August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Robert S. Runyon, posing in an austere-looking suit and tie, gazes down upon patrons from his portrait in the University of Nebraska at Omaha library. In contrast, the flesh and blood version introduces himself as “Bob” and sports a  T-shirt with the phrase “Literally Great…Figuratively the Best.” The UNO English Department shirt fits the wordsmith and lifelong learner like a glove.

“I’ve always had books on a pedestal in my mind,” says Runyon, who served as dean of the university’s library from 1978 to 2000.

Runyon laughs, “Before I retired, I thought, ‘I’ve got to prepare for retirement so I have a reason to get up in the morning.’” Chuckling, he continues, “I’m a lazy, sloppy, indolent person. And unless I have a reason—unless I have a purpose, a life purpose—I’m just going to vegetate.”     

Nowadays, Runyon doesn’t have time to vegetate. He travels with his wife (Sheila), takes classes, and writes his memoir.

Robert-Runyon2Despite Runyon’s appreciation of books, he has not always written them. Five years ago he saw a flier for a personal writing course at UNO. He asked instructor Elizabeth Mack, “Would you allow a 70-plus-year-old guy to come into your class?”

That’s exactly why UNO offers the Senior Passport Program. Founded in 2001, the program allows seniors (age 65 and older) to take two courses per semester at a cost of $25 per year. The only requirements are an available seat in the class, instructor approval, and a desire to learn.

Runyon has since taken several creative nonfiction courses with professors John Price and Lisa Knopp: autobiography, nature writing, travel writing, and spiritual writing.

“All of that was a strong experience,” says Runyon. “The encouragement I got from those people was enormous.” Knopp even marked “As” on Runyon’s essays.

Runyon says, “Senior Passport students aren’t graded, but I’m not sure I told her that because I liked getting As.”

These classes jump-started Runyon’s work on his memoir: “I think I’ve got about 10 essays cobbled together, and I’ve got probably six or eight more in the hopper in various stages of completion.”

Runyon says, “You can be creative in your later years. The brain is continuously growing and changing. To me, that is a pivotal thing to think about, in the process of aging and, especially, of learning.”    

Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at UNO, explains, “Just as we need to exercise physically, we need to exercise cognitively.”

Each year, anywhere from 60 to 100 seniors “cognitively exercise” through the Senior Passport Program. The program also impacts the instructors and other students in each class. Masters says, “The Passport Program, in a way, allows for an infusion of the benefit of experience within the classroom environment.”

Runyon connects with other students through writing, learning, and experience. “The power of words is where it all resides with me,” says Runyon. “You find something that raises your passion.”

Visit unomaha.edu/registrar/students/senior-passport.php for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

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