The Teacher Becomes the Student…and Vice Versa at OLLI Featured

George Shelton teaches a woodturning class at OLLI. George Shelton teaches a woodturning class at OLLI. Hanson Watkins

 Richard Rhone had retired from two careers, first as a school principal and second, facilitating welfare reform. He was spending time as a docent at a museum when a member of OLLI approached him.   

“One of the curriculum people came through the museum and asked me to teach. I have been teaching and taking classes ever since.”    

Rhone teaches history courses for OLLI about the Colonial and Revolutionary Era, the War Between the States and the Old West. In the upcoming fall session, he is teaching a class on the history of the political parties in the U.S.    

“There is nothing in the Constitution that talks about political parties.  Our early founders, like George Washington, were against parties,” Rhone said. “George Washington even talked about it in his end of his term address. This is an opportunity to learn about the history of the political parties in a non-partisan way and how they have changed over the years. “   

With the upcoming election year, political topics are just one area of study at OLLI. The classes range from classic crafts, like quilting, to computer science to literature and woodworking.   

Rhone says he also enjoys taking classes, and he has participated in a number of them over the years. 

“The last class I took was a current events class with Mary Tillotson [who worked as a reporter for 40 years in major markets all over the US]. It was a review of the news. Not just what’s in the news and why it is the news, but what wasn’t included in the news and should have been.” 

The OLLI program in Tuscaloosa is one of the premier extended learning groups in the country. The UA chapter has had unprecedented growth over the last few years, doubling its membership, and has won several awards for its efforts.   

Unlike other similar programs, OLLI in Tuscaloosa is special because it is a volunteer led and supported program. Rhone, the current board President, believes that this has fostered a sense of ownership among the students and teachers. 

 “Everything we teach is student-based. Our curriculum is based on what students have suggested. We have a curriculum committee. Sometimes I think, 'Why would anyone want to take that?' And then we will have 30-40 people in that class.” 

Kerry Kennedy is a local pottery artist who teaches at OLLI. She was asked to teach by another OLLI member who also teaches woodworking, George Shelton.  

“The most wonderful thing about OLLI is the people that take the classes. They are delightful and the most positive students - cheerful and laid back," Kennedy said. "Pottery is a bucket list kind of project that they want to dabble in and see if they can do it. I hear, ‘ I’ve always wanted to try it’ a lot, and I love seeing that wish fulfillment. The students are interesting people in their own right. I feel like it is more collaboration than teaching.”

Druid City Living columnist Jim Ezell (Tales of Tuscaloosa) is teaching a class on Tuscaloosa history this fall.

"OLLI students are intelligent and highly motivated. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that makes me feel like a student and not an instructor," Ezell said. "I'm looking forward to presenting an expanded version (eight sessions) of 'The First 200 Years-A Quick, Quirky History of Tuscaloosa' in the fall semester. Earlier this summer, there were 72 participants in the four-session version. It was an extremely gratifying experience." 

OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) offers educational courses as well as entertainment through classes, bonus sessions, field trips, socials, special events, and travel. OLLI is a year-round, member-centered, member-led, program catering to those 50 years and older. Membership is open to anyone. To learn more visit

*Editor's Note: OLLI is holding its Fall Registration and Open House on Aug. 15 and 16, at the Bryant Conference Center. Aug. 15, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (registration), 2-3:30 p.m. (refreshments and courses overview); Aug. 16, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (registration). Refreshments will be served and will include a brief overview of courses, bonus classes and field trips being offered this fall. No registration is required, and the event is open to the public. Courses begin Sept. 12.  For more information, call (205) 348-6482.

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Hanson Watkins

Ms. Watkins graduated from Mountain Brook High School and lives in Birmingham with her two boys, Jack, and Charlie. She has bachelor's degrees in psychology and creative writing from Emory University, and an MBA and master's in health administration from Georgia State University. 
Hanson spent 10 years working in the healthcare industry in Atlanta before moving back to Birmingham several years ago to work for her father, Jim Watkins. 
She credits her father, who has owned several businesses over the years, for giving her the entrepreneurial spirit. Her brother, Josh Watkins, is a Birmingham lawyer who helped start the Birmingham Angel Network, a venture capital organization. 

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.



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