Elderhostel Pioneer Knowlton Dies

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A founder of a popular educational tour program for senior citizens has died. Martin Knowlton co-founded Elderhostel, which now provides continuing education tours in more than 90 countries.

MELISSA BLOCK, host

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The man who helped redefine retirement for many older Americans has died at age 88. Martin Knowlton co-founded Elderhostel, an educational tour company for people 55 and over. From member station WBUR in Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Martin Knowlton, or Marty as everyone called him, was a self-described hippie. When he was 50, he grabbed a backpack and hitchhiked around Europe for four years. He noticed how older Europeans seemed more physically and intellectually active. When he returned to the U.S. he was angered by the way seniors were regarded. Here's Knowlton in a 2005 video marking Elderhostel's 30th anniversary.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. MARTIN KNOWLTON (Co-Founder, Elderhostel): I had just read a number of articles that's so - that I thought denigrated older people, sort of, sneered at their capacity to learn - that it made me mad.

BRADY-MYEROV: In 1975, he decided to create a program where seniors would live in empty college dorms in the summer and take university courses. He called it Elderhostel. The first program was on six college campuses and studied things like history and the Bible.

Mr. DAVID BIANCO (Co-Founder, Elderhostel): Marty really categorically changed the way people think about aging.

BRADY-MYEROV: David Bianco co-founded Elderhostel with Knowlton. He says Knowlton shook up the thinking of the time that older people are set in their ways.

Mr. BIANCO: They have a good portion of their life left that can be exciting and contributory. That was a significant change in the '70s.

BRADY-MYEROV: The educational travel programs they created were immediately popular. Now they number more than 8,000 and include such topics as the environment in Costa Rica and opera in Rome. Knowlton only ran Elderhostel for a few years, because current Elderhostel President Jim Moses says Knowlton was more of a visionary.

Mr. JAMES MOSES (CEO, Elderhostel): The more time I spent with him the more I really began to see that he was really like a guru in some ways. He was somebody so extraordinarily different from everyone else.

BRADY-MYEROV: He looked different too with white hair in a bowl cut and a bushy white beard. Moses says millions of baby boomers may have no idea what role Knowlton played in creating the opportunities that come with age. In fact, so much has changed about the notions of aging since Marty Knowlton created Elderhostel that the name is now out of date and will be changed later this year.

For NPR News I'm Monica Brady-Myerov in Boston.

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