1. Life & Culture

Get a taste of learning through Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College 'Summer Sampler'

Photo by Lisa Presnail ASPEC staff member Bette Damouny leads a yoga class.
Photo by Lisa Presnail ASPEC staff member Bette Damouny leads a yoga class.
Published Jul. 23, 2018

Some might call it summer camp for retirees. Others might see it as a chance to have fun with lifelong learning.

Either way, there is a "Summer Sampler" underway through August through the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College, known as ASPEC. Begun in 1982, ASPEC offers members a year-round menu of lectures, workshops, discussion groups, indoor and outdoor activities, community events and off-campus charity projects.

In addition to attending films, theater productions and other public events on the college's 54th Avenue S campus in St. Petersburg, ASPEC members are encouraged to become involved academically as mentors. Their career expertise can be part of a course's classroom discussions, or they can even audit classes (with the professor's permission).

Members also have access to the Eckerd College pool, gym, waterfront, library and other campus facilities.

They attend events weekdays at the college's Lewis House, originally built as a residence for the college president.

With only a few exceptions, ASPEC's 300-plus members are retired or semiretired. Some members are seasonal, but most are year-round. Most members live in Pinellas County, with a few making the drive from Hillsborough County or the other side of the Sunshine Skyway, according to ASPEC director Ken Wolfe, 71.

"There's no restriction on age or geography," Wolfe said. "We're a dues-paying organization.

"We tend to get retired people," Wolfe said, "but not totally. The average age is 70."

There's a fee — $100 for the three-month Summer Sampler each year or $50 for a one-time "Member for a Month" plan.

What attracts people are the 40 interest groups ASPEC includes. This lures people looking for a mental challenge as well as peers who share similar interests or careers. And the careers of ASPEC members are wide-ranging. Several are retired admirals or generals; others are former CEOs, economists, entrepreneurs or nuclear physicists. This mix has drawn some noted national figures in the past, including author and historian James A. Michener in the 1990s and Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel in the 2000s, as "Scholars in Residence."

Members like to vary their ASPEC involvement. "What people like to do is something on Monday morning, something on Tuesday afternoon," Wolfe said. "It's easy if you live 20 minutes away."

There are numerous social events during the week, from bridge to yoga or tai chi. On-campus foreign films or lectures are also open to ASPEC members, and there are group rates for performances off campus at American Stage or visits to local museums.

During this summer's sampler, there are options daily from around 9:45 a.m. to late afternoon. On a recent Thursday, the scheduled morning activities started with "Some Times Science," a weekly discussion of the previous Tuesday's New York Times science section. This was followed at 11 with the fifth session of a miniseries, "Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases." Then there was Chair Yoga at 12:15 p.m.

Eckerd College benefits from having all these experts on campus every day in a number of ways. First, Wolfe noted, "90 percent of members donate to the college. Almost none of our members went to school here." Total member donations average $350,000 a year, he said.

And sometimes, members get creatively inspired. A few years back, some people in the Friday morning "Applied Technology" interest group decided to build a replica of the boat from The African Queen, the 1951 Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn film. The result was a 24-foot boat, christened the Don Brown for an ASPEC member, that is now part of the college's waterfront program.

Another time, members built a single-engine airplane. It even flew — briefly — splashing down in the nearby shallows of Boca Ciega Bay. The pilot waded ashore unhurt.

For Tom Handcock, 68, who has been a member for 11 years, the interest groups in "new physics topics (and) breakthroughs in medicine" have been appealing. He said he went over to check out ASPEC "and never left."

Handcock said he was attracted by the range of interest groups led by other members. "Most have an academic basis — history, science, religion, all the things you would cover in a well-developed college. They're teaching us."

Describing himself as a "serial entrepreneur," Handcock said, "I'm one of the few people who does not have an academic, military or government background. I was surprised they let me in," he joked.

Handcock said he provides computer expertise to the college and to ASPEC when needed. "Members are expected to contribute to students in any way they can," he said. "People join us so they can do just that."

Sharon Ally, who joined ASPEC after trying out last year's Summer Sampler, is a rarity among the members. The vice president of a St. Petersburg bank is still fully employed.

"I went to many of the lectures, especially the ones on business and economics," she said. "I was very impressed. I found the members so accessible. With their specialized backgrounds, you can learn so much from them."

Ally, who is in her 50s, said she attends lectures during her lunch hour and after work. "The programs are so interesting. They've become part of my lifestyle. They are what make me happy."

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at