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Super Seniors

“It’s a rite of passage really,” says 10-year Grandparents University veteran Tom Armstrong ’57, who is giving all 13 of his grandchildren the chance to join him for two days of summer learning at UW-Madison.

Tom Armstrong and granddaughter Amy learn physics

Tom Armstrong and granddaughter Amy learn physics

Long-time Grandparents University participants celebrate ten years with WAA

Tom Armstrong '57 won’t be finished with Grandparents University® anytime soon.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy doing this every summer for 13 years,” he remarked while checking in with his 10-year-old granddaughter, Amy, one of 13 in the Armstrong family who are all given the chance to attend one year each. “All of the grandkids, even the oldest ones, know whose turn it is to go, they look forward to it and they coach the other ones on what to expect. It’s a rite of passage really.”

Amy says she chose physics for her time with grandpa because it sounded fun. Armstrong, who says he first heard about the program through the Wisconsin Alumni Association, like to try new majors when he can and was glad she picked something he hadn’t yet learned about. That’s a tall order, considering Armstrong is one of a handful of grandparents who have attended every year since the beginning of Grandparents University®, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

WAA member Bonnie Downs agrees. “It’s a great experience and a good chance to spend real time together,” said the 10-year GPU veteran. Downs and her granddaughters, Kira and Cassidy, gave engineering a try this year and spent their first day on campus learning about the field and building model bridges.

But when asked for a favorite memory of years past, all three answered unanimously: food science. Cassidy and Kira say they were interested to discover new things about color and taste, and as a final project, to make their own ice cream.

Three generations: Bonnie Downs (left) with granddaughters Kira and Cassidy and Lynn Ihlenfeldt '80
Three generations: Bonnie Downs (left) with granddaughters Kira and Cassidy and Lynn Ihlenfeldt '80

Downs’ husband, David '54, MD'57, discovered the program 10 years ago and knew it would be a fun way to spend some quality time with their grandkids. They attended nine years together but this time he was unable to make it. So Kira and Cassidy’s aunt, Lynn Ihlenfeldt '80, filled in for grandpa, making this year’s outing a celebration of three generations.

“I think the thing I enjoy the most is watching grandparents interact with their grandchildren,” Downs said. “Often they live across the country from one another or can’t find much time together. I recommend it for anyone who’s interested in just getting together and learning.”

Downs says a lot has changed over the years, from the range of majors that are offered to the number of people who attend. In 2001, 160 attendees participated in just four majors. This year, 870 people registered to attend their choice of 19 majors, offered across two sessions.

Armstrong says he’s always glad to see some of those familiar faces year after year and encourages his fellow grandparents to give GPU a try. “You’re missing out if you don’t – it’s an exciting time,” he said. “One-on-one time with your grandchild, you don’t get that every day. There’s always too much to do, too many distractions, but today, it’s all about us. Just two nice days where you can relate to each other.”

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