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83 year old in 19th year of learning at U of C

Like most academics, John Verney believes in lifelong learning, and like almost all university students, he takes his studies seriously. But there is one significant difference between this man and most other dedicated scholars: Verney is 83 years old, and in his 19th year of continuous learning at the University of Calgary.
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Like most academics, John Verney believes in lifelong learning, and like almost all university students, he takes his studies seriously.

But there is one significant difference between this man and most other dedicated scholars: Verney is 83 years old, and in his 19th year of continuous learning at the University of Calgary.

A former high school English teacher and department head who was raised in England and later worked in Montreal, Verney found himself at the age of 62 retired and living with his wife in Calgary - in part to be close to his four children and eight grandchildren.

"I had no idea what I was going to do here at this time of my life," he said. "Then quite by chance I realized I could study French at the university. I had lived in Montreal but had never learned French so I thought it was about time."

Verney began taking French and other courses and working towards examinations when he realized he didn't really need the stress of studying towards an end, but rather wanted to learn for learning's sake.

"I was worrying about my GPA and I realized I was trying to get high marks to impress my grandchildren," he explained. "Then I found out I could audit the courses. The word 'audit' literally means 'listen' and you're not supposed to ask questions, but almost every professor has encouraged me to take part (in the class)."

Verney was then thrilled to learn that seniors aged 65 or over can take University of Calgary classes for free.

"All you have to buy are the books and the coffee," he chuckled.

Like several other universities across the country, the University of Calgary waives tuition fees for senior citizens who are residents of the province.

"It's one of Calgary's great hidden secrets," said Dan Balkwill an advisor in the university's registration office. "We only have a handful of seniors a year, but it may become a trend as the baby boomers get older because many of them have university on their radar, unlike generations before them."

It never takes the other much younger students very long to realize that Verney has much to offer.

"In a history class a student asked me to help him understand the Second World War," he said. "I was able to talk about it because I was eight when the war began and I was moved out of the city to a farm."

Students and professors alike have appreciated the perspective of an octogenarian.

"I took a course on the psychology of aging, and I was thanked for showing a more positive view of growing old," Verney said.

University of Calgary student Marni Butler, 23, took a Communications and Culture class with Verney.

"The class asks a lot of big life questions," she explained. "To have someone older with life experience that can talk about the past, present and future is very cool. We tend to focus on the present and the future, so to have an older person remind us about the importance of the past is a huge perspective when you're young."

University professor Dr. Ron Glasberg who has taught Verney agrees.

"Having him in the class gives the other students the benefit of a rich experience that I can't give them," he said. "I'm only 65, he's in his 80s. He's from another culture, he has so much knowledge to share."

Gasberg said Verney has taken some of his classes numerous times.

"It's very flattering and I enjoy his presence," he said. "I never give the same lecture twice because I believe in keeping things fresh and keeping the students engaged."

Glasberg said Verney makes the other students laugh with his candour and observations on life.

"He's not at all shy because really, what is there to be shy about in your 80s?" he chuckled, adding Verney's most valuable asset is that he demonstrates a love of learning as an end in itself. "A lot of younger students are here to get a degree that they believe will get them a job. This actually lowers the level of overall learning, but John shows them that a love of learning is what it's all about."

Verney said he never gets tired of improving his knowledge, having enrolled in almost 100 courses over the years, including classes in Greek, Latin, religious studies, psychology and politics.

"I may not be taking exams, but still I study hard," he said, adding that though he can't prove it, he believes continuously learning may be the secret to longevity.

"Being with young people is very stimulating," he said. "Some of my young friends have told me that they wish their grandparents were more like me. And I look at some of my own friends who have given up so early, they are just watching TV."

But Verney admits he has faced a steep learning curve with regards to learning methods and modern technology.

"Computers, Google, power points - it's all new, but so much better," he said. "It's faster, more exciting, but also easier to find information."

As well as attending to his intellectual well-being, Verney keeps himself in good physical shape by swimming and riding his bike almost every day.

"On my 80th birthday I swam 80 lengths of the pool just so I could say I did," he chuckled. "I like the idea of balancing both mind and body health."

And he doesn't intend to quit taking classes any time soon.

"I intend to live forever and keep trying to know all there is to know," he said. "When I was a young boy I learned that there were 23 causes of the French Revolution. Nowadays we know there were many, many more than that. There are so many fresh new ideas that are constantly evolving and changing. I want to learn them all."