EASTON, Pa. >> The tables in professor Rachael Gorchov’s classroom were covered with everything you’d expect in a painting class: paints and palettes, brushes and papers.
Conrad Richebacher had something else in his work space Wednesday morning: his cane.
Richebacher, 76, this spring plans to complete his associate’s degree in fine arts at Northampton Community College.
“I’m just getting as much as I can out of life,” he said, talking in the student center as undergrads five decades younger hustled past on their way to the cafeteria.
Richebacher, of Roseto, Pa., has always enjoyed creating and learning. His career was in architecture. While working, he broadened his skills by taking photography classes at NCC. Four or five years ago, he took jewelry-making courses there.
About three years ago he really dived in. His friends started dying, going to nursing homes and just not caring anymore. He had a health scare of his own that included brain surgery. While he was in the hospital, he said he felt a “presence.”
“It was something very real,” Richebacher recalled. “It said there’s something I have to do yet.”
He wasn’t sure what that was, whether he was supposed to mentor others or if it was something else. But he felt a strong desire to spend more time learning. So he went back to NCC.
“I’ll be studying with young kids,” he thought. “They’re not going to die on me.”
The age gap between him and the five other students at his painting class table doesn’t bother him. In fact, he “kind of absorbs some energy” from the youth around him.
“It doesn’t make any difference, especially in the art profession,” Richebacher said. “The creativity, the excitement of art overcomes everything.”
He has a lot of respect for this generation, particularly for their inclusive attitude regarding race, gender — and age. Students open doors and pull out chairs for him.
He encourages them to follow their dreams now because you never know what tomorrow will bring.
“My fellow students are here to figure out what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives,” Richebacher said. “I had my life. I’m here because this is what I want to do now.”
While he will be earning a degree, he’s attending NCC for the experience: “The paper is the least important thing.” Those experiences have included two class trips overseas, to Paris and Egypt.
Richebacher bartered for a cane at an Egyptian bazaar. He climbed on his hands and knees up the steep steps of an Egyptian fort. In Paris he immersed himself in the opera, museums and food — he especially enjoyed a Parisian hot dog.
He’s taken about 18 classes and said he’s aced all but one.
It was in a computer graphics class, the one where he had to ask the student sitting next to him on the first day how to turn on the computer. “My generation does not get along with computers,” he chuckled.
He spent a lot of time with tutors: “I got my C and I’m so proud of that.”
He had never painted before taking classes at NCC, and it didn’t come easy. He was so frustrated with a self-portrait that he briefly refused to paint anymore.
That didn’t last long. He went home and tried again, finishing a self-portrait he was proud of in two hours. “That’s when I realized I have to work quick,” Richebacher said. “I create better doing it without thinking.”
He especially enjoys mixed media. He’s proud of his work and has sold several pieces. He creates at home as well as at class.
As we talked in the student center, he pulled out his phone and scrolled through photos. He’s painted and sketched, made a ceramic teapot and created pieces from wood, aluminum, copper, hemp, Plexiglas, paper, wire and other materials.
One of his favorites is “Hawaiian Waters,” a 6-by-9-foot acrylic painting on canvas with paintings of fish silk-screened on. It’s made up of 18 panels, each 18 by 24 inches. Each of the panels is an individual piece, and when put together they depict a volcano spewing lava that flows into the ocean. It took him all of last summer to finish.
Another creation, “Legalization of Cannabis,” is about 5 feet tall and made of hemp, wood, copper, Plexiglas and cigarette papers.
Richebacher admits he occasionally gives his teachers a hard time by challenging them. He is not shy in class and is quick to ask questions. He had a few for Gorchov on Wednesday, including whether flour would work as a thickening agent in acrylic paint.
Having older adults with life experiences in classes is an opportunity for everybody, said Michael Sparrow, NCC’s dean of enrollment management and retention.
“Cross-generation conversations are really something that enrich the classroom experience,” said Sparrow, who saw that firsthand when he taught history at NCC.
The college encourages people Richebacher’s age to be part of its community and makes it easy for them to participate. It waives tuition and fees for people 65 and older who live in Northampton County.
More than 130 of NCC’s students last fall were age 55 or older.
That could help to keep their minds sharp as they age. The National Institute on Aging says learning new skills might improve the thinking ability of older adults.
Richebacher has found college to be good for his body as well as his mind. The walking to get around campus will loosen his back as the semester progresses.
“Within a week I’ll still be using my cane, but I’ll be walking a lot better,” he said.
He’s encouraged others his age to take advantage of what NCC offers, but few have listened.
“Once in a while I’ll see an old fart around, but not too often.”
He doesn’t understand why more won’t experiment.
“Life is a journey,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep moving.”