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Paula Withrow brings history to life, one vignette at a time.

By Judy LaMee

When Paula Withrow decided to teach a six-week College for Seniors (CFS) course called "Racy and Righteous," examining the lives of the women who followed the gold rushes to California, Colorado and Alaska, she knew she wanted to delve into the lives of the good girls and the bad, the saints and the sinners. Describing herself as "a bit of an actress," Paula says her goal with all the classes she leads is to make history come alive for class members through some microcosm of the era. OLLI at UNC Asheville members benefit from her enthusiasm.  "I don't try to go into great depth, capturing every single date and every single nuance of the period. Rather, I want to find some interesting facets that will make history live," she explains. With Paula, history is theater, and she often comes to class in costume. Her teaching style is to produce a series of vignettes. She wants people to come out of class with something thought-provoking, something new, even if it's something small. And they do. 

OLLI member Dave Castel describes his experience taking one of Paula's classes, "She unfailingly takes a little piece of history and humanizes it. I took one course from her, and I can tell you today that the standard bundle of beaver hides contained 90 hides. Paula manages to take a fascinating, unexpected piece of history and get you hooked and wanting to learn more."

A typical course evaluation comment reads something like this, "I never liked history in school, and now I find that I love history because I found someone who loves to teach history. I wish I had had a Paula Withrow as a teacher when I was studying history, back in the day." Don't we all!

Paula arrived at the College for Seniors in the fall of 2009, and has taught a different topic every semester since. She describes it as an addiction. Her attention will typically be caught by something fascinating she reads in an article or someone will suggest a topic, such as railroads or the Pony Express. She will spend the next three months researching, digging up obscure details that build a fascinating story. She reads books, goes to the library, scours the Internet. The 6-8 hours daily she spends on this in-depth research will become her lectures with backup slides of pictures, anything that will make the subjects live for class members.

Paula's fascination with history can be traced to her childhood living in Europe as an Army brat, from ages 6-9, shortly after World War II had ended. When she returned to those same sites 20 and 30 years later, she remarked on how the cities had rebuilt, and noted that most of the historic sites had survived. When she revisited the Colloseum all those years later, she remembers thinking, "I always thought it was bigger than this," and speculated about what could have happened to render it so much smaller! But how fascinating it was that a structure built so many years ago could have been the setting for such amazing theater, sometimes even flooded to produce naval battles, for instance. Growing up in a military family, Paula was born in Hawaii and has lived all over the US. She has called the Midwest and California home; she has visited the Gold Rush cities. She has also lived in the Philippines.

During college, she spent one Christmas vacation visiting her Army officer father in Viet Nam, where he was stationed during the war. Her mom had been told, "Just be glad we're going to his base by land and not by air"; the Tet offensive was going on and surface travel was considered safer. Paula had barely arrived when she was told, "Great news! We've got you a helicopter!" Terrified, she did not want to get on that chopper, but gamely she survived the flight and the next week in war-torn Viet Nam. The first two nights there, hearing gunfire all around, she knew she was surrounded by war. She tells of making up her bed and then climbing under it to sleep, believing she was safer. She visited orphanages and veterans hospitals, even water skied on the Mekong River. But there was also an incident where her family was being shot at. She described the visit as a bit like being a tourist, but your father is wearing a gun! At holiday's end, she returned to a calmer, safer college life at Colorado State University, where she continued her studies in history, earning her master of arts degree.

Paula's incredibly enriching nomadic background helps her to develop the vignettes that become her CFS courses. Then there is the fascination with visiting more accessible places such as Philadelphia and Sturbridge Village, which she says, can help us to learn so much here in our own United States.
Prior to her move to the Asheville area, Paula taught history and computers in a community college in Birmingham, Alabama, for five years. This multi-faceted woman has taught home schooled students about U.S., world and ancient history as well as comparative religions. She directed a woman's adult education school, conducted right/left brain research, interned with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey and later with the American Revolution Bicentennial where she focused on expeditions in the Western United States.
These days, in addition to teaching at OLLI's College for Seniors, Paula finds time to co-chair the Apple Special Interest Group, co-chair the Faculty Development Committee and to join the Life Transitions Committee as a new member.

Paula lives with her husband Gene in Weaverville. He retired after 30 years in the military and another 18 years as a dentist. Paula's daughter Claire, an anthropologist living in Atlanta, was recently married in what the proud mom describes as "an amazing ceremony" here in Asheville.

Contact Information

Reuter Center CPO #5000
One University Heights
Asheville, NC 28804-8511
Office: 828.251.6140