OLLI program offers more than lectures


From “History over Easy” to “Armchair Travel” to “Cooking with Class,” Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s winter course schedule has something for everybody.

Now in its third year at the University of Alabama-Gadsden Center, the OLLI program is geared towards providing retirees age 50 and above the opportunity to start a new hobby, satisfy a thirst for knowledge on a particular subject or simply take a day trip to enjoy a meal or a movie.  

OLLI program coordinator Randy Holland pointed out that classes are designed by the student body and that all local OLLI instructors are volunteers. 

“The students have curriculum committees and take surveys and decide what [classes] to offer,” he said. “I don’t have a decision in terms of what classes will be offered or who should teach what. A number of our instructors are OLLI students, as well. Many OLLI instructors are retired teachers from the area school systems or from Gadsden State, so we’re very much a community-orientated program.” 

The program’s annual $50 registration fee allows students to take as many “leisure learning” courses as they wish each semester.

One of the above courses will be taught by local gemologist and registered jeweler Benny McNair, owner and operator of McNair Jewelers located at 231 Broad Street in downtown Gadsden. 

According to McNair, the subtitle of his “Flash and Fire” course might be, ‘All You Ever Wanted to Know About Gemology But Were Afraid to Ask.’

“Obviously we’re not trying to make gemologists or jewelers out of these people,” he said. “What we try to do is tweak or peak their interest. We cover some general details about diamonds and colored gemstones, both precious and semi-precious, as well as the precious metals of gold, silver and platinum.”

McNair has taught several different courses in the past, including stained glass window-making and astronomy. He starts off the course with an overall look at diamonds, including different shapes, carats, sizes and weights. 

Since many of McNair’s students are interested in preserving family heirlooms, a portion of the four-week OLLI course will deal with maintenance and upkeep.  McNair noted that certain chemicals, such as bleach and chlorine-based cleaning products, should not come into contact with gems or stones.

“These are things we have dealt with every day for over 35 years, so we’d like to pass that knowledge along to people for their own benefit,” he said. “You’d be amazed at the number of people who’ve never taken a ring off for 45 years, so that’s a whole lot of exposure to those chemicals.” 

For the bargain hunter, McNair’s class teaches ways to spot a good deal at yard sales and jewelry auctions. McNair advises his students not to judge a book by its cover when sifting through second-hand jewelry or gemstones.

“Many times people have a boatload of things in boxes, and ironically, things that might look terrible might in fact be oxidized gold or sliver, and things that look nice and shiny might be electroplated and might be cheap costume jewelry. Ultimately they can come in and I can tell them whether a stone is real or not real. It gives someone an idea of whether it is a $10, $1,000 or $10,000 stone.” 

A unique feature to McNair’s Jewelry store are a pair of $30,0000 laser machines, which allows McNair and his staff to do virtually all of their work in-house. McNair invites his OLLI students to visit his store and examine the machines. 

“It enables us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do in years past,” he said. “It’s easier and cleaner and more efficient, but you also have to know how to operate and how to service them. The only things we sub out are old, antique watches that have to be cleaned out. But every diamond or gemstone that comes through here, I set myself.”

McNair reserves the final day of “Flash and Fire” for a kind of condensed Antique Roadshow session, during which he helps his students identify family heirlooms. 

“We tell them on the first day of class to start collecting all their loot from home. Invariably we have some ladies who bring in drawers full of jewelry that they’ve inherited and forgotten about don’t know what they are. We can’t put it in writing because of legal reason, but we kind of have an informal mini appraisal at no charge.” 

McNair stresses that his courses are not based upon a lecture-and-take-notes format with homework and a final exam.

“I like to get people involved,” he said. “If you don’t know much about an area like the one we cover, you really don’t know where to start, so we encourage questions and discussions. I want folks to know that this will be an informative and fun class.” 

A recent addition to the program is the Dutch Treat Supper Club, in which month a month OLLI students carpool to a unique restaurant. Scheduled visits this semester are The Victoria in Anniston, The Bright Star in Bessemer and LaScala in Rome, Ga. 

Field trips include a visit to Berry College in Rome, Ga., a performance of the musical Cats; a visit to the historic Button Willow Church in Whitewell, Tenn.; a trip to Collinsville Trade Day; a visit to the Honda plant in Lincoln; a tour of the Alabama Shakespeare Theater in Montgomery; and a trip to Mentone State Park. 

“We have a whole lot of fun,” said Holland. “We have a lot of history and genealogy, but we also try to have something in the fine arts and drama. Some people love the arts and crafts and hands-on classes, other people prefer to hear a lecture. We’ve had pretty good numbers over the past few years, but we would like the program to grow. We want folks to know that it’s as much a social atmosphere as it is educational.”

To register or for more information about the OLLI program, call Randy Holland at 256-546-2886 or visit www.olli.ua.edu.  

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