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Lifelong learning: Pierian Spring keeps education lively for adults, and 30 years after Condominium, what John D. MacDonald still has to teach us.

Sarasota is a great place to get a cheap Ivy League education, especially if you're past the age of fussing over credit hours and transcripts. Pierian Spring Academy has been offering adult classes taught by Harvard professors and former American diplomats for 10 years. Classes meet at Argosy and G.WIZ; and in the fall, there's a free lecture series at the Selby Library.

For 65 bucks, you can have a month-long philosophical debate with Douglas Berggren, a former Yale professor, or hear former Washington and foreign affairs correspondent Jim McCartney talk about his experiences as a journalist covering the Vietnam War and Watergate. Looking for something artsy? There's "Unraveling the Mystique of the Oriental Rug," which examines how politics have historically affected rug weaving, or "Opera--Playing with Music ... 400 Years of Drama."

Pierian Spring (named for the mythological Greek spring of inspiration) is one of a handful of adult education programs offered in Sarasota. It's a little different from most in that it "offers more academic courses," with a lot of give-and-take between students and teachers, says Robert Carlson, executive director and retired professor emeritus at the University of Vermont. "We model ourselves after Harvard's Institute of Lifelong Learning." As the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary, it's adapting to the times by offering videotaped classes on the Internet, and for busy mid-lifers, custom-designed classes.

If you've given up on getting an invite to a Renaissance Weekend--the highly sought-after, invitation-only, national retreat for intellectuals, writers, and political and business leaders--Carlson says he'll help you host your own. "We have the faculty and the expertise," says Carlson, "We're looking for groups of people who want to plan with us."

Creativity and a sky-is-the-limit mentality have been hallmarks of the Pierian Spring Academy since Joel Larus, a New York University professor emeritus, created it. Larus, an expert on nuclear proliferation who sat on a commission that tried to broker peace between Pakistan and India, moved to Sarasota in the 1990s and found intellectual life here lacking. He decided to create a program in which retirees could keep their mental acumen by debating philosophy and science with some of the top minds in the country.


Finding the experts in Sarasota was the easy part; finding a place to host the classes has been a bit trickier. For five years, the program met at G.WIZ, but two years ago G.WIZ decided it needed the extra classrooms.

"We had to scramble" to find another place, says Carlson. Last year, the program met at a church and had to cut back its classes, losing many students along the way.

This year, Pierian is back at G.WIZ for half its classes, with the other half meeting at Argosy University. The winter session begins in January with 33 courses, varying from six to 12 weeks in length. Classes are small, with about 12 to 15 students. Carlson hopes to do more of the custom-designed courses. So far, he's put together one for a Boca Grande group.

Today's Pierian faculty includes Earl E. Pollock, a former Supreme Court clerk, who teaches a popular class on the Supreme Court, and Stan Nikkel, an author and retired professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts who biked America's historical trails and brings them to life in his "American Journeys" course.

Pierian's teachers receive a nominal payment for their courses, but there are other rewards.

"It's fascinating. I have really enjoyed it," says McCartney, a former Washington bureau chief for Knight-Ridder who teaches "War and Peace in the Media." "They are interested in learning and understanding events they lived through," he says.

McCartney covered historic events from the Cuban Missile Crisis through the first Gulf War. His course presents the little-known political realities that took decades to come to light.

"The Cuban Missile crisis ended with a secret deal between JFK and Khrushchev to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey," says McCartney. "The truth didn't come out for many years. Older people that lived through it often don't know there was a political solution, not a military solution--a very important point."

Many Pierian teachers began as students. Carlson got hooked on Pierian by taking Doug Berggren's class tracing the evolution of philosophy. "It helped me focus my thinking," Carlson says. "I believe in the transformative nature of education. This is just one more place to help me create."

For more information or to view Pierian's video lecture, visit


Every new Sarasota resident should be required to do two things before he or she can claim a homestead exemption: Visit the Florida House to get rid of any nasty Northern attachment to St. Augustine grass, and then read John D. MacDonald's Condominium to get a leg up on Florida's real estate schemers and the hellishness of living through a hurricane.

I finally got around to reading Condominium a few months ago, on what turned out to be the 30th anniversary of the book's publication. There were no local celebrations, so we'll do a little celebrating here.

In case you're not yet familiar with MacDonald, he moved to Siesta Key in the late 1940s and wrote dozens of novels, including the Travis McGee detective series. He inspired writers such as Carl Hiaasen and Stephen King, who called him "a master storyteller." Many of MacDonald's books were made into movies, including The Executioners, which became Cape Fear, and the 1984 film A Flash of Green, shot locally.

Condominium is the story of Florida retirees living in the new Gulf Sands condominiums on Fiddler Key (MacDonald's alias for Siesta). We meet Marty Liss, a shady developer, and his associates, who are all trying to save their hides as the real estate market collapses. Meanwhile, off the coast of Africa, a hurricane is brewing and no one is taking the threat seriously. Gulf Sands is on precarious ground in more ways than one.

Condominium was so prescient about today's real estate collapse (minus the hurricane, thankfully) that I thought maybe MacDonald was our local version of Nostradamus. Not quite. But he was the "first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty," wrote Carl Hiaasen in a preface to a 1990s version of MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-by.

The real estate booms and busts, the con men and the beauty are all part of Florida's DNA. When Condominium was published in 1977, it made a big splash in Sarasota, says Kerry Kirschner, a former Sarasota mayor who's now head of the Argus Foundation. "It was huge," says Kirschner. "We had no zoning laws until 1964, and they started building all those condos on Siesta Key. That's what inspired him to write the book." Condominium was on the best-seller list for 27 weeks and was made into a 1980 movie starring Barbara Eden and Dan Haggerty.

MacDonald was as much a journalist as a fiction writer, and he frequently hung out at the old Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge. "He used to come in and sit at the counter," says Loring Carlson, 56, a longtime Sarasota businessman who recently moved to North Carolina. "He'd chat, take notes, watch people. It felt like he was another guy out for coffee."

MacDonald was also one of the original members of the Liar's Club, a group of writers who meet regularly to dish about writing and play liar's poker. Sarasota Magazine's Bob Plunket is among its many distinguished members today.

"He was one of the most interesting people," Plunket says. He understood Florida and "totally got it; he nailed it right."

MacDonald died of a heart ailment in 1986 at the age of 70, but his words live on in his fiction. You want to know Sarasota? Then get to know MacDonald.

Check out KIM HACKETT'S blog, CITY BEAT, at
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Title Annotation:citybeat
Author:Hackett, Kim
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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