Christopher Wren Association going strong after 25 years

Ryan McKinnon

WILLIAMSBURG— Norman Rictor, 84, taught high school history for 35 years. Now he teaches photography with the Christopher Wren Association – an organization providing an array of classes for adults in Williamsburg.

On Wednesday afternoon as his classroom at a William and Mary building in New Town began to fill, Rictor was trying to explain the similarities between teaching high school seniors and senior citizens when he was interrupted by one of his students.

John Oszczakiewicz, 67, piped up from across the room. "They both fall asleep," he said.

Rictor laughed and said the real similarity between the two: "There is always going to be a wiseacre."

Rictor is one of 140 instructors teaching at Christopher Wren this spring, according to Sarah Kueser, an administrative coordinator for the organization. What began in 1991 with eight courses has grown to 146 courses, with topics ranging from the British monarchy to nuclear submarines.

Educating retirees

The association celebrated its 25th anniversary in April with a gala at the College of William and Mary. Over 200 people attended, toasting the organization's growth.

The founders, Wayne and Ruth Kernodle now live in Williamsburg Landing. In the early days of the association, Wayne recruited teachers and Ruth handled the administrative details. As retired sociology professors who had both studied gerontology – the sociology of aging – they wanted to provide a venue for retired people to continue learning.

The association originally began strictly for retirees. Three years ago the board lifted that restriction and now classes are open to adults of all ages, but the majority of students are retirees.

"People who don't have access to something like this get very lonely and isolated, and this adds not only to their social life but to their physical health," Wayne said.

The Kernodles are proof of the value of continuing education. Wayne is 98, and Ruth is 93. They are not enrolled in any classes right now, but Wayne took a course on the Constitution last spring.

Ann Boehm, 84, helped the Kernodles in the early days of Christopher Wren. She said early on the board made the decision not to pay instructors. Instead, the board give the teachers a geranium in the spring and a poinsettia in the fall and let them take classes for free.

"That was the total pay, but of all the people I have talked to who have taught, they just say (teaching) was the most wonderful thing ever that happened," Boehm said.

While senior communities all over the country offer classes for retirees to keep their minds sharp, Christopher Wren avoids the typical retirement home fare. No bridge classes or crossword puzzle courses are in the Spring 2016 catalog.

It reads more like a college course catalog, with classes titled "The Rake's Progress: From Hogarth's 18th century engravings to Stravinsky's 20th century opera" and "The Supreme Court: The impact of the Warren and Burger courts (1960s-1980s) on Modern America."

Boehm said although the courses are academic, they are also therapeutic for those grieving over the loss of a spouse. And, although she could not name specific incidents, she said she is sure Christopher Wren has sparked some late-in-life romances.

The self-funded and self-operating association has a long-standing relationship with the College of William and Mary, which provides the group free class and office space.

Association Director Scherry Barra described it as "an interwoven, mutually beneficial relationship."

And William and Mary Provost Michael Halleran said the college's involvement with the association gives the college a way to reach out to the non-collegiate residents of Williamsburg.

Boehm said the interaction with college students is reassuring to the senior citizens.

"To me it's a big plus walking into a building with the college kids," Boehm said. "It renews our faith in America because you read such horrible stories all the time."

The teachers

Once Rictor's class began, he turned the lights out and began reviewing the ten major concepts the class had been studying. Several students took notes dutifully throughout the presentation.

"You don't even have to wander out of your own bathroom to get good pictures," he said. "Get multiple angles. Go down low – as long as you can get back up."

Oszczakiewicz – the class "wiseacre" – began taking classes with Christopher Wren because of the quality of the teachers.

The former air-traffic controller retired in 2006, ready to learn new things and work with new people. He took a job at Busch Gardens where he worked alongside 18-year-olds strapping riders into roller coasters.

So when Oszczakiewicz learned about the association through a neighbor, he was intrigued. He wanted to learn new skills, but not from a book.

"Christopher Wren is loaded with people who can teach," Oszczakiewiecz said. "The things (we are learning), I'm sure there's books on that, but who could sit there and go through all that?"

He has taken classes on cryptography, astronomy, plate tectonics, the holocaust and George Washington, and now, photography. He said the thing that sets Christopher Wren students apart from other retirees is their open-mindedness.

"These people don't have the attitude that the older you get, the less you can comprehend. If you till the soil of your mind, the fertility will stay there," he said. "Read, express yourself, create something."

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

Learn more

Registration for Fall 2016 classes begins the week of July 17.

Registration fee is $100 for unlimited classes.

For more information see or call 757-221-1313

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