PROVO — Laughter erupted around a table outside the Cougareat food court Thursday when Terry and Toni Robinette learned the beloved BYU brownies they were finishing were two of 27,360 brownies prepared on campus for Education Week.
The 92nd year of one of America's largest continuing education programs drew about 19,500 people to campus this week. Terry quickly did some simple math.
"We've eaten way more than our fair share," he said with a broad smile, then promised to eat more before week's end.
This was the second year in a row the Robinettes were in Provo with the Struebings, their close friends of about 35 years. After the two couples retired last year from their jobs Apple Valley, California, they knew they wanted to do at least two things — finally visit Jerusalem and attend Education Week each year.
So last year, the four attended the Education Week classes by Matthew Grey, a BYU professor and expert on archaeology and ancient Judaism. "What we learned really enlightened our experience in the Holy Land," Toni Robinette said.
Some of the demographics could stereotype Education Week, like the 49 percent of classes devoted to religion, or the 48 percent of attendees who are 55 or older, like the Struebings and Robinettes.
There really is something for everybody. In fact, 10 percent of the crowd is teenagers.
"There are things for youth, for newlyweds, for young couples with kids, and classes about blending families, dealing with distressed marriages and coping with divorce," George Struebing said.
And the more than 1,000 classes, which last 55 minutes, range from ballroom dancing for teens to financial planning, and from gardening, parenting, leadership and literature to addiction recovery.
Marriage and family therapist Richard Miller, who is also a professor in BYU's school of family life, taught a class Tuesday through Friday at 9:50 a.m. called "Healing Distressed Marital Relationships."
On Tuesday, he focused on commitment — should the distressed marriage be repaired or totaled? Wednesday's class was about changing momentum with positive attitudes and attributions. On Thursday, Miller talked about forgiveness, first separating the hurts and injustices in marriages between two categories: major betrayals and pile-ups of relatively minor mistakes.
Forgiveness, he said, is not forgetting, or having to stay in a bad relationship, or never having flashback days. It is being able to let go of anger about what happened, putting it behind you, feeling empathy for and seeing positive and good qualities about your spouse.
Several dozen people attended the class, and many approached Miller afterward with thorny questions about their personal situations.
For campus staff and departments, Education Week is boon and, most admit, bother. The BYU Bookstore and Dining Services count on the revenue generated, but nobody enjoys the traffic and parking problems.
"Our five biggest weeks each year," bookstore sales manager Gordon Brown said, "are Education Week, back to school in the fall, Christmas, back to school in the winter and Women's Conference in the spring."
Brown has worked at the bookstore since 1981. He said Education Week buyers want BYU Cougars memorabilia and apparel, and books and art related to the beliefs and teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And candy. And fudge.
In the days before Education Week, a kitchen underneath the bookstore fills with trays of fudge. Brown didn't have Education Week-specific stats, but he said the bookstore sells more than a ton — 2,200 pounds, to be exact — of chocolate-covered cinnamon bears during the annual, two-day Women's Conference.
Education Week attendance peaked a decade ago, but it's holding steady just above or just below 20,000 guests and a few thousand fewer people eases congestion.
"I think we're at a pretty comfortable level around 20,000," Education Week program administrator Bruce Payne said. "We're at a level now with the venues being pretty packed everywhere without a lot of people being turned away from classes."
Back at the bookstore, Brown said the numbers are just about right.
"We love having all the guests here," Brown said. "It's an exciting time. You get people from all over the country. We've had times when the numbers were so high you couldn't move around in the aisles of the store. We miss the income from those days, but it's a better experience for our guests."
Those who come rate the program highly. Annual surveys show 85 percent say Education Week is excellent and 14 percent call it good. "Six out of 6,000 said it was poor last year," Payne said.
The biggest complaint? Parking.
Payne is pushing to get people to use the 1,600 mostly open spaces west of LaVell Edwards Stadium. Shuttles take people from that lot to the center of campus.
The Struebings and Robinettes used the lot for the first time this week and were converted.
Education Week is a boon for other campus departments. It helps BYU Dining Services transition from a summer of sports camps and Especially for Youth weeks to the coming school year. He brings some students who will work in the fall back early to train and help.
Still, the lack of a full complement of student workers increases the degree of difficulty of staffing the week. An audience that eats differently from college students — healthier, except for the brownies — also creates some differences, executive chef John McDonald said.
Education Week also includes special events. The Struebings won tickets to a special screening of the new LDS documentary "Meet the Mormons," which doesn't reach theaters until October.
The bookstore hosts multiple authors and artists, who sign their works. Thursday, about a dozen artists handed out free prints while selling and signing other pieces. Some premiered new works, like a painting of Jesus Christ with children by Jay Bryant Ward, whose nativity scene has appeared on the cover of the Ensign and Catholic Digest.
"There's a tremendous mix of the practical and the spiritual," said Terry Robinette, a retired physical therapist. His wife and the Struebings were school teachers in California, where the couples raised their children together.
The Struebings relocated to New Harmony, Utah, and stay in the Robinettes' Park City, Utah, home during Education Week.
"You know why we're here?" George Struebing asked. "We're here because we planned for retirement, which a lot of Baby Boomers didn't. That's a lesson a lot of people could learn, and you can take a class on it here at Education Week."1 comment on this story
It's ironic that Liane Struebing and Toni Robinette never met when they were poor, starving students at Weber State University at the same time. They had to move to California to become fast friends.
"The beginnings were humble," Toni said.
"We're no longer starving," Terry agreed with a mischievous smile, "but if you watched the way we eat brownies here, you'd think we were."