LIRA is an academic program designed by its own members to suit their interests. Emphasis is on the collaborative and active member participation, with more than classes and social activities – LIRA links its members to a community beyond the classroom and offers a new world of opportunities.
LIRA was founded in 1988 by Mark Levine, director of Community Services at UMass Lowell at the time. The program has received continued support from the university’s Office of Community Relations, which provides space and administrative and office support. More than 240 similar associations exist on college campuses across the nation, representing more than 62,000 individual members.
Mark D. Levine, Director of Community Service at UMass Lowell, was the founder and sponsor of LIRA. On January 27, 2005, Levine died after a long battle with cancer at the age of 69. He spoke to us at many of the general meetings, always reviewing for the new members how LIRA was founded. The following is a compilation of a couple of his recollections of some past history.
Once more, it is time to greet new members to the second oldest learning in retirement association in the Commonwealth. Most aptly, with some history, perhaps a touch of nostalgia. In the spring of 1988, I chaired a meeting of an information session previewing a peer learning, high participation educational and cultural program to some 20 University alumni corralled by a large mailing. The bug for what is sometimes called education in the “third age” had actually been put in my ear by the director of a nearby nursing home; but in the usual triage process, the program that emerged was peopled by the most healthy elderly. The director of continuing education, under whom the program was next to live for four years, thought (as do all CE directors) in terms of dollars and sense. When after five years, it eventually became clear that the program made more sense than it would make dollars, continuing ed was comfortable releasing the program to the new Office of Community Service. As you get to know us, you will learn that members may serve the University as well as the reverse.
Once in place, LIRA would remain beloved and in full flower all these years, quiet in its presence, like a fragrant ground cover in the corner of the University garden. While LIRA was never to be highlighted in our University catalogue, time and again, the program proved of great significance to local and distant folk, who tended it, nourished it, honored it. The Cordelia among the (now quite a few) sister programs locally, LIRA role modeled several characteristics, first, the lovingness provided for each and every one of its members: none are forgotten. Second, its open admissions/inclusiveness policy: all are welcome to join and to pitch in. Finally, keeping up our level: maintaining a high, but accessible standard of education and culture. We continue to be consulted by incipient institutes.
I can recall the first Fall Convocation, a ceremony I purloined along with some other artifacts and principles, from our Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement ancestor, a launching rite of passage keynoted by then President (and later Chancellor) William T. Hogan. Bill Hogan's welcome was unique and heartfelt. The program was drawing upon the Lowell community civic and professional leaders that he had known all his life. He indicated as well that LIRA was an important addition to the University efflorescence still under way and then in its early stages. LIRA became one of several Office of Community Service responses to pointed comments of our board president, the late Paul Tsongas, regarding the unfortunate isolation of the University from the regional community.
LIRA moved out front and center, meeting all challenges. Our outreach was genuine, our expenditure of the energy of building our foundation considerable. I recall also some of our fits and starts as a youngster program. In its early summer schedules, we burst into print in the Lowell Sun with a photo of a computer class, an area not for quite a few years to take real root in our curriculum and now away again; we staged a Tai Chi event on the hottest day of the summer, managed skillfully by Professor Jacob Lam without sweat or worse, signs. I hoped that the program was to be contemporary and to survive. A LIRA quilt was soon to be fabricated. Yet, the myths that “old folks all know how to quilt” were quickly shattered: the quilt supervised by Charlotte Feldman required lots of redoing and teaching of first principles (see it today on our office wall). Founding members in leadership roles included Alan and Charlotte Feldman, Walter Wertheimer, George Ryan and Marjorie McDermott, Louise and (University Professor Emeritus) Bob Hollenbach. George, Marjorie and Louise have passed from this world, a reality of our LIRA community.
Community building and debating of first principles shared center stage in those first years. The principle of inclusiveness came easily, as sickness called forth visits by members (all were important in this program), as binding activities emerged (there was a wonderful day bike trip). An extremely generative “Faith, Values and Religion” study group was to be launched, its permutations remaining for many years. There, the role of structure and free form in our classes was debated by two study group co-leaders, exhausting all but the debaters. Also notable: University alumni appeared and defined a University connection never to be lost.
Mark D. Levine, Director of Community Service
University of Massachusetts Lowell
Following tradition, I am taking this opportunity to greet ongoing LIRA members and welcome new members to the new academic year, and to recall some of our past history and principles.
In September, 1989, after six months of organizing, our Learning in Retirement Association held its opening Convocation. At that time, we had about thirty members, and immediately, many friends. Our Convocation speaker was (then University President; and later Chancellor) William T. Hogan, who looked about the room and saw familiar faces among the charter membership - from his youth, from the ranks of community leadership in Lowell, from the University alumni. Shortly thereafter, following a suggestion of Chairman of our Board and former Senator Paul Tsongas, the Chancellor asked me to develop the Office of Community Service, and agreed immediately to place LIRA administratively inside the Office. This inclusion, somewhat unique among the small group of such University programs of active retirees at the time, which more typically fell within Divisions of Continuing Education, seemed to commit the program to provide a public service, and reminded the University of the service it rendered in maintaining the program.
Let us again recall our first principles. These include: that an active retirement is a healthy event totally engaging the retiree. That the secret further strategy in a healthy, engaging retirement is the shifting about of life’s priorities from earlier emphases; it is in the development of those areas of interest and leadership that had been twinklings in our eye during our earlier lives. Incipient arts appreciators, latent political theorists, progenitor scientists were invited by LIRA to bring out these back bench activities.
A further first principle is the maintenance of a democratic and caring community, quite unique among Institutes of Learning in Retirement. We welcomed into the program persons from a range of former occupations, educational backgrounds, ideologies. The members attend to the total person of their fellows, which meant in sickness as well as health, and a good deal of sharing of life experience. We strive always for a balance between rigor in study groups on the one hand, and member participation on the other, respecting the pleasure of members who might not feel ready to lead study groups.
I find it useful to recall the messages of LIRA members no longer with us. The healthfulness of intellectual activity in later years was an enthusiastically espoused topic of the late Jim Wilde, who had been a medical illustrator in his career. He had come across medical evidence of the neurological correlate of active retirement: dendritic growth in neurons as a result of vigorous mental activity at our stage of life. He provided drawings to make the case, featuring the little squiggles produced in our members' brain cells, as per this formulation. Jim Wilde's presence seems such ancient history, but the presentation still seems right: may your brain cells grow and prosper!
Mark D. Levine, LIRA founder and University sponsor