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Ex-Congressman Trades Life in Hearing Room for New Start in a Dorm Room

At 70, Ron Mazzoli is heading to Harvard to study in a year-long program. The Democrat says a love of learning lured him to campus.

September 07, 2003|Dylan T. Lovan | Associated Press Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Talk to Ron Mazzoli even for a little while and one thing becomes apparent: He is passionate about learning.

He thrives on it.

Consider the evidence: Mazzoli, who will turn 71 in November, had a distinguished 25-year career as a Democrat in Congress. He has taught law classes at the University of Louisville since his retirement in 1995. He was a visiting fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics for three months last year.

He enjoys catching up on an unfinished novel now and then.

So why would he give it all up and head back to college, forced to pore over term papers while the neighbors who are just a fraction of his age are getting loud in the quad?

"I want to disprove the theory that you can't teach an old dog new tricks," said Mazzoli, who will enter a one-year mid-career program at Harvard on Wednesday.

The coursework is usually reserved for thirtysomethings who want to take a career in politics a step further.

The lure of learning attracted him to the historic campus in Cambridge, Mass.

"I sort of feel a day is lost if you don't learn something," he said.

The trip to Harvard won't be a repeat of spring 2002, when he was there as a visiting fellow. Mazzoli ran a study group for students at the Institute of Politics and lived in a comfortable house near campus.

This time, he and his wife, Helen, will live in a one-bedroom undergraduate dormitory in Lowell House, one of Harvard's 12 undergraduate houses. Being in that setting will put the couple close to everything Harvard has to offer, but Mazzoli says he's a little concerned about the nocturnal habits of his neighbors.

"The other side of it is the noise level and the activity level," he said, adding that he wonders "just exactly how we're going to function when you have students running around" at night.

But adjusting to college life is a challenge that her husband is eager for, Helen Mazzoli said.

"I think because he always looks for a challenge and he's always ready to expand his horizons mentally, and he's so taken with the idea of learning, that this appeals to him," she said.

A friend and former colleague, former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, said Mazzoli will serve as a mentor for younger students.

"We're never too old to learn and never too old to share our experiences with others," said Pryor, who headed the Institute of Politics when Mazzoli was there. "That's one of the great characteristics of people when they reach a certain age."

Pryor said students flocked to Mazzoli.

"He made young people want to go into politics," said Pryor, a U.S. senator from 1979 to 1996.

Mazzoli graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame University in 1954, spent two years in the Army and practiced private law before entering politics as a state senator in 1968. He was elected to his first congressional term, representing the 3rd District, in 1971, and was named chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law in 1981.

But now, the man who has a federal building named for him in Louisville freely admits that his toughest task may be navigating a personal computer.

After taking some computer courses, "I find myself not so fearful as I used to be," he said.

Mazzoli won't receive any scholarship money for the courses in the Mid-Career Program in Public Administration, one of the school's oldest degree programs. He's paying for the classes himself.

"At this point in our life, Helen and I have no toys. We have no boats, we have no vacation homes, we have no country club memberships. But we have enjoyed things like this."

He has no grand plans once he finishes the two-semester program.

"I'm hoping that I'll be able to gather from this experience more information, more knowledge that I can put to use, even if it's only just simply to apply to something on my desk -- not to solve some major world problem or an existing national problem -- but just because knowledge is worth acquiring for its own value."

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