CRI marks 20 years of loving to learn

The Creative Retirement Institute is truly Edmonds
By John Nadeau | Jan 18, 2013
Dr. John Terrey and Pamela LeMay share a cup of coffee, marking the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the Creative Retirement Institute. The pair brainstormed the idea two decades ago while, not surprisingly, sitting down over coffee.

The Creative Retirement Institute, the lifelong learning program at Edmonds Community College, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

We’ve all heard stories of ideas that began with a sketch on a paper napkin or notes on the back of an envelope.

This idea began in 1992 with two people sitting down over two cups of coffee.

Pamela LeMay, then an administrator at Edmonds Community College, and Dr. John Terrey, then a faculty member at the University of Washington, were brainstorming at a local coffee shop.

A student in his class, she had recently returned from a conference on how to establish an institute for learning designed especially for older adults.

Her question was, “Do you think we could have something like this around here?”

“Let’s talk about it,” Dr. Terrey replied, and they did talk about it, leading to –

A steering committee, comprising local people and EdCC administrators, who spent six months exploring the concept of a lifelong learning program in Edmonds.

Their deliberations led in turn to a community information session, held in November of that year, attended by more than a hundred local residents.

They enthusiastically endorsed the idea.

The original premise, which has remained unchanged over the years, was to offer the excitement of ideas to intellectually curious people.

This would take place in an environment that provides companionship and encourages friendships.

The program would offer non-credit, college-level courses at modest cost, regardless of the participants’ educational background.

There would be no examinations or grades – just the enjoyment of learning.

Subject matter would come from the humanities and sciences or deal with current trends.

“No pabulum!” declared the late John Lord, one of the founders.

Luncheons proceeding each term would introduce courses and their instructors besides enhancing the program’s social component.  Through a bequest by Dr. Maybelle Chapman, the luncheons would feature guest speakers who are experts or local celebrities.

Composed of elected members, a Board of Advisors would insure that CRI is well run.

By providing $4,000 in seed money, a group calling themselves the Founding Friends petitioned college officials to launch the program.

And so in the spring of 1993, the Creative Retirement Institute (CRI) made its debut with 14 classes and 90 enrollments. There were 128 paid memberships.

It was the first program of this sort in the state.

The response encouraged the organization to add a fall term, and so the quarterly program was underway.

National recognition came quickly. Under Pamela LeMay’s direction, in l994 CRI was named Outstanding New Program in the U.S. and Canada.

Has CRI advanced over the years?

When the program began in the 1993-94 academic year, students paid for 651 classes.

In 2010-11, the most recent year for complete figures, students paid for 2,150 classes.

Originally, CRI scheduled about 15 classes per term. It now offers approximately 30.

Many classes today are filled to capacity and have a waiting list.

Yes, with the support of Edmonds Community College, CRI has grown significantly over two decades.

Why this degree of success?

Dr. William Keppler, CRI’s current board chairman, shares his personal insight:

“The Creative Retirement Institute is truly Edmonds,” he says, adding, “If you check the demographics, you will find many retired, well-educated citizens anxious to take courses from wonderful teachers.”

A good point, but the organization has always intended to serve a wider region. Today, students come from such communities as Seattle, Bothell, Mukilteo, Arlington, and Stanwood.

Dr. Keppler also credits the leadership of Lynn Lagreid, the current program coordinator, who took the reins after LeMay’s retirement.

Lagreid and a part-time assistant are CRI’s only paid staff members. They co-ordinate the efforts of close to a hundred volunteers, for CRI has always been a member-driven organization.

Members take charge of curriculum, marketing, finance, social programs, guest speakers, and audio-visual support.

They recruit instructors who are frequently retired from college or secondary school faculties and still love to teach.

Some, however, are non-academics who have special knowledge to share.

“My class was brimming with intellectual energy,” said author Nancy Rawles. “It was like gathering at a café to discuss ideas with well-read, well-traveled friends.”

Comments from several high school students invited to attend CRI classes have a recurring theme:  age doesn’t have anything to do with learning.

“I thought mature learners would be quiet, not really engaged,” said one student from Edmonds-Woodway High School.

“After taking an art history course with them, I really changed my mind,” she added. ”These students were attentive, questioning, and respectful.”

During the two decades, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

As CRI faced the 21st century, there were four consecutive years of declining enrollments and revenues.

Could the program afford to continue?

The response was “an improved product”: more well-balanced, imaginative courses and a cadre of new instructors; more sophisticated audio-visual technology, run by volunteers, to enhance classes; and a new marketing program to reach out to CRI’s audiences through increased promotion.

This approach worked, and growth has been steady.

However, that has ironically led to another problem, a shortage of classroom space.  While the college has been generous in allocating classrooms to CRI, enrollments have increased to the point that many off-campus locations, like church halls and senior centers, must be used.

Another ongoing challenge, which CRI is meeting so far, is to keep costs down.  The program has always been dedicated to high quality at affordable prices.

So where is the program headed?

“As more baby boomer retirees look for stimulating educational opportunities in our communities, CRI will continue to thrive,” Lagreid said.

“We already know that many individuals select the Edmonds-Lynnwood area in which to retire because of the lifelong learning programs here.”

She concludes: “I’d like to point out that, offering what we do, we also provide an economic benefit for the communities we serve, by making them  especially attractive places for older adults to enjoy life.”


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