Class Acts: Learn Something New This Fall
Education goes beyond graduation with subjects like art, bridge, and pickleball
Call me old school. As the calendar flips to September, I think about new things I'd like to learn, and it's no surprise that teachers helped educate me on my three current interests: painting, bridge, and pickleball.
But don't think that my baby-boomer status means that these activities are for just the old folks. Isabelle, my 14-year-old granddaughter, has inspired me to dabble in acrylics. One bridge player I met began playing at age 26, and the pickleball players I interviewed at Baldwin Park included two 20-something novices.
Finding Your Way in the Arts
No matter your age when you try something new, it helps to have a patient, nurturing mentor. Natalia Pilato, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the art department at Old Dominion University's College of Arts and Letters in Norfolk, Va., fits that bill.
Pilato, who earned her doctorate in art education at Penn State, worked with as many as 150 Erie volunteers over several weeks to create a community-inspired mural for Odessa's Place at 628 W. 18th St. in Little Italy. The Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network (SSJNN) organized the project, which also relied on research from the Hagen History Center and tapped into a huge amount of community engagement.
"I was told this was called a wayfinding mural. What does that mean to find your way? We make this way together, we walk this road together," Pilato said when she spoke to SSJNN staffers, History Center archivists, and longtime neighborhood residents. "What I want to know is, who is your community? Who is walking together and how are we including them in the process?"
Pilato elicited details about the programs at the SSJNN, which serves a large immigrant population, and about the mission of Odessa's Place, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing, school supplies, Christmas gifts, ministry, and other services to those in need.
Mo Troop, my Erie City Council colleague, invited me to the mural's Aug. 13 unveiling. I learned that Mo's mother, Carol Troop, founded Odessa's Place and named it after her late mother, Odessa Meredith. A single mother of six, Carol Troop returned to college later in life to become an Erie teacher. Mo works as an assistant principal of Erie High School, founded the Breeze Band, and is the author of Out of the Cheesebox, A Mother's Lessons in Faith.
Mo's book stresses the importance of education, perseverance, and role models — the kind of values incorporated into the mural-making project. For example, Pilato chose a Millcreek special ed teacher, Stephanie Kooser Travers, as her summer intern.
Kooser Travers' background — a bachelor's degree from the Cleveland Art Institute, with a specialty in fiber, and a master's in special education from Mercyhurst University — impressed Pilato, as did her professionalism and commitment to hard work.
An internationally known artist, Pilato only takes on large mural projects every few years. Her work in Erie often meant 14-hour days, but even before she arrived here, she met online with a small steering committee to brainstorm while she was in Sicily studying ceramics. Kooser Travers became her "point person on the ground" in Erie.
When Pilato arrived here, "Stephanie showed up for me on day one and her family also showed up for me. They unloaded my car, had dinner for me." Artists "create the culture" during such projects, but you know you truly belong when you are invited to dinner, she said.
Pilato learned about the importance of hospitality growing up in State College with her artist parents, Grace and Guy Pilato, first-generation Sicilians. "I learned more in my mother's kitchen as a place of learning than any other place in my life. Creating community around food and art and love happened at a very young age in my mother's kitchen. She always had people over. She fed so many people and taught me so many things — the beauty of laying a plate, setting a table, sitting around telling stories."
At Odessa's Place, the visual storytelling is communicated by a mural that swoops around two sides of the building. The brilliant colors and bold images include an angelic Odessa and sunny marigolds, and naturally, food is part of the picture — fresh tomatoes, a corn stalk, a ladle of soup.
When Theresa Gamble, director of library and archives for the Hagen History Center, found a photo of the railroad cars that used to rumble over the 19th Street Norfolk Southern tracks, Pilato, who lives in Norfolk, Va., felt an immediate connection to the train line. So the mural includes a passenger train destined for Little Italy, with hopeful, resilient immigrants, past and present, aboard.
Pilato promised Kooser Travers that after her internship, the Millcreek teacher would "walk away" knowing how to be a mural-maker. Such mentoring was also key to the relationships Pilato built with Angelia Hopkins, 19; Angelia's sister Ebony Hopkins, 14; and Jordan Sapp, 22. The young people showed up daily in the basement of Holy Trinity Lutheran, 643 W. 17th St., which served as the art studio, and are credited as "studio assistants" on the mural, just below the names of Pilato and Kooser Travers.
One mural element shows an immigrant's cupped hands filled with tomatoes, with a bracelet dangling on one arm. "I had traced (the bracelet) out but I hadn't coded it," said Pilato. She gave the Hopkins sisters a picture of a bracelet and asked them to pick the colors. "I gave them a whole bunch of little paints, warm and cool colors. What's going to pop? They spent two days just perfecting that bracelet. They had taken ownership of it. I really felt like I was their teacher, aunt, friend."
Such bonds were created over and over again, said Pilato. "Erie people really did show up for me," she said, in recounting the kindnesses she received from so many, including the Troop family.
Wrapping up, she was again reminded of her truism that you feel accepted in a new place when you are asked to dinner. This time, it was the parents of a little Syrian boy. "They invited me over and offered me food and tea and set a table for me."
Cross This Bridge
At the Erie Bridge Club, 1221 Grant Ave., the tables are set with stacks of cards, not food and tea, but the atmosphere is convivial, and players are eager to show curious visitors how they got hooked on the game.
