85-year-old fulfills desire to learn

Donovan Scholars Program offers free courses to senior citizens

By Courtney Lacy

For 85-year-old Donovan Scholar Bob Coney, continuing education after earning two degrees is not about becoming more intelligent — it is about a desire to learn, he said.

“There is always an inborn desire and challenge to seek the unknown in how it shapes the reasons for our lives — the whens, the hows, and the why-nots,” Coney said.

Coney said he is thankful for his continued good health, the opportunities he has been blessed  with, and the UK Donovan Scholars Program.

UK’s fourth president, Herman Donovan, founded the program in 1962 in an effort to allow those who are 65 and older to receive a free education.

Donovan had a vision that everyone would be able to have lifelong education, said Arleen Johnson, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UK Donovan Scholars.

“The program is an amazing way for the Donovan students to learn about any topics they want and become all they have ever wanted to be,” Johnson said.

Having the opportunity to take classes in any topic is one of the reasons Coney keeps learning.

“It’s great being able to take all of these ‘ology’ courses that weren’t offered when I was in school. Back then, everything was all chemistry and physics. Now, if you put o-l-o-g-y on the end of the course, I’ve been in it,” he said with a laugh.

Coney attended Lycoming College in his hometown of Williamsport, Pa., as a freshman in 1941. He finished the year and then enlisted in the Navy’s officer-training program in Allentown, Pa.

After his service in World War II ended in 1946, Coney continued his education on a four-year GI Bill grant. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Roanoke College in Virginia, where he met his wife, in 1948.

“But one degree wasn’t enough,” Coney said.

He used the last two years of his GI Bill support to get a degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech in 1950.

Coney and his wife, Paula, settled down in Winchester, Ky., where he worked as an engineer and she worked as an English teacher while raising four sons.

In 1988, after retiring, Coney decided to enroll in UK Donovan Scholars.

“I don’t spend an awful lot of time sitting around watching television,” Coney said. “I never have. I like to keep in touch with what’s going on in the world.”

The pursuit of knowledge has always been encouraged in his family, Coney said, and he is amazed at how few people use the opportunity to get a higher education.

“Life is a learning experience,” Coney said. “Focus your thoughts on a good education. It will give you the opportunity to make the right choices in life. If not, others will make them for you, and they may not be in your best interests.”

All Donovan Scholars are just as excited as Coney to continue their education, and their younger counterparts enjoy having them in class, Johnson said.

About 1,100 students are enrolled in the program and 107 of them are taking classes this semester, Johnson said.

Classes are offered to the scholars in two different categories — self-enrichment and academic, Johnson said.

Self-enrichment courses are offered off-campus to those 55 and older with a fee of $10 per semester, which pays an instructor and the rent for the off-campus location.

Academic courses are those that Coney attends. Scholars who are 65 or older can choose from a list of about 40 on-campus courses that they can take free of charge.

Johnson said 50 students have received degrees through the academic program. Most scholars audit the classes and aren’t trying to complete a degree, she said.

Coney is not working toward another degree, but he said he has taken between 15 and 18 classes through Donovan Scholars.

“It’s a whole new world out there right now,” Coney said. “You have to keep learning.”