Skip to Main Content

 A champion of lifelong learning

“Maybe you ought to teach a class.” It’s a suggestion many have gotten from Ralph Sawyer over the years. 


Passionate about continuing to share knowledge and learn in retirement, Sawyer was instrumental in bringing OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, to UNF after moving to Jacksonville in 2005 and discovering a void. After retiring as chairman of the ophthalmology department of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Sawyer had gotten involved with a similar program at Johns Hopkins University. With the approval and enthusiasm of the UNF administration, Sawyer, a friend Martin Connor and a few others filled the first semester with 150 students. The second term had 350. Today, OLLI at UNF, one of 124 nationwide, has 1,500 members who choose from more than 300 programs annually.


 “Retirees learn and share their interests,” said Sawyer, who teaches such thought-provoking classes as “Current Events,” “Great Decisions” and “Just What Were They Thinking?,” an anthology of authors from the past 150 years. 


Although UNF’s OLLI is funded primarily through $50 member dues, modest class fees and support through two past awards from the Bernard Osher Foundation, philanthropists invest in much-needed improvements including classroom upgrades and volunteer recognition and appreciation programs, according to Jeanette Toohey, director. In 2018, Ralph and Adelva Sawyer made an initial gift that established the OLLI Enhancement Fund, an endowment that also includes an account to support more immediate needs. “Their generous gift has elevated OLLI to its next level,” Toohey said. 


Annual Report 2018-19 A Champion_SawyerSawyer is grateful to UNF for its support of OLLI, particularly for the use of the Adam W. Herbert University Center. “People who attend are 50 and older, so this really helps the community,” he said. “The University contributes to the ongoing education of the older community.” 


His 30-year Navy career included heading the ophthalmology training program at Naval Hospital Jacksonville for eight years before running the ophthalmology teaching program for 15 years at Bethesda, where he treated senators and congressmen and made house calls to the White House. 


Sawyer also is active in the World Affairs Council of Jacksonville that consists of accomplished individuals whom he frequently asks to speak at OLLI classes. “The whole idea of intellectual engagement is looking for any outlet in which people can grow themselves and share what they are interested in,” he said. “OLLI provides a tremendous outlet for that."