University Hills couple has traveled the world to keep learning

Jim and Ilene Thompson have been on more than 250 trips together


For Jim and Ilene Thompson, travel has become more than just a passion over the last three decades. It’s a way to stay young — and to learn all they can.

The couple has been around the world visiting all seven continents and has been traveling since the moment they met. Jim, 92, and Ilene, 88, have taken more than 250 of their trips with Road Scholar, a nonprofit organization that creates travel programs for people over 50.

For Jim, traveling is an opportunity to learn more about a place. Even destinations such as Iowa and Arizona have yielded information on stunning local opera company performances, hidden museums and interesting history.

“We have a wonderful country,” Jim said. “There are places to learn that you wouldn’t expect.”

Ilene, a Denver native and graduate of North High School, said the couple took their first trip with Road Scholar to Silver City, New Mexico, 33 years ago this month. On the drive, they listened to the Broncos play their first Superbowl on the radio.

Before their first trip with the nonprofit, Ilene said Jim would collect travel magazines or keep stories on places he was interested in from the New York Times.

“He would save them in stacks, and he’d go through them and he’s say ‘Oh, let’s do this,’ and ‘What do you think of that?’ And we would just go,” Ilene said. “We’re not tourists, we’re travelers and students. We travel to learn.”

In their decades of travel, the Thompsons have seen museums and theater performances across the country. In their younger years, Ilene said they would do more active trips, including a boat trip to Antarctica and bus rides from Arizona to Mexico. They have also traveled by train through Canada and Australia. They enjoy nature trips, museum and theater trips, and trips that allow their grandkids to tag along.

“We’re eclectic,” Ilene said. “We like all kinds of programs.”

Jim will typically go through the catalogs first and make notes of which programs interest him. He likes to plan for trips about six months in advance. Ilene then goes through and they’ll agree on which ones they both want to do.

New technology like Uber and car-share apps have also made travel easier. On one of their recent trips, the Road Scholar group did a city tour by the public bus system. Jim and Ilene didn’t want to hold people up as they loaded and unloaded from the bus each time, so they got the itinerary beforehand and used Uber to meet people at the different locations.

The couple has always like to learn, even outside of travel. The pair worked in insurance and are only semi-retired, Ilene said. They still have clients call for help on occasion, even though they have passed their business down to younger employees.

Despite their age, the two are still sharp mentally. The key to keeping a young mind, Jim said, is learning.

“As you get older you get more concerned about mental, Alzheimer’s and whatever,” Jim said. “If you keep active intellectually you don’t have the mental decay that unfortunately hits us all at sometime.”

The couple said they both enjoy traveling with Road Scholar because of the support the nonprofit provides its travelers. If there’s ever issues with connecting flights, Road Scholar has helped them reschedule, Jim said. They now travel through the company about once a month. They both said they enjoy the company’s programs because there’s no planning involved — they just have to show up.

The nonprofit also makes it easy for the Thompsons to pick their trips. They receive catalogs with preset trips, which have activity meters to show how physical each one is. Since Jim now uses a walker to get around, the couple is more selective about where they go. They recently stopped doing international trips because they find it easier to get around cities in the United States.

On Road Scholar trips you are also more likely to meet other people that are excited about learning, the two said. Jim said he enjoys the content that the lecturers put together, and in all their years using the program, they have only gone on one trip that had the exact same programming, despite making return visits.

“You met interesting people that were nice to be with,” Ilene said. “You learn something from the peer group.”


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