Marylen Mann

Marylen Mann is among the recipients of this year's Salute to Women in Leadership awards from the Urban League.

Photo by Sarah Crowder

Marylen Mann grew up admiring history’s greatest philosophers, from Aristotle to John Locke—and she aimed to follow in their footsteps. “But my dad told me there were no employment ads in the paper for philosophers,” Mann recalls, chuckling. “He said, Do education, you can always fall back on that.”

Mann listened. She taught in public schools for two years, then went on to work in the Department of Education at Washington University and at a federally funded curriculum development lab at University of Missouri—St. Louis. “Once I got into education, I really fell in love with curriculum development,” she says.

That passion for curriculum development would lead Mann to create OASIS, a nationwide program that offers seniors lifelong learning courses, physical activities and community-involvement opportunities. “When I was made aware in the ’70s that people who retire and are no longer raising their families or pursuing their occupations were living longer and didn’t have enough to occupy them, it struck me as a perfect opportunity,” she explains.

In an effort to fill this void and give people aging into retirement a better quality of life, Mann launched OASIS in St. Louis in 1982 with a grant from the U. S. Administration on Aging. Today, OASIS spans 43 cities across the country and has 370,000 members.

Through OASIS, seniors can dive into everything from classes on history, technology, plays and poetry to peer-led creative writing and more at various community locations, including the Center of Clayton and Forest Park’s Visitor Center. And there are opportunities to stay physically active, too. Yoga, pilates and water aerobics are offered at the Center of Clayton, and seniors can tour popular locales, such as Saint Louis Zoo, Touhill Performing Arts Center and historic Washington Avenue.

The part of OASIS that touches Mann’s heart most is its Intergenerational Tutoring Program that she pioneered in 1989. The largest program of its kind in the country with 5,800 volunteers in 26 cities, it trains adults in techniques for helping children who struggle to develop reading and language skills. “It adds so much meaning to the lives of the tutors—they get more out of it than they give,” Mann notes.

And when she’s not dreaming up new coursework for OASIS, Mann leads and attends classes. “It’s as satisfying for me to sit in a class as to lead a class,” she says. While at the head of the class, she shares Pearls of Wit and Wisdom, which highlights local women who have a significant life story full of achievements and rare experiences. The topic continually draws a large crowd of 50 to 60 engaged attendees, Mann says. “There’s nothing more thrilling than presenting to a class that really appreciates it."

In addition to helping seniors stay healthy and sharp, Mann says she is proud of the fact that OASIS builds communities. “I see people coming together and forming communities around ideas.” Later in life, when careers end and children no longer need their parents as often, it is more difficult to make friends, she explains. OASIS gives seniors that opportunity to spend time with people who share their interests. “And things that you care about energize you,” she says.

Beyond OASIS, Mann also is energized by a multitude of additional community programs, such as Washington University’s Gephardt Institute, Jewish Community Center, Radio Arts Foundation, Missouri Historical Society, Contemporary Art Museum, Lift for Life Academy and Maryville University’s Kids Rock Cancer. “I believe in busy,” Mann emphasizes. “The more involved and active you are, the happier you’ll be. And if we’re excited about life, we transmit that to friends and family. An enthusiasm for life is precious.”

Mann adds that while there are problems in growing older, there are still opportunities. “It’s important to wake up and have something you look forward to being engaged in, to keep a social network with other people and step outside of yourself as much as you can.”

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