be the best in your life!

I came to Baltimore with a sinking heart. I loved the international atmosphere of Washington D.C., where I had been writing for two major magazines. But my husband, a former diplomat, had found a job in Baltimore. We moved and for a few years I wrote art columns and did volunteer work.

When Bob's job ended, he surprised me by coming up with an immediate new interest. He glowed with good spirits. He was busy with phone calls and invitations. What was he up to?

My husband had enrolled in the Renaissance Institute, a school of on-going education situated at the College of Notre Dame but independent. The school, which is self-governed and peer-taught, is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. My husband started right out giving courses—first, "Cultural Clashes," then "Great Explorers."

It wasn't long before I joined Bob at Renaissance. There was so much I had learned in life as a reporter to pass on.

It was easy to give a six-week course on Morocco. I had lived there for eight years as a foreign correspondent and had plenty of material. Bob said, "Don't bore them." So in one class, after thoroughly exploring the history of the country, I switched on the last fifteen minutes of the hit film, "Road to Morocco." The audience roared with laughter.

The next semester I gave a course on Mexico, where I had studied and visited many times. A third course covered Ballet in America, another the plays of Tennessee Williams. I loved delving into subjects I knew something about and passing it on. But I also enjoyed taking courses in history, writing, literature and gardening. However, many membeers simply take rather than give courses.

The Renaissance Institute includes adults over the age of 50 who are interested in continuing their intellectual growth. Most of the courses offered each term are given by one of the program's 310 members; a few other courses fill in the gaps with experts in specific fields or professors at local institutions. Among our members are an ex-director of the port of Baltimore, bankers, physicians, journalists, lawyers, librarians, school teachers—and a number who hold Ph.D.'s.

One especially interesting course for me was offered by a former music teacher. On the first day, a Peabody graduate student appeared carrying five different tubas. He not only played them all but related them to the instrument's history and played excerpts from discs and videos.

The R.I. is not just about stimulating classes; it's also about sociability, excursions, parties and musical events.

The myriad classes offered also include art, history, science, philosophy, the short story, poetry, bridge, computer science, photography and tai chi. I recently took courses on Baltimore's history and its architecture, and others on Hemingway and Russian playwrights. The choice is extensive.

The best thing about the Renaissance Institute is that I found friends there with interests similar to my own. Having lived and worked overseas as a correspondent, I met several people with whom I could speak French, Spanish and German.

One of the pleasant aspects of the program is the high degree of sociability. It's fun to hunker down to lunch with other participants. We bring our own sandwiches or order lunch. The discussions get pretty animated, with much verbal sparring and hilarity.

Another plus are the potluck parties and visits to museums and musical events during vacations, organized by the Renaissance Institute's Social Committee. These people are fun to be with because they're lively and their minds are keen.

Like other schools and colleges, the courses at Renaissance run over a flexible system of two thirteen-week semesters. Classes take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. One can give or take courses for six weeks, seven weeks or thirteen weeks. Lectures are rounded out with videos, overheads and DVDs; everyone like a smattering of visual material. In the afternoon, opera on film and foreign films are a popular diversion.

Bob and I don't even consider going back to live in California or Rhode Island, our respective home states. We think we have it all right here in the beautiful state of Maryland, with the incomparable Renaissance Institute!

The Renaissance Institute is able to take on new members next semester. Classes begin February 5, 2009. To be sure of a place and to receive ore information about the Renaissance Institute and its courses, telphone 410-532-5351 or e-mail

Louise Sheldon, of Ruxton, Md., has written for national magazines and has published two books—one memoir, one fiction—about Morocco. She is a frequent contributor of art reviews and travel stories for the Chronicle..

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This story was published on November 26, 2008.