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Nonagenarian shines in senior audit coursework

  Edwin Hart

Senior auditor Edwin P. Hart in his English class taught by Damien Keane. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By ANN WHITCHER-GENTZKE

Published April 25, 2013

“I just think that anybody over 60 should investigate and take something entirely different than their career”
Edwin Hart, Student in UB's Senior Audit Program

Whether or not Edwin P. Hart’s longevity and good health can be tied to his ongoing UB coursework cannot be known for sure. But the 91-year-old student definitely conveys the benefits of engaging in university studies long after the typical college age.

Hart’s shy and retiring demeanor belies not only his age, but also his intellectual energy and appetite for serious books, film and music. Currently, he’s taking Damien Keane’s British Modernism course in the English department, examining the works and impact of English and Irish writers like Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.

Right now, the class is reading Beckett’s one-act play “Endgame.” An advantage for the class of mostly young collegians is that Hart actually has attended three productions of this 1957 drama over his lifetime.

A veteran of World War II who fought in the Pacific Theater, Hart received the Purple Heart for heroism during battle in Japan. And although he is modest about this distinctive honor (“I was only doing my job”), he proudly takes the still-gleaming medal from a drawer and shows it to a visitor. A proud possession of another sort is the “I Read Ulysses” button he had made up while taking a course with retired UB English Professor Mark Shechner, gently poking fun at the legions of English majors who have James Joyce’s “Ulysses” on their bookshelves but, alas, have never read the book in its entirety.

Hart has been taking courses through UB’s senior audit program since long before his 2000 retirement from Kenmore Mercy Hospital, where he worked for 41 years as a microbiologist. He has taken numerous courses in the English department, along with those offered by the music, theatre and dance, and history departments. He has taken these courses continuously, two courses a semester gradually giving way to just one class each fall and spring term.

Hart traces his intellectual interests to his earliest years. Growing up in Buffalo during the Depression, he was “a very shy kid” and an avid reader. His parents divorced when he was only 2. He, his mother and younger brother moved frequently throughout Buffalo, renting houses or apartments, with the result that Hart attended five different schools by the time he graduated from the eighth grade. “I did a lot of reading, more reading than most kids, I guess.” This is his second college tour: He received a BA in biology from UB in 1949, attending the university on the GI Bill before going on to his long career at Kenmore Mercy. He previously had worked at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Erie County Laboratory.

“The senior auditor program benefits UB and our matriculated students, as well as the continuous, lifelong learning of participants themselves,” says UB Registrar Kara Saunders. She says a total of 169 students participated in the program during the 2012-13 academic year, with the vast majority taking undergraduate courses. Participants take classes tuition-free with no credit, assuming sufficient space and the instructor’s signature on the registration form. They may need to pay for textbooks and other study materials, and are charged a fee if they wish to receive telecourse materials. Web-based courses are excluded from the program, but exceptions will be considered for state residents only.

Moreover, participants don’t sweat over term papers, as these are waived, along with tests, although in some classes senior students take exams if they wish. “My feeling is that everyone in the room is in the course, so there’s no special instruction,” says Neil Schmitz, a professor of English who has taught Hart in three of his classes. “Senior auditors can write papers if they want, but it is never required. As far as I’m concerned, they’re in the mix.”

Hart, Schmitz says, always sat by the door, “a tad separate” in a Civil War course he taught several semesters ago. All that changed, however, when the facts of Hart’s battle wounds came to light. “I brought three minie balls to class—Civil War bullets, heavy leaden balls—and we talked about wounds and postwar experience. Someone said something and Edwin, a quiet observer until that moment, quietly corrected whatever that person said. It turned out Edwin has a Japanese bullet still lodged in his right lung.” The dramatic class exchange prompted Schmitz to write an essay, reprinted here.

Today, Schmitz remains an enthusiastic supporter of the senior audit program, noting that his senior students have come from the professions, law, science and business, and are mostly in their 60s. Their contributions can be profound. Last semester, for instance, in Schmitz’s short fiction class, a senior auditor, James J. Paul, “made a major contribution to our class discussion of Raymond Carver. He brought me Carver poems I either forgot or never read, heartbreakingly beautiful poems—direct, simple and so true.”

Like Paul, Hart is a lover of poetry, believing it to be the most elevated and complex of literary forms for its compression and power to communicate profundity with such relative brevity. His home in Kenmore is filled with books and magazines like the New York Review of Books. Hart has no television or computer, but keeps up on current events by listening to NPR each morning.

He’s hard to reach (no answering machine), but mostly this is because he’s on the go, attending films at the Dipson Theatres, attending concerts of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and UB music department, and seeing as much local theater as possible. He can tell you the precise number of professional theater companies in Buffalo (20) and points to the program of a theater performance he attended the previous evening at Hilbert College.

His health is good—just some mild anemia—and one of his daughters looks after his medication needs. Hart is the father of four children, all of whom live in Western New York. (A fifth child has died.) He has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

In his many years of auditing courses, Hart has encouraged others to participate—he says people are often surprised that UB offers this program, although it is a staple of many universities across the country. In fact, course auditing has been offered to seniors as a matter of SUNY policy since 1974, and UB recently took steps so that senior auditors can register for courses in a manner similar to other students.

“Auditors now have access to the course in UB Learns, can see their schedule of classes in HUB and can get a UB Card,” Saunders explains. “And faculty can now see auditors and their auditing status on their class lists.” She adds that students taking undergraduate courses tend to focus on general education and upper-level history and English offerings.

“The senior audit program is one way of adding to the variety of perspectives, knowledge and experience that contribute to our academic conversations, deepening the understanding and education that occur in the classroom,” Saunders continues. “These perspectives can also enrich faculty research and scholarly pursuits, providing additional insights that can lead faculty in new directions to unanticipated discoveries.”

“I just think that anybody over 60 should investigate and take something entirely different than their career,” Hart says. “It could be Japanese or some other language, or some political history—there are just so many subjects available. And although there is joy in solitary reading, we need the guidance of our splendid faculty for the ‘deep reading’ enhancement.”

More information on the senior audit program and how to register can be obtained on the Registrar’s website.