No issue is too controversial for current events discussion HOWARD COUNTY SENIORS

October 07, 1992|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Every Thursday morning, Gilbert and Elizabeth Seldin tackle the problems of the world and nation.

Sometimes armed with a weeks' worth of newspapers, Mr. Seldin, an 81-year-old resident of the Harmony Hall retirement community in Columbia, sits at the head of the class waiting for a dozen or more of his neighbors and their occasional guests to take their seats.

His 80-year-old wife has already arranged the chairs and read the papers, making sure certain articles are marked for discussion. After everyone has arrived and the "good mornings" have commenced, the 50-minute current events discussion class begins.

"What big-ticket items are bothering you today?" asks Mr. Seldin.

On this morning, he scans through his own articles -- each highlighted with a marking pencil -- and a discussion begins about European currency.

"We try to pick out topics like budget cuts, racial discrimination, education and health," he said. Another frequent topic is legal issues, about which Mr. Seldin, a lawyer, can share his expertise.

"More important than what they say is to get them into the act," Mr. Seldin said. That means coaxing the group into "ventilating their feelings and positions," even when those opinions are unpopular.

The group is open to anyone and consists of "some who are basically conservative Republicans, and people from totally diverse backgrounds," said Mr. Seldin.

A Harmony Hall employee started the discussion group seven years ago. But the strong interest of Mr. Seldin, a member from the start, quickly foisted him into the position of discussion leader.

Eleanore Fischback has also been a member from the start.

"I joined because I am interested," she said. "We talk about current events and moral issues. It's something to think about."

And Mr. Seldin's sister, Helen Solun, who lived in Geneva, Switzerland, for 41 years, joined the group three years ago. She lends a European touch to discussions.

"I started to find that all of the people who were there wanted to talk about things that were happening in the U.S. and it's only a little part of the world," said Mrs. Solun, 85.

"If you have lived here all of your life, it's natural to see things in a particular way," she said. She often adds a different perspective.

"I enjoy hearing other people's opinions," she said. "You don't get that when reading the newspaper; you can't live in your own little vacuum, and you make great contacts."

The Seldins laugh at their own political orientation (liberal "village radicals," they say) and admit that discussions can be controversial.

"We tell them right from the beginning that we are biased," chuckles Mr. Seldin.

While heated frays occur sometimes, arguments never erupt. Mr. Seldin's expertise in handling such situations is a result of his 22 years as a labor mediator for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington. He retired in 1972.

"Sometimes when a subject becomes too tough to handle, I switch to another article. As a mediator, this is what you do all of the time. . . . It's setting an atmosphere where it is permissible to say and to do anything."

Mr. Seldin recalls a time in 1956 when saying what he believed provoked some of his neighbors.

Outspoken proponents of housing rights for African-American families moving into the white Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, the couple's activities some times made them targets.

The Seldins recall the aftermath of a bomb explosion in the garage of a house where a black family was about to move. After Mrs. Seldin helped the family clean up and Mr. Seldin joined a citizen's committee looking at the problem, the Seldins received threatening phone calls.

Despite their full schedules, discussing current events remains a top priority.

"We want to enlarge people's visions," Mr. Seldin said. "From the group they gain companionship, friendship and a feeling of belonging. . . . We try to stir them up and to keep them stirred up."

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