Hanna Fromm, 89; Founder of Bay Area College Aimed at Retirees

Times Staff Writer

Hanna Fromm, whose belief in lifelong learning led her to create a college for retired people -- no one under 50 is admitted -- died of natural causes Jan. 2 at her home in San Francisco. She was 89.

She founded the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco in 1976, when she was 63.

Expecting at best 50 students, she was astonished when 600 showed up to register on opening day. The institute now has more than 1,000 students, who take courses on subjects ranging from foreign affairs to opera. They are taught by a faculty of 50 retired professors from such universities as UC Berkeley and Stanford.

Lifelong learning was a novel concept in the 1970s, when Fromm began to mull over the idea of starting a college. She had seen many friends deteriorate mentally and physically after they retired.

One day when she was talking with her husband, winemaker and philanthropist Alfred Fromm, and a group of close friends, she asked them what their retirement plans were.

"They said, 'I'd love to go back to school, but I don't want to go to school with my grandchildren,' " said Caroline Fromm Lurie, Fromm's daughter. "My mother said, 'What if there were a school for older people?' "

When Fromm began to seriously explore the idea, she found only two programs in the country that catered to older students. Both were in New York City.

Her timing was right, however. Many colleges around the country were beginning to target working adults in their 30s and 40s who wanted to train for new careers. Fromm approached a college in her own backyard with the idea of extending that idea to adults in their 50s and beyond.

The University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit college west of downtown San Francisco, agreed to provide classroom space and administrative support. Primary funding for the program came from a Fromm family philanthropy.

"We thought we'd be lucky to get 50 students when we started and had planned for 35," Fromm told The Times in a 1979 interview. "We had 600 show up to register. It was pandemonium."

The institute enrolled 76 students, including a 60-year-old man who began to cry when he at first was turned away. Then he told Fromm how alone he felt: His wife still worked and his five grown children were out of the house. "He didn't know what to do with himself," Fromm recalled. "We took him."

Now there are hundreds of programs around the country for senior learners, said Robert Fordham, director of the Fromm Institute. "She demonstrated vision when we were in an era of forced retirement, in the 1970s," he said. "She showed that, indeed, a student can be of any age."

"Frommies," as the institute's students are known on campus, now outnumber the freshmen at the University of San Francisco. The average age of a Fromm student is 73; the oldest current student is 94.

Students pay a membership fee of $150 to $400, which allows them to sign up for as many as a dozen classes a year. The institute does not turn away any student because of lack of funds.

Fromm was born in Nuremberg, Germany, the daughter of a prominent obstetrician whose deliveries included Henry Kissinger, the future U.S. secretary of State.

Her passion was ballet, but she did not have a dancer's body, so she went to Paris to study choreography. As a Jew in 1930s France, however, she was barred from obtaining a choreographer's license. She turned to the fashion business, and learned dressmaking and modeling in some of Paris' finest boutiques.

She married Alfred Fromm, whom she had known from her teenage years, in 1936. Later that year, they moved to New York.

Alfred Fromm, a fourth-generation winemaker, founded Fromm & Sichel Inc., distributor of Christian Brothers wine and brandy. He later took over the Paul Masson vineyards in Saratoga, Calif., and co-founded the Wine Museum of San Francisco.

While her husband established himself in the wine business in the United States, Hanna Fromm was busy helping relatives in Europe find safe haven from the Nazis in the U.S. She later became involved in community and philanthropic efforts, including serving with the American Red Cross during World War II. She also raised two children.

She worked without pay as the Fromm Institute's executive director. She attended many of the classes the school offered, in part to monitor their quality. But Fromm also simply wanted to learn something new.

"She would come back and say to me, 'Now you won't believe what I learned today,' " Fordham recalled. "This was a program she gave so much to, but she was also able to take away from it ... a life of the mind."

In addition to her daughter Caroline of Ross, Calif., Fromm is survived by a son, David of Detroit; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

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