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SENIORS : Lively Learning : Students of Elderhostel have an advantage in class--they experienced the subject matter.


For a history class, it had a plus factor. The students who were assembled in a comfortable room at Santa Paula's Glen Tavern Inn had already lived through the course material firsthand.

"Where Have All the Heroes Gone?" put together by Dr. John Pendleton of Ventura, takes a close look at the changing emphasis away from American idols in the 20th Century, a trend the instructor calls a crisis. And there was plenty of feedback from his students, who had watched it happen.

All of the members of the class were 60 and up. Their ages had been checked before they could register for the course. It was part of Elderhostel, an international teaching program headquartered in Massachusetts that came to Ventura County last fall and claims to be growing as surely as the American median age is rising and leisure pursuits are expanding beyond the golf course and the bridge table.

Elderhostel began in 1975. The idea came from a man named Marty Knowlton who had found stays in European hostels as agreeable as the folk schools he attended in Scandinavia to learn local culture. Inspired to combine the two experiences, he booked the program at the University of New Hampshire, where he was employed on the business staff. Elderhostel housed 220 students in its first year.

In 1989 the nonprofit network enrolled 160,000 students in the U.S. and Canada, and about one-fifth that many overseas. The Santa Paula campus is one of about 100 in California, and draws attendees from all over the world, as well as a heavy concentration of Californians.

Halfway through the weeklong course on heroes, Pendleton's students were ready and eager to compare and contrast the adulation of Charles Lindbergh with that of the astronauts. One student offered the theory that the astronauts' popularity disappeared when Walter Cronkite did.

A lively discussion about the merits of decorated war heroes was led by David Farrely, a retired UCLA professor who served on MacArthur's staff during the occupation of Japan. He was backed up by Thomas Kinaga of Palos Verdes, who was imprisoned at the Japanese-American internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., and also served with the U.S. 442nd Combat Team, the Army's most decorated regiment for its size.

On the lighter side, the class had lived through the Age of the Western Hero and could correctly identify early photos of a teen-age John Wayne as well as Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and their respective horses.

Pendleton, who teaches the same course at UC Santa Barbara, said of his students, "You have people with great life experience here and great senses of humor. It's the most stimulating teaching experience I've had recently."

The feeling was mutual. Ruth Angevine from Walnut Creek in Northern California, who attended with her husband, Ed, said the whole class was pleased with the open format and challenge of the course. And they enjoyed the instructor's sense of humor.

Like many of the attendees, the Angevines, semi-retired from a paint and decorating store, were making a repeat visit to Elderhostel. It was their third, and wouldn't be their last.

Angevine, wearing a T-shirt that read, "65 Isn't Old if You're a Tree," said it was hard to choose which was the best aspect of the seminar--the course work, the camaraderie with other students, or the chance to explore a part of California they had not seen before.

They had plenty of time to see the sights, go to the theater or visit relatives, for Elderhostel is all discussion and no homework. Three courses are offered throughout the week, and attendees are free to sign up for one or all of them. The Angevines were enrolled in all three classes, including Japanese history and a survey of modern Japan.

The cost of the seminar is another of its attractions. The stay, sharing double rooms, with meals and instruction is under $300, and this is one of the program's more expensive locations. Most seminars take place at college dormitories, and the regular price is $255, said local coordinator Joanne Kimball. She pointed out there is no maid service, and sightseeing is extra.

One way the cost of the program is kept down is through budgeting nothing for advertising, Kimball said. The course catalogue is available in public libraries, and attendees readily pass on the word about the classes.

Local residents are welcome to sign up for classes at day rates if they are not filled, Kimball said, but usually the courses are booked solid. Also, those under 60 may attend if accompanied by a responsible senior . . . er, partner over that age. However, all attendees must be at least 50.

* WHERE AND WHEN: Elderhostel will offer several classes this summer, including ones that concentrate on local history. Bill Shedenhelm, senior editor of Rock and Gem Magazine, will instruct a class that covers Ventura County geology, and historian Judith Triem will teach courses in Southern California Cultural Landscape and the Shaping of Main Street. Pendleton will repeat the heroes class and will also offer one on modern mythology. Prospective students may obtain schedules at local libraries or may call the Glen Tavern Inn at 525-6658.

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