Marie Brischler, a resident at the Island Nursing and Rehab...

Marie Brischler, a resident at the Island Nursing and Rehab Center in Holtsville, is shown during a special graduation ceremony. (June 23, 2010) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The lectures were provocative, the students were intrigued, and a couple of the professors were "very handsome."

That's the way Selma Appelbaum summarized four workshops she recently attended, partially fulfilling her childhood dream to go to college. It took a long time to realize the dream - Appelbaum is 71. She was part of a pilot project known as "Professors on Wheels" that sent Suffolk County Community College faculty members to the Island Nursing and Rehab Center in Holtsville.

The professors, members of the union known as the Faculty Association, volunteered their time as part of a community outreach effort.

Katherine Catti, 91, had a clear favorite: a workshop called "The Collaborative Playwright," in which Joshua Perl, an English instructor, helped students write short plays. A retired bookkeeper, Catti wrote about her parents, who were emigrants from Italy.

Catti wove her observations into her one-act play.

"I showed that this country was so different 85, 90 years ago," she said. "More family-oriented. There was more religion in our lives. More traditions. They build something today, and they break it down tomorrow - same with relationships."

The project wrapped up its first phase Wednesday with a commencement ceremony for 33 students who attended all the lectures. Attilio Bruno, an 84-year-old in a wheelchair, kicked off the festivities by singing "God Bless America."

The Suffolk professors who came up with the idea of lectures at nursing homes admitted they were daunted by their previous community service effort - building homes with Habitat for Humanity. "Money and backbreaking labor we don't have in abundance," said Adam Penna, an associate professor of English, "but what we do have is expertise."

Penna said he watched his own father-in-law, a once-vibrant man who had worked on Wall Street, become ill and frustrated by the shortage of intellectual activities for elderly people who cannot travel.

Visiting professors spoke about sailing on the Great South Bay, the role of jellyfish in the ecosystem, and research with stem cells.

The monthly program was so popular that faculty plan to offer lectures twice a month starting in September.

"Something like this keeps the residents involved, motivated, stimulated and interested," said Tom Datz, of Medford, a hospice social worker who attended to cheer on his mother, Cecelia, 90.

Island Nursing and Rehab, a nonprofit that opened in 2001, tries to find ways to keep residents engaged, administrator David Fridkin said. "We want to make it a home, not a nursing home."

Gladys Cienski, who turned 94 last month, admits she's forgotten the details of the lectures. But she enjoyed the stimulation. "Activities like this," she said, "make me feel very lucky to be alive."

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