Elizabeth Kocir – Volunteer of the Year 2020-2021 Award Recipient

Elizabeth (Liz) Kocir has been selected as the OLLI at UAH Volunteer of the Year.

Elizabeth (Liz) Kocir has been selected as the OLLI at UAH 2020-2021 Volunteer of the Year.

Image courtesy of OLLI at UAH
Liz Kocir presenting about OLLI at Kiwanis Club

Liz Kocir presenting about OLLI at Kiwanis Club

Image courtesy of OLLI at UAH

Even through the hardships from this past year and a half, the volunteers of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) have strived to continue making the program successful and working to keep members involved.

Once specific member brought new ideas to the table as she incorporated new sections in The OLLI Insider Newsletter where members could learn about the “People of OLLI”, share their “quarantine” stories, and many more opportunities for members to interact in the monthly publication. This member is Elizabeth (Liz) Kocir, who has been selected as the OLLI Volunteer of the Year 2020-2021 by the OLLI general membership.

Liz has been a key member of OLLI for the past five years as she has served on the OLLI Board of Directors and was the Public Relations committee chair. She has also volunteered as an instructor, facilitator, and editor for The OLLI Insider.

It’s so important to be around people our own age and form relationships.

Liz Kocir
OLLI at UAH Volunteer of the Year

She grew up in San Jose, California, in the 1960s surrounded by diversity as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space program and tech industry fueled the Bay Area’s American dream. “We were kids living in the Bay Area, and I just became fascinated by our country’s history and the politics of the day. There is and was a heavy military presence in the area. The Vietnam War and the Summer of Love 1969 stand out in my mind, because it touched me and so many things changed,’’ mentioned Liz.

She became a student of politics at age 10. In her senior high school year, 1971, she met Nancy Reagan and future President Ronald Reagan. As an administrative assistant at an insurance brokerage firm in San Francisco, she networked with politicians across California and the country for the next 30 years.

In her mid-50s, Liz decided that it was time to leave Silicon Valley and change lifestyle. Her two brothers lived in Huntsville, AL and despite naysayers she moved to the Rocket City. Liz recalls, “I fell in love with the people and the beauty of the Tennessee Valley’s mountains and lakes.’’

Liz Kocir together with OLLI at UAH Members, Dori Anthony and Linda McAllister, at the Lowe House.

Liz Kocir together with Dori Anthony and Linda McAllister at the Lowe House.

Image courtesy of OLLI at UAH

Liz also found love and married Dean Butler in 2013. The same year, she discovered OLLI at UAH. “I wanted to keep on learning, but I didn’t want to be a college student stressing about grades or deadlines. It’s so important to be around people our own age and form relationships. Let’s not forget there are 70 million baby boomers, and OLLI at UAH is where learning and Zooming are at,” said Liz.

OLLI at UAH is lucky to have Liz as its new Volunteer of the Year awardee. She continues to participate in courses and shares OLLI at UAH with the Huntsville community and beyond. Congratulations on this well-deserved award!

Previous Member Spotlights

Art + OLLI at UAH = Debbie West

Debbie West teaching during Halloween Celebration in 2019

Debbie West teaching Alabama's Artistic Heritage during Halloween week and featured on WHNT news broadcast.

From WHNT 10.30.19 10:00pm Broadcast

Debbie has been teaching art history courses at OLLI for 15 years on subjects ranging from the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance to French and Post-Impressionists, the Art of Spain, Dutch Masters, American Art, Color Theory, and most recently, in celebration of Alabama’s 200th year of statehood, the Artists of Alabama.

Debbie is not the usual Huntsville transplant; instead, her family has lived in Madison County since the mid-1800s. Debbie recounted that she developed an interest in art at a young age. “When I was 5, my parents gave me a Childcraft book, Art for Children. In a lifelong love affair with books, it remains my most precious book, one that still inspires me to this day.”

In the fourth grade, Debbie had an epiphany: she needed an art teacher, but in those days there were no art teachers in Alabama’s public elementary and middle schools. This idea nagged her, so while in middle school, Debbie questioned her principal about the lack of art classes available to artists such as herself.

