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The Joy of Teaching

Fritz Balwit brings 'Renaissance Man' skills to ACC
by: Vern Uyetake, Fritz Baldwit  leads a  recent class through an overview of the history of China presented in his own unique way.

When it comes to teacher Fritz Balwit, the raves flow thick and fast from members of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center:

'Well prepared.'

'Interesting.'

'Enlightening.'

'Challenging.'

'Entertaining manner.'

'Engaging.'

'Full of energy.'

'Very informed.'

'Eclectic.'

Lynn Kingson, perhaps the biggest admirer among all of Balwit's students, calls him 'a Renaissance Man.'

Actually, this is a bit difficult for Balwit to accept since he is a very modest fellow. With his huge breadth of knowledge you might suspect that, prior to meeting him, Balwit is an egotistical curmudgeon, ever ready to flex his intellect in front of his students.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Balwit is just 44 years old and has a wife and three young children. He presents his knowledge like a great gift that his students can eagerly open up.

Balwit thinks that knowledge for knowledge's sake is simply grand.

'This is something new for me,' said Balwit of his three-year experience at the ACC. 'I had never taught senior citizens before. I like these people. I can hang with these people.

'Because of their life experiences, these folks have things sorted out. They're refreshingly open to new ideas. There's a very small quotient of fakery. When you're 65 years old you've already become somebody.'

Balwit feels he is as much a student as a teacher in his ACC classes.

'There are some very well educated people here,' Balwit said. 'The seriousness and candor I receive from them helps me pare away extraneous ideas and intellectual vanity. I don't lose sight of the basic questions.

'But none of this is at the expense of fun and humor.'

Balwit's specialties include:

n Ancient history, especially ancient Mediterranean history, the origins of Christianity, Greece, the Middle East, 17th century history, especially science and philosophy.

n Chess. Teaching chess is Balwit's 'day job.' He not only teaches senior citizens but youth in private lessons, schools and libraries. He is also a chess promoter.

n The ancient Chinese game of Go. 'It's the world's oldest, simplest, most profound game,' Balwit said.

n Literature. Balwit's students love reading, and they have plenty of critical acumen.

The give-and-take of Balwit's classes can be amazing. For example, take the class he taught about America in the Roaring '20s and Great Depression.

'I've had people who can remember a chord played by Nat King Cole in a jazz club in the 1930s,' Balwit said. 'I've heard firsthand accounts of the Depression and of the polio scare in the 1950s. The students here come up with comical, funny things, some surprisingly startling things.'

Balwit has truly settled into his role as a teacher of senior citizens. Just ask Kingson, who has taken almost every one of his classes.

'Fritz is a Renaissance Man, and there aren't many of them,' she said. 'He brings an energy that is very contagious. He brings life to a subject that can be rather dull. He intersperses a variety of books, a minimum of six books to each class. There's also notes, poems and music.'

Kingson especially likes it when Balwit uses his own family in his lessons, and they are quite a group. He and his wife Devon Rose, a writer and poet, have three children - Alexandra, 9; Avital, 8; and Theo, 5. Theo prefers to go by the soubrette 'Theo the Brave.' Kingson's favorite story concerns the precocious Avital.

'Avital has an unusual sensitivity for all I value and all I aspire to,' Balwit said. 'She wants to live by her wits, words and ideas.

'One time she was at Zupan's and she tasted an olive. We asked her how she liked it, and she answered, 'I'd rather not say.' When we asked why, she said, 'It was a little off. I didn't want to hurt the olive's feelings.' '

To ACC executive director Brenda Suteu, Balwit is a tremendous asset to the center's education program.

'I get a lot of feedback on how magnificent his classes are. He has quite a group of fans,' Suteu said. 'Studies show that memory loss is slowed down or reversed by continuing to study and read. A class by Fritz reaches the people here on many levels, like history and literature.

'This is all very valuable for keeping the brain alive and healthy. It also gives a wonderful, enjoyable quality of life. I have seen these qualities in his students.'

Prior to coming to the ACC, Balwit taught in Mexico, Linfield College and George Fox University. It was all great training, but it didn't totally prepare him for students at the ACC.

'The first class I taught here was on the history of World War I,' Balwit said. 'And there was a guy in my class who knew all of the generals of the war. By their first name.

'I'll never teach that class again.'

There isn't a whole lot of chance Balwit will again be overshadowed by a student. His upcoming class compares ancient Greek civilization to ancient Chinese civilization.

'It's a new area for me,' Balwit said. 'I'm going to explore how China shows the world the way things can be done.'

The list of subjects Balwit can expound on seems practically limitless. Asked to explain how he became such a Renaissance Man, Balwit answered, 'They claim that when I was a baby I was dropped downstairs. My mother always blushes when I bring up that subject.

'Maybe it's because I have an overstimulated brain. I have a way of buying so many books that I crowd myself out of the house.'

Balwit has just one remaining desire: That the word about his classes gets out to many more people in this community.

'This has been really fun and I like to tell Lake Oswego about it.'

To find out more about Fritz Balwit's classes and the entire education program at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center, call 503-635-3758. The ACC is located at 505 G Ave., in Lake Oswego.