The member-driven SSI draws older adults who plan and run their own classes

Members of the Senior Studies Institute's play reading class Sept. 12 tackle different roles as they read 'Chamber Music,' a one-act play by Arthur Kopit. Barbara Guyse, left, and Louise Feldman, right, are among the readers.Here’s a school with no grades, no tests, no formal faculty, not even compulsory attendance, a school where the students choose and lead the classes, and tuition costs only $30 per year.

The Senior Studies Institute of Portland Community College began as a way for older adults to expand their horizons and connect with each other. Now in its 21st year, the SSI has grown into an organization of more than 325 members who generate ideas for classes, then plan and conduct them. The institute’s motto: “We learn from each other, and we never stop learning.”

Verna Russell loves it. “I think it’s one of the greatest educational things in Portland — it’s so accessible,” says Russell, a 73-year-old Portland resident who joined the SSI about 10 years ago after she retired from her job as a histologist (making plates for medical diagnosis)at the Oregon Primate Center.

Russell had acted in Portland-area theater in the 1960s and 1970s and was looking for some theater-related activity. She joined a senior readers group through the OASIS organization before finding an SSI class called Play Reading, which meets every Wednesday afternoon at the Neighborhood House in Southwest Portland’s Multnomah Village area.

Play Reading doesn’t have a leader, Russell says. Instead, the class members take turns choosing plays that pique their interest, then divvy up the roles and conduct readings of each work.

It was Russell’s turn to choose a play for the Sept. 12 class, and she brought copies of “Chamber Music,” Arthur Kopit’s 1962 absurdist one-act about eight women in an insane asylum who think they’re famous historical figures.

Patt Opdyke is the one who keeps a record of the plays the class reads. “It’s very informal the way the group is set up,” says Opdyke, 68, of North Portland, who joined the SSI in 2009. “People commit to bring a play to class with enough copies for all the characters. We do cold readings — there’s no studying ahead of time. That’s why we have a lot of fun with it.”

Opdyke joined the SSI after she retired from her job with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Washington County. “I was looking for different things to do, and I’ve always had an interest in theater,” she says.

A web search turned up the SSI, and Opdyke got hooked on Play Reading. “The only times I miss it now is if I’m on the road or I’m ill. I love it,” she says. “There are so many different plays, and the group is very warm and inclusive, and everyone seems to have a great sense of humor.”

It’s a social group, too. “After the play we get together at the pub across the street,” Opdyke says.

Play Reading is one of 35 classes and Current Events discussion sessions that the SSI offers at seven sites in the Portland area. Each class is just two hours long, and it’s possible to join any time.

This fall’s lineup includes Greek Theater, Scottish Clans, World War II Espionage, Genealogy, Folk Art, Maps and Internet Security, along with a Parkinson’s disease forum and a voter information program by the League of Women Voters. Every term also includes Poetry Fun, Book Potpourri, Current Events and Play Reading.

Norm Grant, 85, and Jan Vaillancourt, 79, are the site coordinators for one of the SSI class sites, the SMILE (Sellwood Moreland Improvement League) Center in Southeast Portland. The Northeast Portland couple set up tables and chairs for each class, lay out snacks for break time and heat water for instant coffee. Vaillancourt also moderates Poetry Fun, a poetry reading class, at the SMILE Center, having taken over the class from Grant when he became hard of hearing — though he still attends the class and suggests poems for the group to read aloud.

The SSI brought Grant and Vaillancourt together in the first place. They met through an institute class about 15 years ago — “an instructor was showing a film for a class about appreciation of movies,” Vaillancourt recalls, “and both Norm and I were there and started chatting.” (She doesn’t remember the name of the movie.)

Vaillancourt and Grant were married five years ago. Both had been married before. Vaillancourt joined the SSI in 1993 after retiring from the Beaverton School District; in the past she has co-chaired the SSI program and with Grant was site coordinator at the SSI’s 82d Avenue site.

Grant sold advertising for a couple of Portland newspapers, including the old Hollywood News, before he retired. He has loved reading poetry since he was in college, which is how he came to lead Poetry Fun for the SSI.

Grant likes all kinds of poetry; the class has read the works of W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Ted Kooser, Robert Pinsksy, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Penn Warren, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Fitzgerald.

“The SSI is just great,” Grant says. “It’s such an exchange of ideas; it was broadening my mind. I have six kids, and I thought that was everything, but I found out there’s much more.”

Vaillancourt keeps signing up for the SSI year after year because “I like learning,” she says. And at $30 per year, you can’t beat the price, she adds.

The institute is geared toward older adults, “but we’ve had 50-year-olds come,” she says. “And if you’re 17 and well behaved, you can show up too.”

New at the SSI

On Oct. 5, the Senior Studies Institute (SSI) begins hosting weekly Current Events Forums at the Portland Metropolitan Workforce Training Center, 5600 N.E. 42nd Ave. at Killingsworth Street. The forums will be held Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon in Building 1, Room 132. Parking is free at this facility’s large parking lot.

Forums are open to the public and are moderated by experienced SSI volunteers. Attendees suggest discussion topics which they think will be of interest to others. This is also an opportunity to meet your senior neighbors who share your interest in the issues of the day.

More info

Membership in the Senior Studies Institute costs $30 per year. For a list of classes, a membership application form and other information, visit the website at or call Tony or Kathy at 503-228-2488.

Class locations

• SMILE Center, 8210 S.E. 13th Ave., Portland.

• PCC CLIMB Center for Advancement, 1626 S.E. Water Ave., Portland.

• Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue station, 13810 S.W. Farmington Road, Beaverton.

• Neighborhood House, 7688 S.W. Capitol Highway, Portland (inside Multnomah Arts Center).

• West End Building, 4101 S.W. Kruse Way, Lake Oswego.

• Portland Community College Southeast Center, Tabor Hall, 2305 S.E. 82nd Ave., Portland, Room 138.

• Metropolitan Workforce Training Center, 5600 N.E. 42nd Ave. Portland, Building 1, Room 136.

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