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Mary Burkhart

Founder and Executive Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn University (OLLI at Auburn)

Mary Burkhart received her Ph.D. in counsel education from Florida State University in 1973. She came to Auburn in 1974 to work in what was then called the Conference Office. She directed the Community Courses program for a number of years and served as Alabama Elderhostel state director from 1979 to 1998. Burkhart also served as director of the Office on Aging and associate director of the Outreach Program Office. In 1989, she formed the Auburn University Academy for Lifelong Learners. AUALL received a grant from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in 2007 and AUALL was then renamed OLLI at Auburn. Now semi-retired, Burkhart continues to serve as the executive administrator for OLLI at Auburn. She and her husband, Barry, a professor of psychology at Auburn, are active members of the community.

1. How did you become involved in starting a lifelong learning program at Auburn University?

When Barry and I moved from Southern California to Auburn, we both began working for the university. My entire career on this campus has been spent working in outreach and continuing education, so I am passionate about learning at all stages of life. My specific area of interest soon became the older adult learner. My work with the National Elderhostel Institute and even more specifically with the Alabama Elderhostel Program helped prepare me for working with what we now call OLLI at Auburn, Auburn University's lifelong learning program. As a young adult it was not uncommon for me to have relationships with mentors and friends who were older than I. There is so much wisdom and character that comes with age.

I grew up in a close family. Family and friends have always played important roles in my life, so it has always been quite natural and comfortable for me to spend time with older adults. Early in my career working with older adults, I lamented the frequency of and accompanying sadness of attending memorial services for the people of AUALL who passed away. A wise leader in our program very pragmatically observed that if I didn't want to deal with death and dying, I should have taken a position working with young children, not older adults. And although it is still sad to see OLLI members and friends pass away, I am always, always grateful for the relationship I have had with these members and I cherish many wonderful memories.

2. Tell us a little about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn University (OLLI at Auburn).

OLLI at Auburn is a membership program for learning in retirement. Founded in the spring of 1990 as AUALL, it has grown to over 600 members. There are no formal requirements for membership other than an interest in continued learning. One need not be fully retired, nor are there academic or experience requirements. Each member shares in the ongoing development of OLLI. Activities are designed to promote the participation and involvement of members to an extent compatible with their desires. OLLI at Auburn is composed of people who participate in active study groups and other learning opportunities on an organized basis. Members plan the topics to be studied through a curriculum committee. All activities are designed, coordinated and evaluated by members.

The Osher Foundation, started in 1977 by respected businessman and community leader Bernard Osher, seeks to improve the quality of life through support for higher education and the arts. In 2000, the foundation began a new focus — assisting programs for those interested in learning for the joy of learning, without concern for credit or degrees — and funded the first Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). By the fall of 2012 there were 115 groups in 50 states, and the District of Columbia, including Auburn University's program. To have an affiliation with the Osher Foundation is a privilege. It provides lifelong learning on our campus with many benefits. Nine of the Southeastern Conference schools have Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes and I am glad that Auburn University is one of them.

I should also add that Sam Burney, recently retired director of the Outreach Program Office, was instrumental in AUALL becoming an Osher institute.  Sam was the first person to tell me about the Osher Foundation. I followed up!

3. OLLI at Auburn is celebrating a special event this week. Tell us about this honor.

Auburn Mayor Bill Ham has declared Monday, Sept. 17, as OLLI at Auburn Lifelong Learning Day. I am very pleased that Mayor Ham has prepared a formal proclamation marking this special occasion. He will be with us this week to celebrate the event, along with Royrickers Cook, assistant vice president of Outreach; Debbie Shaw, vice president of Alumni Affairs, Auburn Alumni Association; William White, recently retired long-time journalist with the Auburn Bulletin and Opelika Auburn News; and Rheta Grimsley Johnson, author and syndicated columnist. As founder, this honor is humbling for me on a personal level and it is a great tribute to the many volunteers who have been involved in the success of OLLI at Auburn. We all are looking forward to another year of learning for the love of it and this year will be especially notable because of the proclamation that the mayor has awarded us.

4. You mentioned that OLLI offers a wide variety of academic courses. Talk about the courses that interest you.

I am at the point of life in which I can participate in the academic classes and social activities, so I am enjoying taking courses that satisfy my interests in a variety of topics. I usually take about four courses a term. I love writing, art and music classes; I usually take about four courses a term with OLLI.

I sing in the Civic Chorale so music is very important to me. Last spring OLLI offered an opera course taught by a retired professor from LSU. Prior to that, I participated in a jazz appreciation course led by another retired music professor. When I was in high school, I toyed with the idea of being an architect. At least once a year, OLLI offers a course in architecture so I enjoy taking those classes as well.

In addition to taking OLLI courses, I have a great interest in protecting our environment, and I do volunteer work with Alabama Water Watch. I grew up loving to read so one of my favorite organizations is the Friends of the Public Library. I enjoy traveling with Barry; last summer we took a safari in Kenya and Tanzania and we recently returned from a trip to England and Scotland.

5. You have described OLLI at Auburn as "being your baby." It appears this baby has achieved young adulthood. What is its future?

It is exciting for me to see OLLI grow and mature. The future is full of potential for OLLI. The future is so very bright for lifelong learning on the Plains!

Sept. 17, 2012