Bernard Osher

The man behind the Osher program

May 1, 2012

By George Pangburn

Who is Bernard Osher? What does he do? What led him to found the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute? As we go about our various classes and other activities at the Osher program here at the University of Richmond, we may or may not ask ourselves these questions, but it is instructive to learn something about the man so that we might more fully appreciate the gift that we have been given.

Bernard Osher was born in 1927 in Biddeford, Maine. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Russia who raised five children, ran a hardware business and invested in real estate. His parents were strong believers in education and in giving back and inculcated those beliefs in their children starting at an early age.

After attending Bowdoin College in Maine, Osher went on to manage his parents’ business. He later worked at Oppenheimer and Oppenheimer in New York before moving to the Bay Area of California in 1963. There, along with his sister Marion and her husband, he successfully managed a financial institution—World Savings—that over the next 40 years became the second-largest savings institution in the United States. During those years, Osher also was successful in the art business. He purchased Butterfield and Butterfield, a fine art auction house, in 1970. Under his management it grew to become the fourth largest such auction house in the world. He sold it to eBay in 1999. He and his partners then sold World Savings to Wachovia Bank in 2006 for over $20 billion.  

Osher’s financial success in business afforded him the opportunity to support those things he loved the most. To accomplish that, he established the Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977. He had a passion for education and the arts and, through the Osher Foundation, established the Osher Scholars and Fellowship Program, the Osher Reentry Scholarship progam, arts and education programs in the Bay Area and the State of Maine, Osher Integrative Medical Programs, and the Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI).

His inspiration for OLLI came from the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, which was organized at the University of San Francisco in 1976, as well as from the Senior College at the University of Southern Maine. These programs offered opportunities for seasoned or mature learners who were not so much seeking to gain college credits or enhance career skills, but were interested in learning for its own sake. In 2001, the Foundation offered an endowment grant to Senior College at USM (which became the first Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) and to Sonoma State College, a member of the California State University system.

The successes of the OLLI programs at these two institutions led the Osher Foundation in 2002 to expand its financial support for lifelong learning first to other colleges and universities in California, and then nationwide. The Foundation would typically provide an initial grant of $100,000 to a requesting college or university to develop a program of courses for mature adults and, based on performance of that program, would consider an endowment grant to that institution of at least one million dollars. At present, the Foundation supports 117 OLLI programs in the United States, with at least one in each State and the District of Columbia. 

Bernard Osher has been characterized as the “quiet philanthropist.” He pledged to give away most of his wealth to charity during his lifetime or after his death. Through the Foundation he has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the educational programs that the foundation supports. Bernard Osher continues to live in the San Francisco area, where he engages in his other passions: opera, art and fly-fishing.