A California financier emerges as one of the nation’s most prolific philanthropists
Bernard Osher, called the ‘quiet giver,’ donates large sums to education and the arts.
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Among those in that growing category of people is Geoffrey Mitchell, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. Geoffrey’s high school, the charter Leadership High School in San Francisco, nominated him for an Osher-backed program that provides low-income students $32,000 to attend Berkeley for four years. Geoffrey is studying wildlife ecology and biology, and hopes to find ways to raise awareness of the environment among minorities.Skip to next paragraph
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“Without the scholarship, I couldn’t go to college,” says Geoffrey, who, along with his twin sister, was adopted and raised by a single mother.
The UC Berkeley Incentive Awards Program, which has propelled Geoffrey to new places, has dispensed some $43 million to similarly low-income high school students over its 15-year existence. The single largest donor has been Osher, who has pumped $16 million into the initiative. “If there was ever a founding parent of the program, you’d have to say it was Osher,” says Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs at Berkeley.
Born in Biddeford, Maine, Osher managed the family’s hardware and plumbing-supply business before a stint on Wall Street at Oppenheimer & Company. From there, he migrated west and was a founding director of World Savings, which grew into one of the largest savings institutions in the country before being merged recently with Wachovia Corporation.
Though Osher and his four siblings went to college, his immigrant parents from Russia and Lithuania never had the opportunity. Osher never forgot that and notes: “I decided early on to support scholarships for people who desired education but had severely limited financial resources.”
Nearly 80 percent of Osher Foundation grants have gone to educational programs. While they vary, they all have in common the goal of making learning, in its broadest sense, possible for individuals who often don’t have the opportunity. These include students from low-income families, like Geoffrey, young adults who have left school to work or raise families and would like to return, as well as older adults who are interested in learning for its own sake.
Among students over 50, Osher has had an enormous impact. About 400 lifelong learning institutes exist in the US and Canada, most of them affiliated with colleges and universities. These noncredit, fee-based programs are often part of the community-outreach programs of universities, and thus vulnerable to cuts or even elimination during tough times. Yet Osher has made grants of more than $77 million to this field, establishing or strengthening 121 such programs across the country. His initial foray is revealing about the way he works.