Seniors & Aging

Grandparents U summer classes at WWU a great mixer for the generations

Name: Bernie Walz.

Age: 77.

Hometown: Bellingham.

Family: Jody, wife of 31 years. Blended family includes children Walter Hall, Beth Kaufman, Brian Walz and Karen Sparzak; and grandchildren Jennifer Hall, Mary Garnett, Jonathan Hall, Garrick Beste-Walz, Gabby Sparzak, Alex Sparzak and Graham Beste-Walz.

‘Bingo!’: That’s what Bernie Walz recalls he told himself in 2011 when he learned about the “Grandparent U” summer program at Western Washington University. He quickly became hooked on the concept.

“I knew it would be a great way to entice our younger grandchildren to come to Bellingham,“ he says. “These are two-day classes where grandparents and grandchildren attend together to learn about various aspects of arts, astronomy, chemistry, physics, marine life and other subjects.”

Lifelong learner:Walz readily acknowledges he has always been a lifelong learner, so he was more than willing to tackle subjects new to him. He’s an enthusiastic supporter of the WWU-based Academy of Lifelong Learning, which teaches a wide variety of short courses, mostly to older adults.

First class: In 2011, granddaughter Gabby Sparzak made the trip from Maryland to Bellingham for her grandfather’s first “Grandparent U” class.

“We took a class in plastics and polymers,” he says. “Gabby was then 10 years old. She made her own clipboard and she used tools such as a band saw, a rivet gun and a belt sander.

“She loved it. After the class ended she told me in stern words, ‘Pop-Pop (the family’s term of endearment for Walz), I’m coming back again next year.’ It wasn’t a question, but rather a statement. This was something challenging for her.”

Busy granddaughter: Gabby did indeed return the following two years to participate in “Grandparent U,” including last year for a marine biology program at Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes.

Now 13 and set to enter eighth grade in Bel Air, Maryland, she’s a Girl Scout, plays soccer and coaches Special Olympians in swimming.

Future Viking? Gabby, who says she loves science, might return to Bellingham once she graduates from high school.

“My experience (at Shannon Point) has inspired me to look more into marine biology,” she says. “I really liked WWU and now I’m thinking about attending WWU.”

Her brother’s turn: Gabby didn’t make the trip this summer because it was brother Alex’s turn. Alex, 10, and Bernie took a marine biology course, and grandson Garrick and Bernie participated in “digging in the dirt” for fossils in a geology course.

Two grandchildren each summer: Bernie Walz got such a kick out of his first experience at “Grandparent U” that he participated in 2012 with both Gabby and Garrick, now 14.

“Garrick came out from Monroe, Michigan. He and I did the marine biology at Shannon Point,” Walz says. “Garrick especially enjoyed the cobblestone beach. He lives near Lake Erie, which is all sand, freshwater and no tide, everything different. At Shannon Point, all sorts of critters live there. On the second day I had a hard time getting Garrick out of there, he was learning so much.”

“Gabby and I did a chemistry and physics program,” Walz says. “We did all kinds of things, learning about vacuums, laser lights and how ‘magic sand’ can float on water due to the tension it creates.”

Mutual reward: “They learned and I learned,” Walz says. “It’s such a big reward to spend time with your grandchildren on a one-to-one basis in this program.”

Gabby agrees: “‘Grandparent U’ is a great way to spend time with your grandparents, especially since I don’t get to see them often.”

Retired engineer: Walz, an affable U.S. Army veteran, grew up in North Dakota and graduated from North Dakota State University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. He worked for Ford Motor Co. in Michigan for 32 years as a noise and vibration specialist.

He and Jody retired to Bellingham in 1997. He also keeps sharp “by solving problems around the home.”

“I like to say of Bellingham, ‘It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,’” he says. “Well, I’ve been ‘visiting’ for 17 years! We wanted no humidity, and you don’t have to shovel rain!”