Martin P. ‘Marty’ Knowlton dies at 88; co-founder of Elderhostel

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Martin P. “Marty” Knowlton, a world traveler who fought ageism by co-founding Elderhostel, a program that pioneered learning vacations for mature adults, has died. He was 88.

Knowlton died Thursday of natural causes at a nursing home in Ventura, said David Bianco, who started Elderhostel with his friend in 1975.

When he was about 50, Knowlton became highly annoyed by two things: the prevailing wisdom that “as you got older, your mind automatically began to fail” and the government notifying him that “old age begins at 55,” he told the Ventura County Star in 2000.


A self-described hippie -- although he was born in 1920 in Texas and fought during World War II in the Philippines -- Knowlton decided to grab his rucksack and challenge such notions of aging.

For the next four years, he traveled through Europe, mainly on foot, and stayed in youth hostels. He recalled being struck in the early 1970s by the number of Europeans well into their 80s who remained active.

After returning, Knowlton was director of a youth hostel program at the University of New Hampshire, where Bianco was director of residential life. The pair were mulling over nontraditional educational approaches in 1974 when they hit upon the idea of serving older students who could fill unused dorm rooms in the summer.

The term “elderhostel” came to Bianco when he saw the white-bearded Knowlton sitting on a porch beneath a sign that said “youth hostel.”

“It was a very unusual juxtaposition,” Bianco said. “You couldn’t look any more like an elderhosteler than Marty.”

The program started in the summer of 1975 on five college campuses in New England. Six people enrolled in the first session on local and oral history, and the Old Testament book of Job.


“Marty liked to call them the six apostles,” Bianco said, “because those six people spread the word and started us on a spectacular adventure.”

By 1977, Elderhostel had turned into a nonprofit organization that contracted with scores of academic institutions but was affiliated with none in particular. Knowlton, and his co-founder, stepped away from the organization.

“I rode that horse a couple of years, then jumped to save my life,” Knowlton told The Times in 1995.

Eventually, it grew into an international enterprise. More than 4 million people have experienced its programs, according to the organization.

After Knowlton moved to Ventura in the early 1990s, he and Bianco launched the Center for Studies of the Future, an Elderhostel affiliate.

Knowlton was born July 30, 1920, in Dallas. He left college to drive ambulances for the Free French Forces in the Middle East from 1940 to 1942 then served in the U.S. Army until 1945.


After receiving a bachelor’s degree in history from Birmingham-Southern College in 1946, he earned a master’s in political science from the University of North Carolina in 1949.

He taught at the University of North Carolina and was an administrator at Yale and a secondary schoolteacher in Maine and Massachusetts.

Initially, Elderhostel’s minimum age for participants was 60, but it was lowered to 55. Knowlton believed the program could add years to people’s lives, he said in 2000 in the Ventura County Star.

For those not old enough to participate, Knowlton -- ever the saber-rattler -- gleefully advised fibbing.

“From the very beginning, we’ve had people lie about their age to get in,” Knowlton said. “It’s always tickled us, but it’s also a good measure that the product is good.”

Knowlton is survived by two daughters and a granddaughter.

Memorial donations may be made to the Elderhostel Founders Fund, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111.