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The world according to Lee, a life-long student

Lee Fisher sits with a fellow student in Upham Hall.
Lee Fisher sits with a fellow student in Upham Hall.

On Nov. 19, Lee Fisher woke up and enjoyed a cup of coffee on his back porch at the Knolls of Oxford retirement community. As he enjoyed the peacefulness of his Sunday morning before church, he noticed a sweat bee buzzing around his mug, attracted to the sweetener.

It suddenly piqued his interest.

The average temperature that day was around 43 degrees – surely too cold for a sweat bee, Lee thought. Fascinated by the resilient little bug, he went inside to his computer and typed in, “the life of a sweat bee.”

“That’s just the way my head works,” Lee said with a laugh.

Lee has always been naturally curious. As his wife Rosemary says, “It’s the world according to Lee.”

Much of Lee’s world is contained within the walls of Miami University’s Upham Hall, where he can be seen every Tuesday and Thursday with his black and green backpack, ready to learn. At 77 years old, he has taken university classes on religion, anthropology, gerontology and history all for fun.

“Age should not define whether or not you enjoy learning,” he said.

And for Lee, it doesn’t. When he was an undergraduate student at Miami in the ’60s, he sat in the same classrooms — many of which he said have remained unchanged — with the same natural curiosity. During his time at Miami, he was involved in the Men’s Glee Club, which ultimately led him to meet Rosemary, who was a Choralier.

“One day she turned to me and told me she could sing her own part, that I didn’t have to sing it, and that’s how it started,” Lee said, while smiling at Rosemary sitting next to him. 

In 1968, Lee graduated from Miami with degrees in political science and accounting. That same year, he was drafted by the U.S. Army to serve in the Vietnam War.

“I was sitting in the same buildings that I sit in today, and I had two choices: to be drafted and fight or flee the country as a felon,” he said.

Lee proposed to Rosemary before he left, but they decided not to get married because he didn’t want to potentially leave her as a widow. Despite the distance, the two wrote letters to each other almost every week about Lee’s adventures traveling from Amsterdam to Berlin and Rosemary’s final year at Miami. 

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“I love you [and] feel very, very empty without you,” Lee wrote in a letter dated April 21, 1969.

“Take care, love [and] be good! Remember I love you much,” Rosemary would respond.

Over the course of two years, the two collected more than 300 letters, which have been donated and are available at the Walter Havighurst Special Collections and University Archives.

Ten days after Lee returned home, they got married and moved to Pennsylvania, where he worked in the rail industry while Rosemary taught third grade at their local elementary school. Despite his background in political science and accountancy, Lee always had a fascination in archeology and applied twice to graduate school to pursue his interest; however, illnesses got in the way both times preventing him.

In the late 2000s, the couple began looking for a continuing care retirement community, and their southwestern Ohio-roots brought them back to Oxford. In 2013, the couple moved into the Knolls of Oxford, and Lee began taking classes at the university for enjoyment. Two years later, at 70 years old, he was accepted to the University of Cincinnati’s graduate school but experienced enrollment challenges, so he decided to continue taking courses at Miami.

Last year, he took Adulthood and Aging (FSW466) with professor Amy Roberts, which delves into interpersonal relationships. Roberts enjoyed Lee’s perspective as an older student and his contributions to class discussions so much that she invited him and Rosemary to come back to her class to speak about their marriage of 53 years.

“As a student in the class, part of what Lee was able to do very effectively was to approach topics with curiosity, and engage with other students to find out how others think and feel about aging,” Roberts said. “He was willing to open up about situations that are hard, as well as very rewarding.”

Lee’s application of personal experience to class content is also something that professor Elena Albarrán has enjoyed in her class, Revolution in Latin America (LAS319). Albarrán has also invited Lee to talk to her other classes and appreciates having him as a student because of his eagerness to learn.

“Being of a different generation and being in the classroom for a different reason, he’s learning out of the pure pleasure of learning and not because he needs a job or a specific set of skills,” Albarrán said. “That can really model to students the beauty of just learning and inquiry for the sake of self-improvement.”

In the past 10 years, he has taken 17 courses at the university. Lee said the biggest difference between his experience in the classroom now compared to 50 years ago is the lack of participation by students.

“This shyness and timidness about having a conversation with people that you don’t know is in stark contrast to what I would have been encouraged to do when I was their age,” Lee said. “You can’t learn by being silent.”

But despite his frustration, he has been able to make friends in the classes he has taken. It’s not uncommon for students to be invited to dinner at the Fisher household, and former students always make it a point to see them on their visits to Oxford.

The couple’s involvement with Miami extends beyond the classroom. In 2015, they started the Lee and Rosemary Fisher Glee Club Scholarship for members of the Glee Club, and four years later, they endowed the Fisher-Holoviak Music Professorship for the Glee Club director.

“They’re great advocates, in particular for the Glee Club, but for the university as a whole,” said Jeremy Jones, the director of the Glee Club. “Their love and dedication to giving back to the student experience is amazing.”

In 2018, Lee helped establish the Alumni Veterans Tribute Memorial, and three years later, the couple was approached by the university to establish an innovation and workforce development hub that would one day become the Lee and Rosemary Fisher Innovation College@Elm Center.

The center, located on 20 S. Elm St., provides a space for small businesses to start up in Oxford with the goal to stimulate economic and workforce development in Oxford.

“Once [businesses] are started in town, we want them to stay in town,” Rosemary said.

Since returning to Oxford, the Fishers have made it a priority to give back to the university that brought them together and has been an important part of their lives. They enjoy being involved in all aspects of student life whether it's in the classroom, Glee Club or the Fisher Innovation College@Elm because “the world according to Lee” is guided by one principle:

“Become the adult that that person needed in their life when you were their age,” Lee said.

And Lee is already preparing to be that person for a whole new class as he plans his schedule for next semester.