(Tip of the hate to Osher for his continuing generosity and for his recognition of the important role community colleges play in our democratic society. Where are the Kentucky Philanthropists? Our state legislature continues to bury their heads in the ground as the KY education system spins down the toilet. Article courtesy of Teresa Webb.)
Quiet philanthropist Osher donates $70 million to state's community colleges
By Kevin Yamamura
The quiet philanthropist stood beside the movie-star governor Tuesday to celebrate the Bernard Osher Foundation's unprecedented $70 million donation to California community college students.
Bernard Osher, 80, was too modest to address the crowd gathered in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Capitol office for a donation ceremony. He remained calm and respectful, always standing to the side of the podium.
But as students snapped pictures of Schwarzenegger afterward, Osher beamed about how his latest education gift could help generations of students.
"These people don't have any money, the poor people that are going to these colleges, and it makes a tremendous amount of difference," Osher said. "When you get these letters, you realize what you're doing. So $150 might not mean much to you, but to them, going to school and being able to buy books makes the total difference."
The San Francisco-based Osher Foundation has committed $50 million toward an endowment to pay for scholarships for the state's poorest community college students starting in 2009. That money will pay for $1,000 awards to defray the costs of textbooks, lab fees and other items beyond registration fees. An additional $20 million gift is dedicated toward scholarships for students who transfer to four-year California schools.
Osher grew up in Biddeford, Maine, as the son of working-class immigrants from Russia and Lithuania. His parents owned a hardware and plumbing store, where he worked with his siblings before attending Maine's prestigious Bowdoin College.
He co-founded Golden West Financial Corp., parent company of World Savings Bank, which was sold to Wachovia Bank in 2006 for $24 billion. An avid collector of American art whose collection includes works by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, Osher bought the San Francisco-based auction house Butterfield & Butterfield in 1970. He sold it to eBay in 1999 for $260 million.
BusinessWeek last year named Osher the 11th most generous philanthropist in the world. The magazine estimated his lifetime giving at $805 million.
Since establishing his foundation in 1977, Osher has focused on establishing scholarship and lifetime learning programs at colleges and universities. He also has made significant contributions to fine arts institutions, including the San Francisco Opera, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Osher is not a heavy political giver compared to several other Californians of comparable wealth, though he does contribute widely to Democratic causes and candidates, federal and state records show. His biggest state contribution was $250,000 to back a stem-cell research initiative voters approved in 2004.
Osher Foundation President Mary Bitterman said Tuesday that Osher "does not like to speak or to be recognized," but that he tells her every day that the foundation needs to "focus, focus, focus" – at least when they are not listening to opera in the office.
Toyia Copeland, 38, said she was laid off a few years ago from a job working for the YMCA, prompting her to go back to school. She received an Osher scholarship to the City College of San Francisco and graduated last year with an associate degree in culinary arts. She now attends San Francisco State University, while her 18-year-old daughter, Kezia Nelson, is finishing her first year at City College.
"More than receiving the gift and the scholarship for the textbooks, I'm just pleased that someone believed in me and cared enough to share their good fortune with me," Copeland said.
The donation comes as the state faces a deficit that Schwarzenegger has warned could be as large as $20 billion starting July 1, which could force cuts in schools and colleges. The Osher donation is not intended to offset the impacts of state funding problems but rather to spark an interest in giving to community colleges.
Osher said he does not know Schwarzenegger personally, though the governor lobbied the philanthropist through Charlotte Shultz, a mutual friend and the governor's chief of protocol. When he was a young bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger attended Santa Monica College, where he said he learned about economics and politics after taking English language classes.
"And I think that's why I'm such a big believer in community colleges, because when I first came over here I went to Santa Monica College to learn English," Schwarzenegger said. "Not that it is perfect, may I remind you, but nevertheless it did help."
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