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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Osher let it be known in 2000 that he was interested in supporting a lifelong learning program at the University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland. So a meeting was set with a university vice president and Kali Lightfoot, who was then director of USM’s Senior College.Skip to next paragraph
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“We were expecting maybe a grant of $100,000. At the meeting he was very nice and cordial,” recalls Ms. Lightfoot. “At one point he stepped outside to talk with the vice president and at the end of the meeting he said, ‘OK, I’ll give you a $2 million endowment.” As an initial jump into new waters, the Osher commitment was stunning. “They took a huge risk,” says Lightfoot.
Ron Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, says Osher has been a “catalyst” for a surge in lifelong learning programs across the country. In addition, says Mr. Manheimer, the loose network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes has the potential for generating knowledge about best practices in the field. Indeed, Osher helped set up the National Resource Center at the University of Southern Maine in 2004 to do just that. Lightfoot is now the center’s director.
Any discussion of Osher would be incomplete without mention of his devotion to the arts, which receive about 17 percent of the foundation’s funding. For instance, Osher underwrites the PBS series “From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall,” which features young classical musicians. Osher says he has been drawn to music since childhood. His purchase of the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in 1970 heightened his interest in the visual arts, from which support of museum and other arts groups has flowed.
Yet even in the arts, Osher puts a strong emphasis on education. For instance, he has backed a program run by the San Francisco Symphony to strengthen music programs in public schools. The Opus program brings music instruction and supplies – everything from bows to sheet music – to 75 percent of the city’s public middle and high schools.
Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, began working with Osher in 1999. “He’s a guy devoted to education, more specifically, hands-on education,” says Mr. Assink. “Barney Osher is just a great example of how much fun it can be to remain intellectually curious. He seems to thoroughly enjoy life and especially thinking about how he can make a difference.”