'It Fills My Mind': Fitness for the Brain at a Downtown Place Called Quest

Quest students respond during a class on New Yorker cartoons. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 20, 2023

“‘Get a job.’ That’s what my wife said to me after I’d been retired for a few years, recalls Peter Dichter, a former fragrance marketer. “‘You’re vegetating, you have to start doing something.’

Dichter agreed to join Quest, an adult learning center at 25 Broadway—on one condition. “I told her, I’ll go to classes but I won’t participate, and I’ll never, ever join a committee.

Today, Dichter is on not one but two committees, and so enthused about teaching his second class (Classical Music in Pop Culture) that hes already prepared for it—six months ahead of schedule.

“I come home from Quest and I’m in a wonderful mood…and my wife is thrilled,” he said.

Quest, aka Quest Lifelong Learning, offers more than 40 classes conceived and presented by its members. This spring, for example, there were classes on folk music, the history of Germany, Black women writers, Frederick Olmstead, and the Pogues, a 1980s Celtic punk band. Trips outside the classrooms included visits to three museums and a trolley tour of the historic Greenwood Cemetery.

Starting next month anyone can get a free sampling of Quest’s classes during its “Summer Encore Program, a selection voted by the members as the best of the year. Classes will be held from June 3 to July 29. See the full schedule here.

Questers, as they call themselves, are eager to tell you what they love about the program.

Like Arlynn Greenbaum, 74, a former lecture agent for writers, who says that joining Quest gave her “a whole second life.”  Or Lois Klein, 76, who describes her days at Quest as “so stimulating. It fills my mind.” Or Ellie Schaffer, a former systems analyst, whose new friendships, she says, have been reinforced by mutual interests in Shakespeare or the overlooked British author Elizabeth Gaskell. “You find out that you’re interested in things that you never knew you were interested in,” she said.

Quest began 28 years ago with a small budget and a big idea: build a program around retirees who would teach their peers. Operating out of a few rooms rented from The City College of New Yorks Center for Worker Education (CWE) on Hudson Street, in Tribeca, the all-volunteer group drew retired teachers, engineers, lawyers and dozens of other professionals. The organization has since followed CWE to its present Broadway home and grown to 270 members. During the pandemic, the number dropped, but it is on the rise again.

Although several local universities allow seniors to audit classes, some dont allow them to participate. That didnt sit well with Questers like Wayne Cotter. He joined Quest 10 years ago after retiring from the New York State Department of Insurance, because he wanted to “keep his mind active,” but wanted to avoid a school like Columbia or some other university with 18- and 21-year-olds,” he said. I didnt want to be just a casual observer.”

That’s not the Quest style, where there’s often an easy back and forth between presenter (the word “teacher” is eschewed here) and student. There are no tests, no one takes attendance, and it’s okay to sample a class and then switch to another that’s more to one’s liking. 

Questers run the 7-week classes, often in collaboration with each other. Some already know about the subject; others start from scratch and research it.

“One of the great things about Quest is that if you have an interest you can bring it to the curriculum committee and build a course around it,” says Quest president Donna Ramer, who led a class on Toni Morrison, one of her favorite authors,  “It’s not the same as sitting at home and reading her books alone. Here, you can engage in discussions with people who are also interested.”

Many presenters use a variety of visuals to enliven the hour. A class on New Yorker cartoons offered a video on New Yorker regular Roz Chast. For her presentation on Gertrude Stein, Donna Ramer brought a bit of theatricality, dressing up as Stein and serving brownies (“Regular ones, she clarified, “not the Alice B. Toklas kind.). To. bring his class "Shakespeare's Bad Boys" to life, Roy Clary, a former actor, performed excerpts from the plays.

Every year, elections are held for president and other Quest officers. One issue that continues to be discussed is hybrid classes: Should the program continue to cater to those who can’t—or prefer not to—attend in person? Or should the organization return to its roots, when it was an in-person community? So far, it continues the hybrid model.

Hybrid or not, many notes that the sense of community remains intact at Quest. 

Sal Granfort, 90, has outlived all his friends but one. Seated in the lunchroom with his fellow students, he talks of the companionship he has found here, as well as the intellectual stimulation. “Just having someone to say hello to, someone who knows you, people need that.”

“We’re like a big family,” says Ruth Ward, 76, a retired language teacher. “When I got sick last year, people called, someone wanted to bring over homemade soup. It was not out of a sense of responsibility. It was from the heart.”