When the University of South Florida cut loose Hernando County from its Learning in Retirement outreach initiative several years ago, a handful of local residents weren't ready to stop learning.
They continued on their own as Academia Hernando. The program's subscription list now runs upward of 450.
The winter semester begins Jan. 17, and new subscribers are being sought.
Fall and winter semesters of eight weeks each offer up lectures and performances in the arts, history, science, government and most any other subject a subscriber suggests, including the raising of pigeons.
"This is my only port in a storm in Florida," said Ben Jensen, a New Jersey transplant of 12 years. "It is an oasis in a barren wasteland. It is enlightenment, exchange of ideas, etc., etc."
At age 76, Jensen said he still yearns for more knowledge.
Said stalwart subscriber Mickey Mandel: "It's virtually the only cultural offering ... in Hernando County that you can get and learn something new."
She said that courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College mainly are designed for those seeking a degree, and offerings by adult education and parks and recreation, such as basket weaving and yoga, don't fill her hunger to engage her brain.
Mandel and her husband, Gerry, recently took the stage for Academia Hernando, performing the play Love Letters. They were a hit during the fall semester, said organization vice president Randi Haverstrom. The couple are members at Stage West Community Playhouse, and she directs performances at Timber Pines.
Eschewing her own performance, Mandel spoke of Academia bringing in other musical performers — a string quartet, vocalists, a dulcimer player — and lectures by the curator of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, a retired NASA military spokesman on terrorism and a hospital pharmacy director about what's in one's medicine cabinet.
Jensen also lauded programs on religion, China and Mideast history. Another hit was a presentation about British sibling authors, Emily and Anne Bronte.
Mandel praised Academia's "excellent field trips," one per semester, that have included visits to museums in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area to view art, history and botanical gardens.
Haverstrom, one of seven members of the nonprofit organization's board of directors, said many subscribers have reported that the field trips alone are worth the semester fee of $55. Individual two-hour presentations carry an $8 charge. The income provides an honorarium to the presenters and a nominal rental fee for the site, currently at Nativity Lutheran Church on Commercial Way in Weeki Wachee.
Haverstrom said the weekly programs, which run from 10 a.m. to noon, "leave you on a high. People walk out saying, 'That was so wonderful' and 'I didn't know that.' "
Each presentation attracts 100 to 120 people, she said. As many as 150 have gone on some of the trips.
Next semester's schedule features a field trip to the new Dali museum.
One can get on the organization's mailing list by signing up at a single lecture or by calling (352) 597-0158.
"We troll for people we've heard of or who are on a USF mailing list," Haverstrom said.
Opening Academia Hernando's winter semester will be a talk about "The United States and Rising Powers." Also on the calendar are programs about jazz, Eleanor Roosevelt and ethics.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]