By From the Lowell Sun
By Marie Donovan
LOWELL -- For Jeanne Gunion, it all started with the midweek bridge game she taught at the Chelmsford Senior Center.
"Some of the people would disappear on Wednesdays," Gunion said.
So she asked why her senior-citizen students were cutting her class: they were taking other classes they'd enrolled in at UMass Lowell, through the Learning In Retirement Association, or LIRA.
Rather than feel slighted, Gunion, a resident of North Chelmsford, joined them three years ago. So far, she's taken classes on everything from Shakespeare's Othello and "Great Pharaohs" to "What Makes a Great Symphony" and "The History of Scientific Medicine."
The program has steadily grown over the years.
"We have a lot of new members, which is nice," said Jeri Durant of Chelmsford, who joined with a friend she met at the supermarket.
There's even an opening convocation and some classes are taught by tenured members of the UMass faculty, like history Professor Robert Forrant and art Professor Liana Cheney. Others are taught by members of LIRA, who lecture on topics in which they have a particular expertise.
The eight-week, autumn and spring semester classes cost $125 for an individual or $200 for a couple. The fee enables members to take any and all of the non-credit classes offered for the same fee. Classes are held five days per week, from 10 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The fee also allows the seniors access to the university library and its programs, a university parking permit for the semester and discounts for athletic facilities.
During the short winter and summer semesters, classes are scheduled just one night per week, and the price is even lower: free.
There's no age minimum for participants in LIRA. The only requirement is that the students be retirees.
There isn't any homework, except for the book discussion groups, where the selections can range from classics like Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain to non-fiction works like The Great Bridge by David McCullough.
Classes take place in the historic Wannalancit Building, a restored former mill that is owned by the university.
Dorothy Bromage, of Billerica, is curriculum committee chairman for LIRA and also teaches "What Makes A Great Symphony?"
"She's wonderful. She really can run a class," Durant said.
Durant also took the Pharoahs class, where the seniors were taught all sorts of tidbits about King Tut that Durant said she hadn't heard before.
"I usually go two to three times a week," she said.
Bromage, 84, who joined LIRA back in 1997, said students in her symphony class are ages 60 to 90-plus.
"I love to talk about composers. We listened to the entire Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony," Bromage said.
She also takes classes and has gone on field trips with the group, to places like The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and to Wellesley College's Houghton Chapel, to check out The Fisk Organ.
One of her favorite classes was called "Black & White Beauties," where the students screened films from the 1930s to the 1950s by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra and Stanley Kubrik.
To wrap up the semester, LIRA is hosting a potluck holiday party Dec. 8 at 10 a.m. at the Wannalancit Building. There's a silent auction to raise money for a scholarship fund for UMass Lowell students.
For more information about LIRA, visit www.UML.edu/community/LIRA.