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Debbie West, OLLI at UAH Instructor

Photo provided by subject

She made such a case that he creatively solved the problem by letting her become her own art teacher. While the other children were in choir or band, she worked alone, creating posters, decorating hall bulletin boards, and teaching herself with the books and materials she had requested, which were purchased for her by the PTA.

After Lee High School, Debbie enrolled in the University of North Alabama, married, had one son and moved across the United States with her husband. She transferred to four different universities, returned to Huntsville after a divorce and finally finished her degree in K-12 art education at UAH.

A major influence in Debbie’s life and art was her husband of 17 years, the late Jack Dempsey. Jack and Debbie married after she moved back to Huntsville.

He had been brought to UAH in 1965 to create the new university’s art department, which he did with great success. Debbie recalled that Jack was an inspirational iconoclast who taught her to question the status quo, to never stop thinking and to lead, not follow.

In 1976, she became one of the original six elementary school art teachers hired in Huntsville. She spent 15 years at the elementary level, five years in two middle schools and five years at Huntsville High. She retired after 25 years.

On a group trip to Italy in 2005, OLLI instructors asked Debbie to explain the paintings they were seeing at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This defining moment occurred when Debbie recognized the opportunity to share her love of art with her peers by teaching art appreciation and art history at OLLI. Because many of her students are well-versed in art themselves, they often add their own interpretations of the pictures and artists, which Debbie loves.

“I want to hear their responses and thoughts,” she stressed. “That enhances my own appreciation and understanding. Why else would I be here?”

At first, Debbie worked her way through all the Great Courses on art, but with encouragement from other OLLI members — and especially encouragement from Linda and Bill McAllister — she began creating her own courses. Remarkably, she has never repeated a course in 15 years. A course might cover the same time period, but it is never taught the same way.

Although each course requires many hours of work, piecing together the information and images to present the history of art, Debbie declares: “Art is worth any amount of preparation. I want the class to be worth the students’ time. I love the symbiosis with the students and encouraging their creativity, which never fails to spark my own. I am constantly learning from my students.”

To learn from Debbie West, register for her winter 2021 course, The Paradox of Femininity, on Tuesdays at 1:00 pm. Registration information can be found at https://www.uah.edu/cps/olli. Term registration is open to all OLLI at UAH members. Membership is only $25 for 12-months. Term tuition is $20 plus the cost per course. A 20% discount is applied on four or more courses. Join OLLI at UAH and Get in the Groove!

Rexanne Warfel - Volunteer of the Year Award Recipient

Rexanne Warfel VOY 2019-20

Rexanne Warfel | Volunteer of the Year Award Recipient

Photo Provided by Subject

In 2019, the OLLI at UAH Volunteer Support Committee implemented a Volunteer of the Year (VoY) Award Program to recognize members who have served OLLI in many capacities and have helped OLLI become the successful organization it is today. This award is based on nominations and votes from the members-at-large. After receiving more than forty outstanding nominations, OLLI at UAH’s membership selected Rexanne Warfel as the 2019-2020 Volunteer of the Year recipient.

Rexanne is a retired nurse and has been an OLLI at UAH member for almost five years. For the last couple of years, she has been part of the Member Services Committee and has been in charge of providing snacks and light lunches in conjunction with the bonus lectures, often matching them with the topics of the bonus presented, giving attendees a great opportunity to socialize.

Even during the campus closure due to COVID-19, Rexanne provided links to recipes members could pair with and cook when participating in the online bonuses. She is always ready to help members and the CPS staff when needed with a great positive attitude and smile.

She is a great example of how volunteering can help enhance the OLLI experience for everyone.  Rexanne enjoys cooking and cake decorating.  She has used her expertise to co-teach an excellent cooking course: Grilling, Chilling and Tailgating together with David Styers.   

Recently, she was elected to serve in the OLLI at UAH Board of Directors. She has also been a facilitator for various courses and helping instructors when needed.  

We thank Rexanne for all her hard work and commitment to OLLI at UAH these past few years.  Congratulations on this well-deserved award! 


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Rexanne in OLLI Lounge

Photo provided by OLLI at UAH
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Rexanne cutting cake for bonus snack

Photo provided by OLLI at UAH
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David Styers and Rexanne Warfel at Open House

Photo provided by OLLI at UAH
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Rexanne supervising bonus snacks

Photo provided by OLLI at UAH