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Grandpa John Tells All

Ruminations, contemplations, and other cool stuff from LearningLife "super student" John Harris.

Sit down with John Harris for a couple of hours, and you'd best be prepared to talk about...well, just about anything. World travel. Linguistics. Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Photography. Homeschooling. Horses. Books (and books of every stripe, from high literature to pop detective fiction...even some chick lit, "it's really just a good thriller novel, once you skip over some of the romancy bits"). Current events. Medicine. Wikileaks. Wikipedia. Celebrities. Politics. The relative merits of a mountain vacation over a beach one. Interest rates and the recession. Ayn Rand...

John Harris Small.jpgIt's not surprising, given his history, that this dedicated LearningLife veteran is a veritable walking "Wikipedia Game." He credits his parents with instilling in him both an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn, as well as a sense of wanderlust that has taken him (literally) around the world.

Born in Lawrence, Kansas in 1933, Harris grew up in Missouri ("Missour-uh"), graduated from high school in California, and attended college in Colorado. Then, he took a break, traveled the globe, returned to California, and for most of the last fifty-plus years, has made a home in Minnesota. Through it all, he has always looked for new ideas to explore. "I suppose you could call me a perennial student," he says.

Harris' first "official" taste of university offerings came when he started college at the University of Colorado, envisioning a career path in medicine. He left Colorado early, though, to see the world--and to "sort out what I wanted to do with my life."

After spending three years in the early 1950s in the Navy's hospital corps, Harris returned to California and became a charter member of the newest University of California campus, UC-Riverside--this time as a math major.

"I went back to school in 1954, and was supposed to graduate in '57...but the Dean kindly suggested that I might want to take a semester to consider my future plans. In other words, he told me I needed to get my act together," Harris explains with a smile.

So, he took another break--this time to work in banking--and also found a wife and a new home state. "My wife, who I met in California, was a native of Minnesota, and when she said she'd like to move back here, I thought it sounded like a good idea. We loaded up the truck, came here in 1962, and I've been in the [upper Midwest] ever since."

He also decided to go back to school and finish the degree he had started years before--this time with a slightly different emphasis. Harris realized that while he loved math's practical applications and its problem-solving aspects, part of what he had disliked at Riverside was the theory component. "[It was] great up until that point--and then I lost interest when we got to the theory. It wasn't my thing; I very much preferred the applied, practical side of math. So I switched my focus to business and accounting."

In 1967, Harris graduated from the U of M's business school, and went on to work for a number of different companies in "corporate accounting--comptroller, finance officer, that sort of thing." After being downsized a couple of times in the early to mid-1980s ("The economy and interest rates in those days were NOT very good for the lumber/building/construction industry"), Harris decided to change career paths, and went to work as a real estate agent. "Until I got to be 65," he says, with a mischievous smile. "Then? Then I decided Eh! I put in the work--now, it's time to have fun."

For Harris, fun was all about returning to his roots as a world traveler (his excursions cover such diverse ports of call as Morocco, the Grand Caymans (for scuba diving), Ireland, Dubai, and Brazil, among many, many others); as well as getting back in touch with his inner "perennial student."

"I've always had a real curiosity, both about 'things,'--like words, numbers, inventions...and also about ideas. I love conversation, talking with people about all sorts of topics. In fact, that's what drew me to CCE and to LearningLife. I love the discussion element to the courses; the discourse. When I'm in a class, I want to say 'let's get these issues out there and talk about them!'

"And even when you get conflicting opinions about something, for the most part, it's always pretty civil; most discussions tend to be thoughtful, respectful. And I'd much rather have a class where people are disagreeing--but talking--than a class where no one says anything. To me, that's the whole point--the exchange.

"Some people might think, 'Oh, I don't want to raise my hand or speak out in class--I'm not smart enough on this topic.' But you know what? I'm just as smart as you are. You're as smart as I am. [The instructor]... just happens to have specialized in that particular area. That's why I go--to ask questions, discover new things, talk with the instructors and have them clarify points I don't understand, or elaborate on others."

For someone with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything, LearningLife has been an ideal match for Harris--so much so, that in the last six years, he has taken nearly 90 courses through CCE. Climate change, Faust, global politics, forensic science. Opera, Osama, rock and roll, economics. He has not limited himself to a single genre, format, or interest area--instead choosing to take courses on a wide variety of topics.

He does confess, though, to having a partiality to "the crime scene and forensic science courses. And the comparative religion ones were great. And I enjoy the book ones--mystery writers was excellent, and the Sherlock Holmes course was fantastic... And I had a great time at the yoga course... And I do like all of the science-themed ones... "

It's hard to narrow it down, as there are connections to be made, both personal and intellectual, in most of the things he has studied. "I've discovered as I go on that that old expression, 'Six degrees of separation,' is really more like two or three. Everything seems to be connected, somehow.

"I met a [CCE staff member] who shared my birthplace of Lawrence. I discovered wonderful writers who live and write right here in our back yard; it's always interesting to read a book when you know the places in it. I took one of Professor Anatoly Liberman's linguistics courses [The Future of the English Language], and enjoyed it, and enjoyed his teaching, so much, that I took a course on Charles Dickens from him, as well--and since I have a granddaughter who is a budding writer... I talked Dickens with her. I have another granddaughter who is studying forensic science at UW-Platteville, so we [share that interest]."

And even after eight decades of learning and living, there is always another connection to be made or trip to take, says Harris.

"There are so many things I want to do around here--travel a bit closer to home. I'd love to traverse the Great Lakes. I want to go to Montreal, and a few other places in Canada.

"When you look back on 80 years...it's amazing. My grandparents never traveled, never really got out of Missouri. And here I am, this little kid born in Lawrence, Kansas, one generation removed from them, and I have had all these opportunities. I have been all over the world. I have seen amazing technological advances: cell phones and the Internet, and other shifts--like the switch in photography from 35 mm to digital, smaller things, like that."

And what does "Grandpa John," the inveterate lifelong learner, think about all of those changes? That they are--like most other things in life--a great chance to keep exploring. "I've switched to digital photography (and took the recent LearningLife course on it, as well), and it is wonderful. I remember back in the navy, I would take rolls and rolls and rolls of images and I'd have to wait to get back to shore somewhere, then have them processed, then find out if any were even any good. Now? I can take a few shots and have instant feedback. For sure, I am a convert.

"The world is changing--you don't have to jump into everything (I don't have a smart phone; but I have a cell phone)--but pick some things that interest you, that are relevant to you, and embrace them."

What inspires the Super Student in you? Share your thoughts in the comment section, or visit us on Facebook to let everyone know. And, of course, check out the LearningLife website for a full list of upcoming courses, offers, and events!

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