As area colleges and universities gear up for another year of studies, George Baroff is also preparing.
The retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor is no longer looking to teach college psychology, as he did for 37 years, when he became an authority on intellectual disabilities who often testified on behalf of death row inmates.
Instead, the 90-year-old is poring over books on ancient Greece, boning up for his classes on the Golden Age of Athens through Peer Learning, a Chapel Hill nonprofit that offers low-cost classes for seniors on a diverse array of topics.
Baroff has been the group’s president for eight years, during which time he has also taught courses on ancient civilizations, part of a varied array of courses that this semester will include one on the illnesses of presidents and another on the future of technology.
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Board members say Baroff does more as president than schedule and teach classes. His enthusiasm for learning has made him a guiding light for the group of nearly 100 retired learners.
“He’s really taken up the reins and wants to keep people learning,” says Yvonne Schmidt, a board member of Peer Learning who has taken classes with Baroff. “He was very sincere and motivated as a professor and he just carries it through to his teaching.”
His role there helps him indulge a tireless intellectual curiosity that has led him to write on everything from the existence of God to the motivations of sports fans.
It’s also a chance for Baroff, who spends five mornings a week swimming laps at the YMCA, to exercise that most powerful of muscles – the human brain – and to help others do the same.
“Like any muscle, you need to keep using it to maintain its tone and strength,” says Baroff, a widower and World War II veteran. “Those neurons have to be continually stimulated.”
Expanding his world
Baroff grew up in New York City, part of a Jewish family in the Bronx supported by his father’s work in the garment industry.
His first experience outside of the city came at 18, when he was drafted into World War II. An athletic youth, he volunteered to be part of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which was trained to use skis and mules to get into mountainous areas.
Baroff trained in the Colorado slopes, and went to Italy, where he was eventually assigned to a supply unit that supported combat troops. Serving with young men from all over the country was eye-opening to Baroff, who says at that point he had only the vaguest idea that there was “something west of the Hudson River.”
“I learned that people from Arkansas or California were people just like I was,” he says.
When the war was over, he returned to college, earning a degree in zoology at George Washington University. He had a year left on the G.I. Bill when he was done, so he earned a master’s in psychology, which became his chosen field.
He went on to earn a Ph.D. from New York University, and to work as a psychologist at a school for students with intellectual disabilities.
When he got wind that UNC-Chapel Hill was seeking a specialist in that field, he jumped at the opportunity. Within a few years, he wrote a book on the topic that has become a key reference and is now in its third edition. He was also responsible for training students for the clinical setting, including many who would work at what is now the Murdoch Developmental Center in Butner.
Over the years, he says, he helped encourage his students to adopt the emerging philosophy that favors helping people with intellectual disabilities in their communities wherever possible instead of institutions.
He would also be called as an expert witness, offering testimony on the intellectual disabilities in criminal cases in which a defendant was facing the death penalty.
He lost his wife several years before he retired, and he wanted to keep teaching, both to stay engaged and because he loves it.
“Teaching is crucial to my mental health,” he says.
Exploring the past
Peer Learning, now in its 15th year, makes available a wide variety of classes for $25 a semester, in addition to other activities such as a book club, monthly speakers and luncheons. This fall’s nine courses include a look at English history through operas and the personal philosophies of influential people.
All of the group’s teachers and board members, including Baroff, are volunteers, many of them retired professors.
Baroff had started teaching classes for seniors with another organization when he was still at UNC-CH, many of them based on the “Great Courses,” a series of DVDs in which scholars lead courses on all kinds of topics. He discovered Peer Learning in 2006.
Baroff says he’s always been interested in the past, and chose to spend his retirement exploring history after having only a passing interest in it before. He likens the work of historians to that of magicians.
“They bring the past to life,” he says. “Historians tell the stories that make what is invisible visible.”
He also started traveling, and has been to dozens of countries, as evidenced by a map full of push pins on the wall of his office.
Those experiences, including a cruise down the Nile and several trips so India, also inform his teaching and research. At one point, he even taught a course on pirates to the passengers on a cruise ship. While he builds his courses on existing DVDs on various topics, he also plans out introductions and discussions afterward, sometimes using his own interpretations as a starting point.
“He has very strong opinions,” says Schmidt, “but he’s also really eager to hear everyone else’s point of view.”
Baroff says he thought he would be president for a year, but his tenure just never seemed to end. Now, he figures, he’ll keep the job – which involves helping to recruit teachers and speakers, as well as some clerical tasks – until he no longer can.
“In the tradition of Latin American dictators, I may be president for life,” he says.
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George S. Baroff
Born: November 1924, New York, N.Y.
Career: President and teacher, Peer Learning of Chapel Hill; retired psychology professor, UNC-CH
Education: B.A. zoology and M.A psychology, George Washington University; Ph.D. psychology, New York University
Family: Brother Burton, sister Carol, children Roy and Marina; two grandchildren
Notable: Baroff has published on a number of subjects in addition to his work on intellectual disabilities. He’s written a book called “Does God Exist: A Primer for the Perplexed” that he says stemmed from his own religious awakening.
Learn More: Peer Learning classes start Sept. 11. Visit www.peerlearningofchapelhill.com for details.