Student For Life
In the between-class bustle of the basement corridor of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, Sam Ostrin is hard to miss.
Ostrin is a white-bearded 72-year-old retired physician in a T-shirt that announces: “The truly educated never graduate.”
For Ostrin, Elmhurst College’s most persistent student, these have become words to live by.
Ever since he walked away from his former life as an emergency-room physician 13 years ago, Ostrin has been taking his place in Elmhurst classrooms alongside students less than a third his age. Like them, he enrolls in literature courses and philosophy courses and religion courses. He is the proud owner of a JayPass student identification card, which he will, unprompted, pull from his wallet to proves his student bona fides.
But Ostrin is not after a degree. He has enough of those, including a medical diploma from Heidelberg University. In Elmhurst’s classrooms, Ostrin will tell you, he has found something more ineffable, more profound.
“Elmhurst has taken me by the hand,” he said, walking through the Chapel after his Friday morning Shakespeare class. “And it has rehumanized me.”
Ostrin took his first Elmhurst College class during a hiatus from his duties at Glen Oaks Medical Center in Glendale Heights. The unrelenting pressures of his years in the emergency room had worn on Ostrin. He was, he said, burned out.
“I took a break to recharge my batteries,” Ostrin said. “But there was no juice left.”
A physician seeking to heal himself, Ostrin began making stained glass as a hobby. Introduced to the College by Elmhurst neighbors, he donated some of his early artistic efforts to the College’s Wellness Center, hoping his creations would provide stressed-out students with “an oasis for the eye.”
Ostrin was soon a regular presence on campus. When he asked to audit the Christian Ethics course taught by Paul Parker, professor of religious studies, Parker told Ostrin about a college program that allows people 60 and older to register for courses on a non-credit basis for a minimal fee. It was as if a chef had opened his kitchen to a hungry man.
“I couldn’t believe I had stumbled into such good luck,” Ostrin said. He began delving deep into the College’s course catalog, returning for more each term. He has liked some classes so much he has come back for second helpings. Has he ever wondered that, if he stays at it long enough, he could run out of courses to take?
“Don’t say that!” he cautioned, in mock horror.
Ostrin was so impressed with the teachers and students he met on campus that he wanted to thank them for welcoming him into their classrooms. So he began giving away his stained glass pieces as gifts. He gave them to professors whose work he admired. He donated them to offices and organizations, too. Whenever Ostrin ran across a dreary campus space in need of a touch of color, he would offer some of his art.
About eighty of Ostrin’s pieces now hang in the windows and on the walls of campus. A dozen or so enliven the Writing Center in the student union. The religious studies department offices in Old Main are filled with Ostrin pieces. A series of four pieces, in colors ranging from a fiery red to a cold blue, hang in the windows of the nursing simulation lab in Memorial Hall. The series is called “The Thermometer.” Another set of six, each representing one of the world’s religions, hangs in the entry to the Chapel. Ostrin calls it “The Sacred Six-Pack.”
“I’ve met such remarkable people here, and this is how I say thank you,” Ostrin said. “You know, in an emergency room, you see the world’s dirty underbelly. Overdoses. Shootings. But to be around these young people, it’s been a salvation.”
Every once in a while, one of Ostrin’s classes will touch on an area of his expertise. Reading Shakespeare’s description of Falstaff’s death in “Henry V” recently for a class taught by English professor Lance Wilcox, the retired physician marveled at the concise literary depiction of the symptoms of liver failure. But he hesitates to share his hard-won insights in class.
“It irks me when old people want to flaunt their erudition,” he said after class. “I’m just a guest here. I don’t want to do anything to ruin it.”
And there are still so many more classes to take.
“Don’t tell me about any search for the Fountain of Youth,” he said. “Dude, I’ve found it.”