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A Passion for Lifelong Learning

Kathy Stack

The bookshelves ringing Kathy Stack's living room resemble a well-stocked reference library on a breadth of topics. She has remained a student all of her life. "I've been going back to school for different things forever," she says. "It was in my late 30s I decided to get my MBA at St. Thomas. That was three years of night school, with a family and a job, but I loved it." Before she retired, she had a rich career in the nonprofit sector and serving as a department head for the City of Saint Paul. While working in government, her friends encouraged her to attend the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs for its leadership program, which she found fascinating.

Five years ago, her neurologist diagnosed her with early-stage Alzheimer's, predicting at the time: "You'll have full-blown Alzheimer's within five years." Currently, there is no pharmacological cure for this neurodegenerative disease, but there are ways to slow its progress. One of her doctors recommended "exercise" for her brain, like socializing or learning a new language or a musical instrument, common recommendations to stay cognitively sharp. But it was a friend who took her to her first Headliners event.

"I didn't even know what it was," she says. "I wasn't looking for anything particularly topical or current." They made plans to go, picked up another friend on the way, then showed up and recognized many friends in the audience--people she'd worked with, including civic leaders, and retired University of Minnesota staff. "We just kept crossing paths, and now we have these little reunions once a month."

Indulging in a schedule of social activity as well as Headliners' robust and educational discussions about relevant, present-day issues, Kathy reflects on the effects of her self-imposed regimen. "I've passed the five-year mark, and what we're looking at is a kind of plateau. My doctor said, 'I really think you're benefitting from a cognitive reserve: you're getting the benefits of staying mentally active.' And I thought, I'm going to keep this up! We've come to make the Headliners' nights sacred. It really is a bargain, just remarkable."

When she heard about the recent LearningLife seminar Intelligent Machines: The Benefits and Risks of A.I., she mentioned it to her grandson, a shy and knowledgeable teen with Asperger's Syndrome, who had been studying this topic on his own. To her surprise, not only did he agree to go, but he was fully engaged with the course. "He had his hand up three times for what were fairly deep, well-articulated questions," Kathy recalled. "The instructor, Professor Maria Gini, came down and talked to him before and after the seminar and said, 'I am so happy to see some prospective University students here.'"

She must have been referring to the grandson, because Kathy's curriculum has no end in sight.

Published on July 15, 2018