A college student evermore

May 21, 2008|By KEVIN COWHERD

On the face of it, Melvin Epstein sounds like your basic world-class slacker.

Remember Zonker Harris, the stoner in the Doonesbury comic strip who described college as "the best nine years of my life"?

Mel Epstein's transcript at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- 14 years, 53 courses, no degree -- makes Zonker look like an academic supernova.

Think Epstein's parents might get on his case every once in a while? Melvin, 14 years! You're killing us here!

No, they wouldn't, because there's a wonderful back story here.

For one thing, Mel Epstein is 81 years old. And he earned his bachelor's degree from George Washington University in 1952 -- in an un-Zonker-like four years, too -- after graduating from Forest Park High School.

He spent 32 years as a speech therapist in Baltimore County schools and taught courses at Coppin State and the Maryland Penitentiary, of all places.

"It was horrible!" he says of his gig in the slammer. "I'm a little Jewish kid!"

But when he retired in the early '90s, Epstein didn't exactly settle into a life of sitting around the house with the remote and driving his wife, Beverly, nuts.

"I wanted to learn," he says.

This turns out to be one of the great understatements of our time.

Because starting in 1994, at age 67, he began auditing courses at UMBC under the school's Golden ID program, which allows Maryland residents 60 and older who are retired or working part time, to take courses at a reduced cost.

Epstein didn't take any Mickey Mouse courses, either, unless you count racquetball, which we'll get to in a minute.

He took the French Revolution, History of Jazz, Russia Since 1900 -- the guy Hoovered-up knowledge like few people you'll ever see.

He took art history, linguistics, anthropology, political science, theater, psychology and philosophy courses, two per semester. Some he loved. Some, like a modern art class with a section on Dada, an early 20th-century movement characterized by works produced in unconventional forms by unconventional methods, he found baffling.

"Dada -- anything is art, which to me is a joke," he says. "They take a urinal and put it in a museum and call it art!"

As you might imagine, Epstein didn't exactly zip his mouth in class, either.

At the start of each course, he'd take the instructor aside and say: "I'm here, I'm out of place, it's obvious. But I do have life experience. Do you mind if I make a comment or two in the class?"

Mind? What professor would mind a bright, inquisitive guy like Epstein joining a class discussion?

Of course, that's assuming a class discussion even breaks out. Have you sat in on a college class lately? Sometimes you wonder if they're handing out barbiturates at the door, the students are so listless.

But not Epstein, although he was never the type to bust out any long-winded soliloquies to show how smart he was, either.

"I make it a point always to never hog the stage," he says of his class participation.

Epstein has thoroughly enjoyed this Zonker stage of his life, or whatever stage it is. And one of the most satisfying moments didn't even occur in the classroom.

Which brings us back to that racquetball class.

Racquetball was your basic cake course: Show up, smack a few balls, snag an easy A to turbo-charge your GPA.

Epstein had played the game before. Luckily, he was paired off with the only other kid who knew what he was doing, and the two hit each week.

But on the last day of the class, the kid challenged Epstein to a showdown. The kid was maybe 20, with the body fat of tungsten. Epstein was an old guy who'd had a heart attack in 1990 and triple-bypass surgery three years later.

Does this sound like a dream matchup to you?

No, it sounds like the U.S. vs. Grenada. It sounds like LeBron James against your third-grader. Big Brown against a Shetland pony.

Nevertheless, Epstein said sure, you're on, although he figured the only way he'd win was if the roof collapsed and fell on the kid's head.

It turned out to be a terrific match. The kid squeaked out a 22-20 win, but the old guy pushed him all the way. And Epstein went home that day with a little extra bounce in his step.

"I gave him a game!" Epstein says. "I gave him a fit!"

UMBC holds its spring commencement ceremonies for undergrads tomorrow at 1st Mariner Arena, but once again, Epstein won't be sitting among the happy graduates, which is fine with him.

But starting in the fall semester, he says he'll mostly likely be back at UMBC for a 15th year doing what he loves best: learning.

The plan is to take Multi-Cultural America and Abnormal Psychology.

He probably should have taken Abnormal Psych before the course on Dada.

But there's no sense worrying about that now.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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