Lifelong learner still heading to class - at 98


Image: Leon SpivackFairfield University encourages students to nurture the 'life of the mind' long after they've received their diplomas, but one individual has truly taken that message to heart: Leon Spivack, of Bridgeport, Conn., is still auditing courses each semester - at the age of 98.

"Leon is a wonderful example of the continued thirst for knowledge - no matter one's age," said Elizabeth Hastings, director of Community and Lifetime Education at Fairfield. "One of the charter members of our Learning for a Lifetime Program, Leon has been auditing classes every semester without fail for over 30 years."

Ironically, Spivack was not always enamored of school.

"I rebelled against education. As a kid, I did not want to go to school," he said, relaxing in a Fairfield University baseball cap and jacket after a recent "Sports, Media and Culture" class. "I even rebelled against preparing for my bar mitzvah!"

But a burgeoning love of sports and a series of important mentors changed that. The first was a high school gym teacher who encouraged him to try out for the soccer team at Bridgeport's Central High School. By senior year, he was elected captain, and also played football and ran track.

Spivack hadn't thought much about college until the head of Central High's Commercial Department encouraged him to apply to Boston University. He got in, joined the football team and gained confidence with each passing year. By graduation, he had made the Dean's List for three years running. Not long after that, Boston's football coach named him assistant freshman coach in exchange for a chance to earn a master's degree in education, which he did in one year.

Spivack served as the assistant football coach for Central High School for a year, but was called for Officer Candidate School during World War II. As luck would have it, the war ended before Captain Spivack shipped out and, instead, he met his future wife on his train ride back to Bridgeport.

Leon and Sylvia Spivack were married on July 4, 1946, and they moved into the Bridgeport house he's called home for 67 years. Leon returned to work with his father, a cattle dealer, and the couple spent many happy years as Boston University football fans. When that team disbanded, they turned their attention locally and became Fairfield University athletics fans.

Sylvia Spivack was one of the three organizers of the University's original Learning for a Lifetime Program and, just as she tagged along for games, Leon went with her to classes. Over the years the pair audited dozens of courses, enjoying lectures and discussions without the burden of papers and tests.

They took classes across the disciplines. The late John Orman, Ph.D., professor of politics, and Orin Grossman, Ph.D., professor emeritus of music, were favorite teachers. "Orman was just the best," Spivack said. "To be honest, there aren't many courses I haven't liked."

Spivack said he keeps a low profile in class, out of respect for the undergraduates around him. "I don't want to monopolize anything," he said. "And we've got some very sharp people in these classes."

Michael Serazio, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication, was thrilled to have Spivack among his students this semester. Spivack intends to take "News, Media & Democracy" with Dr. Serazio next semester.

"Having Leon in class this semester was a genuine inspiration - both to our students and particularly to me as someone who aspires toward truly lifelong learning," Dr. Serazio said. "A class is only as good as the sum of its participants and having intergenerational perspectives to draw upon enriches that experience immeasurably. By providing the wisdom he's accumulated over so many years, I'm sure I've learned much more from him than he has from me. We should all be so open-minded and curious at age 98!"

Spivack also made an impression on his classmates. "Leon was a pleasure to have in class," said Amanda Carchietta '14 of Goshen, N.Y. "He told me about his life - the war, college, his daughter, his careers. I loved hearing what he had to say because it was about life, not school."

In 2010, the Spivacks celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary. Just six days later, Sylvia suffered a massive stroke and died within hours. Among the many things Leon had to decide after his beloved wife's passing was whether he would continue taking classes.

"We were inseparable. I thought then that, in memory of Syl, I'd go one more year and then pack it in," Spivack said. "But I just kept going."

Susan Spivack, one of the Spivacks' three daughters, is happy to drive her dad to campus twice a week for classes. She said he's a true testament to lifelong learning, having also attended Elderhostels up and down the East Coast as well as classes and seminars at local senior centers. "I'll drive him here as long as he wants to keep coming," she said.

And that could be a long time.

"I thought I'd be uncomfortable without Syl, but it's OK," said Spivack. "I'd really like to take an elementary accounting course next. I've taken it before - but it's been 80 years since then! I could probably use a refresher."

For more information on Fairfield University's Learning for a Lifetime Program, visit www.fairfield.edu/lifelonglearning.

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Media Contact: Meredith Guinness, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2950, mguinness@fairfield.edu

Posted on December 20, 2013

Vol. 46, No. 140