My grandmother was still playing bridge at age 100, so the promise on a Bridge Club promotional poster rings true for me: "Boost your brain power, challenge your mental muscles, and make new friends."
One of my regrets is that I never took my parents up on their invitation to learn bridge, so when my friend Rita Schmitt invited me to the Bridge Club to learn about the club's upcoming lessons, I accepted.
When she retired as a school nurse 17 years ago, Rita was already playing many word games but none involved math. In bridge, she said, you have to count, so she added that to her game repertoire.
"Bridge is a game very quantitative in nature. You have to use logic and deductive skills," said Marc Sylvester, 46, a statistics professor at PennWest Edinboro University.
Sylvester took up bridge at age 26, when an Edinboro math department colleague needed a fourth player. "I love board games and I love every card game. I'm not picky," Sylvester said. But bridge is "the most complex and interesting game I've ever played," he said.
Just as I discovered at the mural unveiling, teachers and others in the educational field never tire of sharing lessons outside of the classroom.
Barb Grzegorzewski is a retired Allegheny College English professor; her husband Steven just retired as a chemistry teacher from Meadville Area Senior High. They met playing bridge.
"We aren't nerds. Are we nerds?" Barb joked.
But she and the other club members stressed that bridge players come from all walks of life and it's a very social game, although you will likely learn in the first few lessons if this game is for you.
For Steven Grzegorzewski, the satisfaction of teaching bridge lessons is similar to the joy he experienced as a chem teacher, "when I see my student's light bulb go on, when you see people making progress, when they're having fun."
Pickle in the Middle
The Erie Pickleball Players Association is a tight-knit community, so when I met Robert Borgia, Tom Wisinski, and Elena Arnold at Baldwin Park, I was surprised that they didn't know two players on the nearby court.
There was a reason for that. Joe Charland, a software developer, and Megan McCormick, a government consultant, are from Pittsburgh and had never been to Baldwin Park until they Googled "pickleball and Erie." Both 25, they were spending the week at a lake house Charland's family has at Kelso Beach. They were, in essence, pickleball tourists.
They had joined a pickleball league in Pittsburgh and wanted to get some practice in. "We wanted to do some sort of sport in the fall. We thought that pickleball sounded fun," McCormick said.
"It's a good sport for us, to stay active and meet new people," said Charland.
Borgia and Wisinski, retired sales and marketing professionals, aren't surprised that the young Pittsburgh couple found Baldwin Park through the website that Arnold coordinates, eppa.royalpickleball.com
"We've had players from North Carolina and Texas, Canada and Florida, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, people looking for a destination to play the game," said Borgia, 79, who started playing pickleball in Florida five or six years ago. He kept after his golfing buddy, Wisinski, 73, for a couple of years, until he agreed to try pickleball, too. "I played it one time and I was hooked," said Wisinski.
Arnold, 41, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Erie, also taught cycling, body pump, and yoga at LECOM's Medical and Fitness Center. "That was my mental break," she said. Then COVID hit. "That all came to a screeching halt. I needed something to give me that mental break.
Also during the early days of COVID, Matt Manasse, a former pro tennis coach who now teaches pickleball to California celebrities, ended up back home in Erie, where he persuaded Elena and her husband Mike, a salesman at McCarty Printing, to play pickleball on a makeshift court in the driveway. "We thought it was for older people. Then Matt talked us into it. We went home that night, ordered paddles and have been playing ever since," Arnold said.
Borgia, Winiski, and Arnold all possess athletic skills, yet you don't need to be a tennis expert to play pickleball.
But if you want a good aerobic workout, want to work on your balance and practice good eye-hand coordination, this could be the sport for you.
Arnold, the teacher, gives the same advice to new players that work with her elementary school students. "Don't give up," she said. "You're going to have good games and bad games. Stick with it."
Liz Allen sometimes bites off more than she can chew, so check back next year to see which new hobby, if any, she embraces. Reach her at email@example.com
Visiting the new public art installation at Odessa's Place, 628 W. 18th St., doesn't guarantee you will learn how to paint murals, but by clicking the QR code on new "Map Key" on the building's east side, you will learn about gardens, green spaces, public art, historical landmarks, and points of interest in the Little Italy neighborhood served by Odessa's Place and the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network.
If you are interested in learning duplicate bridge, in which players move from table to table playing the same hand, classes start soon at the Erie Bridge Club, 1221 Grant Ave. in Millcreek. Beginner lessons start Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 9:30 a.m. and Monday, Sept. 12, at 6:30 p.m. Intermediate lessons start Sept. 7 at 1 p.m. The $25 cost for six beginner lessons includes the text; additional series cost $36.
For more information, contact Steven Grzegorzewski at (814) 573-4743 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Rick Klapthor at (814) 566-1396 or email@example.com, or visit www.eriebridgeclub.org.
The Erie Bridge Club will host the Great Lakes Fall Sectional tournament Sept. 10-11.
The Erie Pickleball Players Association can help you find lessons or courts (outdoors and indoors) by visiting the web page, eppa.royalpickleball.com, or its Facebook page. There are lessons and games throughout Erie County, and the 2nd annual Helen Pappas Pickleball Shootout takes place Sept. 9-10 at Westwood Racket Club, 2660 W. Zuck Road. If you are a first-time pickleball player, be sure to ask about pickleball etiquette, including how to wait your turn for court time.