The Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement took its inspiration from a similar program at Columbia University, in New York, where retired professors would meet regularly for round-table discussions led by peers.
Though their ages span decades — from the mid 50s to nearly 100 — HILR's 500 "members," as they're called within the program, are all college educated, many with multiple graduate degrees from top institutions, and, save a few, are the sons and daughters of blue-blooded New England Democrats.
One of HILR's oldest members, Frances Addleson, is founder and namesake of a HILR's Shakespeare players. The troupe performs once a year, and until fairly recently, Addleson was responsible for cutting, directing, and staging the plays herself.
At 98, Addleson speaks with the voice of someone 20 years younger. And though she's as frail as a bird and practically blind, she moves about her Brookline apartment with surprising dexterity, head slightly bent and arms swinging purposefully at her sides.
"I always tell my friends that at 85 I became an actress, and at 95 I retired from the stage," she says, her body so small it looks as if might slip between the cushions of her plush blue couch.
Three years on, Addleson can still recite Hamlet's soliloquies from memory. Taking both parts, she treated this reporter to the opening dialogue between a thundering King Lear and his daughter Cordelia. Her eyes sparkled with a depth of understanding that goes beyond simple recitation. Hers is a love forged over decades. Dressed in an oversize T-shirt splashed with neon dye, Addleson directs her gaze to an imaginary Lear. Her face softens as she speaks the part of shrewd Cordelia, and then, hardens as she speaks the words of Lear.
LEAR: But goes thy heart with this?
CORDELIA: Ay, my good lord.
LEAR: So young, and so untender?
CORDELIA: So young, my lord, and true.
Addleson was graduated from Radcliff College in 1930 with a concentration in sociology and psychology, "rather than liberal arts where my heart really was," she says. "I missed out on so many things that I cared about in order to be sure that the minute I graduated I would get a job."
Her 50-year career in social work, rooted in the Great Depression, took her from the Travelers Aid desk at South Station, to the Reformatory for Women in Framingham, where she was head of research, and later to the gynecology unit at Beth Israel Hospital following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
A seasoned writer of patient reports and dry academic papers, Addleson says she always craved the flourish of arts — of literature, romance languages, and Shakespeare! Oh, for those alluring, though impractical, disciplines her jobless friends had studied at Radcliff!
"I was busy reading material connected with my job, and when I retired, I was so anxious to get back to the field of arts and literature that I immediately looked for some place to go," she says.
She started at Boston College in 1980. A few times a week, Addleson and her husband would bike up the hill to classes — he to German, she to French. At that time, education programs for senior citizens were basically unheard of. So the couple arranged for their enrollment through a professor friend of theirs. For five years, she was at least half a century older than her classmates.