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The Amazing Pilgrimage of Tom Sanders

By Kirk Borland

For Tom Sanders, his undergraduate experience at Duke University was transformative. It ignited a passion for religious studies that would become a recurring theme throughout his academic career; it elevated his childhood love of reading to a pressing hunger for ideas and information; and it introduced him to the insincere arguments of the debate team that he would later eschew in turning to his lifelong search for truth.  

Some forty years later, Tom Sanders would return to Asheville, the home of his childhood, where he had labored to become an Eagle Scout and had studied high school English grammar from a cousin of Thomas Wolfe. His professional legacy would be a wealth of religious, political, and international studies compiled on American campuses (Columbia University, Brown University, Sweet Briar College) as well as from years of travel throughout Latin America. His contributions were recorded in dissertations, books, papers, and talks too numerous to count. Yet, in "retirement," Tom's personal journey in search of new ideas and old truths was far from over. 

He plunged into the subject of Islam, explored the Balkans and the politics of Muslim countries. A student of languages, Tom learned Turkish during numerous visits to Turkey and studied Arabic in Cairo. Then, while riding a bus along the south coast of Turkey some two years into his odyssey, Tom made a New Year's resolution -- "to get back engaged in his Asheville community."

As a consequence, for the past 20 years, Tom has become a faculty staple at the College for Seniors (CFS), OLLI at UNC Asheville. In addition to serving on the Curriculum Committee, Tom has taught nearly 30 courses, most on subjects he has discovered since his professional career ended. For Tom, there just seem to be too many fascinating new subjects to engage in recycling. His courses are often about history, a popular area of study at CFS. As Tom observes, "We have a lot of very smart people--engineers and doctors and teachers and successful business people--interested in history because many of them had almost no electives when they were in school and now they have the chance to satisfy a curiosity as to who they are." Tom enjoys concentrating on American history, selecting topics that are either controversial (like Reconstruction or Andrew Jackson) or those that have attracted a lot of recent new material. Yet, most recently, Tom turned to another of his passions, hiking the great outdoors, to guide his class along "The Camino deSantiago" through Spain and France. (No armchair hiker, Tom has traversed all 2,179 miles of the Appalachian Trail and scaled all 40 peaks over 6,000 feet in the region.)

If you ask Tom why, at 81, he continues to do the hard work of inventing new courses of study from scratch, he will confess, "I am infected with the need to spend my life learning. I have a love for learning new things and sharing them with some of the most interesting people in Asheville." 

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