Courtesy photo / Richard Brendel, 88, an Encore program student at Lee University, is pictured here with his wife, Anne.

"Lifelong learning" is one of those sugary, soft-serve alliterations that actually contains a hard truth.

Life is long, and learning never stops.

Richard Brendel of Cleveland, Tennessee, is 88, and for years he has been a regular in classrooms at Lee University.

And by "regular" we mean regular. In the past 13 years, Brendel, a retired Air Force veteran and Union Carbide employee, has taken 34 classes at Lee. Thirty-four.

In fact, had he taken the courses for credit — instead of auditing them — he would be sneaking up on a bachelor's degree right now.

The university's Encore program allows people 60 and older to take college courses "for credit or just for fun" for the nominal fee of $25 per semester. It's a sweet deal. Colleges and universities often invite seniors onto campus to add some age diversity to their classrooms.

"In most of the classes, I was the only [student] not in their late teens or early 20s," Brendel said.

Once, he even took a class at Lee with his granddaughter, Anna Marie Brendel.

Brendel said he is bowing out of the Encore program now because Zoom classes during the COVID-19 pandemic aren't as satisfying as face-to-face classes.

"I like interaction," he said. "I like to be in class and see the whites of people's eyes."

Brendel's son and daughter-in-law, Ron and Chery Brendel, are both voice professors at Lee University. Ron encouraged his dad to take advantage of the Encore program.

"People on campus stop me and say, 'How's your dad?'" he said. "They love having him in class."

Ron Brendel said his father had to forego college when he was a young man to support his growing family. Otherwise, he believes he might have gone on to get an advanced degree.

"I tell people all the time, had he been given a different situation in life he could have been a professor of history or religion," he said.

The elder Brendel recalled that it was actually a snowstorm in 1967 that derailed his brief undergraduate experience at Indiana University. He was working for Union Carbide in Indiana and attending school on the side when the storm locked down the plant and sidetracked him from school work for three days.

"It just took the wind out of my sails," he recalled, noting that he never went back to college.

Instead, he settled into a series of jobs with the chemical company that took him to assignments in Indiana and New Jersey, among other places.

One constant in his life has been teaching Sunday school, Brendel said. When he first heard of the Encore program it occurred to him that he could take theology classes at Lee.

"I thought, well, since I'm a Sunday school teacher, if I took college courses it would give me a better understanding of God's word," he said.

Brendel loaded up on theology courses and even brought his Bible to class to "fact check" his professors. He was instantly impressed with the knowledge of his Lee University instructors.

"I can't say enough about the caliber of the teachers in the school of religion," he said. "To use an old analogy, they know their onions."

Brendel said that when he finished most of the religion courses in the Lee catalog he began taking classes in the humanities.

"One of the philosophy teachers talked about those old philosophers like they were friends of his," he marveled.

He doesn't rule out returning to the classroom next fall if things get back to normal.

He will be 89.

Contact Mark Kennedy at