Tuesday, June 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
“Was anyone else alive during the Great Depression? Just me?”
Ruth Elliott grinned at her students, who had exploded with laughter. Elliott, who will turn 92 in July and describes herself as being in her 92nd year of life, simply shrugged.
Her question wasn't completely out of left field. Her class was entirely composed of retired and semiretired people, all of them at least 50 years old.
The nonagenarian — who has six children, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — is the oldest instructor at UNLV's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a learning program for retirees who want to continue their education.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the great-grandmother — standing under just 5 feet and clad in a lavender shirt with matching nail polish — was teaching a course called Parapsychology Investigations, which covers subjects such as extrasensory perception and telepathy.
Although the course deals with heavy topics such as studies about near-death experiences and the possible presence of a fourth dimension, Elliott said she wanted her students to leave the classroom with a sense of humor and enjoyment.
At one point during the class, which was filled with more than 20students, she paused for a moment as she slightly shifted her jaw.
“Excuse me. I almost lost my teeth,” she said as she heartily chuckled
Elliott, who was born in her grandfather's house in Ottawa, Kan., moved to Las Vegas in 2008 to live with a son-in-law and one of her daughters. Four months later, Elliott’s husband, who had been in poor health for about 15 years, died. It was two weeks before the couple’s 65th wedding anniversary.
Elliott was despondent. She began attending grief-counseling sessions. One day, at a table with more than a dozen grieving strangers, she burst into tears.
“I just poured it all out. How I felt. 'Who am I? What's going to happen?' One of them said to me, 'Didn't you say you used to be a teacher?'” Elliott said.
That person suggested Elliott should teach at OLLI.
“That was the beginning. That was four years ago. I've been teaching ever since,” she said.
Elliott, whose previous occupations include being a high school teacher and an Air Force inspector during World War II, has taught five courses at OLLI. Her course subjects span from Mark Twain's short stories to UFOs.
Also a published author, she said she did not think she would be teaching at her age.
“I didn't expect to be alive at this age,” she joked.
Like the other OLLI coordinators, Elliott volunteers to be an instructor and doesn't receive pay. Instead, she is given free admission to OLLI courses.
She said she was lucky to find OLLI.
“These people are so wonderful. They're here to learn. They don't have to come for credit. They came because they wanted to come. For me, I have learned as much as I've taught in different ways,” she said.
She prefaced the beginning of the class by telling her students — some as young as her eldest daughter, who is 66 — that her beliefs were her own and the main purpose of the course was to share her experiences and stories she's heard in lectures or read in books.
Elliott, the daughter of a minister and a teacher, encourages her students to debate with her and share their own beliefs.
“It gives me ideas to dwell on. Getting ideas from my classes is really good for me. We're sharing. I'm learning from them and they're learning from me, and that's basically where I'm coming from,” she said.
During one instance, she said one of her students first came to class not believing in parapsychology.
“He came in there as a nonbeliever completely. He sat in the back row. He said, 'Well you know, I don't believe in this stuff, I'm just here to see what's going on.' He's completely sold on it now,” Elliott said.
Cheryl Hauntz, 64, took a creative-writing course taught by Elliott in January. Hauntz, who now attends the parapsychology and a continuation of the creative writing class, praised Elliott.
“She's pretty amazing. For somebody who's 92 years old, she has so many life experiences to draw on and her memory is as sharp as a tack. She's a remarkable woman,” Hauntz said.
The popular instructor also teaches the course at Merrill Gardens at Green Valley Ranch, a retirement community in Henderson.
“They won't let me quit teaching there. I told them last semester that I've taught everything I have. I've got five classes and I've taught it all. One of them said, 'Start over again!'” she recounted. “I said, 'OK.' It's happy for me. It's happy for them. Who cares?”
OLLI Operations Coordinator Rich Easter said Elliott embodied the best qualities of the program.
“Her love of learning and endless enthusiasm shine through every time she steps in front of her class, and her dedication is inspiring. She's really the poster child for active retirement living,” Easter said.
Elliott, who is not afraid to pepper her classes with some occasional cursing, has a bachelor of science degree, but she won't allow anyone to put the abbreviation after her name because of the connotations of “B.S.”
“I chose L.M.N.O.P. — laughter makes nice optimistic people — to substitute for B.S.,” she said.
She overcomes challenges — not problems, she insists, but challenges — with humor and tells her students to do the same.
“Use your sense of humor. If you don't have one, develop one. Use that on your worst days,” she said.
Elliott, whose mother lived to be 107, extends her optimism to subjects such as death. She recounted teasing one of her daughters about it.
“If you come in one morning and I'm dead, it's no big deal. Except now you're going to have to search for everything that I have,” she said. “That's my attitude when I go to bed at night. If I don't wake up in the morning, that's OK. Like everybody else, I don't want to have to suffer unbelievably.”
Elliott said that she had no plans for retirement and would continue teaching.
“If my legs give out, I'll get a walker and keep going,” she said.