In Praise of ‘Geezers’

September 28, 2017 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)

The Hartle Room is shown in the Barr-Buchanan Center.

The group called themselves the “geezers.”

They were nontraditional students, all well over the age of 40, who enrolled in the St. John’s College Graduate Institute— sometimes a group of five, sometimes closer to 10 as the students came and went, working on their master’s degrees at their own pace.

Don Leopold (AGI14), Judith McGeorge (AGI13), and classmate Peggy Bair (AGI13) met at the Graduate Institute in Annapolis. After watching a group of undergraduates attempting to collect funds for a class gift, Leopold inspired McGeorge and Bair to join him in starting their own fundraising initiative to benefit Graduate Institute tutors.

But calling it the “Geezer Fund” didn’t ring right. They needed a name. Tutor Jeff Black, associate dean of graduate programs at the time, suggested “Nestor Fund” and it stuck. In McGeorge’s words, Nestor is the “older guy who always talked too much but had a lot of wisdom” in Homer’s Odyssey.

Leopold earned two degrees from Harvard, had a successful career as a management consultant, and raised six children. While in his 50s, he realized he felt “embarrassed that somebody with my education knew as little about Western civilization and its history as I did.”

He had been reading on his own for several years, then one of his children decided to go to St. John’s College in Annapolis. A seminar on Plato’s Meno was offered to the parents. Leopold participated in the seminar and says he “fell in love with the process.”

By the time he enrolled in the Graduate Institute, Leopold was in his 60s and semi-retired. His years of attending the St. John’s Executive Seminars in New York City and Summer Classics in Santa Fe had left him feeling like he’d been at a great cocktail party hovering around the hors d’oeuvres table. He was ready for the main course.

Don Leopold (AGI14) was part of a group of older students who called themselves "the geezers.'
Don Leopold (AGI14) helped start a fund to benefit Graduate Institute tutors.

He commuted twice a week for two years from Boston to Annapolis—his wife was “Penelope-like” about it, he says by phone from his home on Martha’s Vineyard. During those years, he got to know the tutors, other students, the books, and the campus.

Like Leopold, McGeorge thought that her education was incomplete. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, she’d heard references to books in the Western canon for years but hadn’t read them. So, she applied to St. John’s.

Together with Bair, who died in 2016, the three led Graduate Institute students and alumni in raising $51,000 for use as GI tutor stipends in Annapolis. The funds were invested in an endowment, which protects the principal amount from being used, but allows accrued interest to be spent on targeted needs. Even though the fund has been used twice, it has already grown to $70,000.

Emily Langston, associate dean of graduate programs in Annapolis since 2015, says the fund was most recently apportioned to tutor emeritus Will Williamson for the creation of a mathematics manual for the Graduate Institute. Previously, Williamson had written the senior mathematics manual. Although he declined to keep any of the stipend for himself, he used it to hire two Graduate Institute alumni to help with layout and graphics.

“I’m delighted with the math manual. It was a long overdue project and we couldn’t have done anything nearly as good without the support we had from the Nestor Fund,” Langston says.

McGeorge is passionate about her St. John’s education. “You should be able to sink your heart into learning and education and exploration, because you have to spend the rest of your life thinking about the practical aspects of career and so forth.” This was the opposite of what she did while earning an undergraduate degree in finance.

But by enrolling in the St. John’s graduate program in her 50s, she had the opportunity to do all of those things. Deeply appreciative of the Graduate Institute program and the college, McGeorge says she will continue to support the Nestor Fund, as many of her fellow alumni continue to do.