Osher Foundation money is biggest one-time cash gift

Southern Oregon University's continuing education program for retirees has netted a $1 million endowment, the largest one-time cash gift ever received by the SOU Foundation, university officials said.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University got the endowment from The Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco, capping off two previous years of financial support from the Osher Foundation.

"The program at Southern Oregon University has been very strong for many years," said David Blazevich, senior program officer for the Osher Foundation. "They were able to invest the Osher funds in enhancing and expanding their program, and given the good work they were doing, we wanted to reward them."

The endowment will provide continuing revenue — an estimated $50,000 annually — for the program, which got its start in 1993 as Southern Oregon Learning in Retirement, said Bernie Hartman, a group member and past president who helped forge the link with the Osher Foundation.

Hartman, a retired professor and administrator from Duquesne University, took a volunteer leadership role in the SOU senior-education program and spearheaded a committee in 2005 to evaluate its needs.

"The list was lengthy and expensive," he said.

So Hartman turned to the Internet to look for possible grant funding.

"Thank God for Google," he said, noting that a search for "learning in retirement" showed the Osher Foundation was a top supporter of such programs around the country, funding about 100 of them at that time.

Hartman wrote to the foundation. Blazevich said the foundation was familiar with the SOU program because it had hosted other Osher-supported, senior-education groups from around the country when they attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"We knew of their excellence," Blazevich said.

In 2007, the Osher Foundation provided a $100,000 grant, renewable for up to three years and culminating in a chance at the $1 million sustaining endowment. SOLIR changed its name to OLLI, upgraded video and computer technology, rented additional space on SOU's Ashland campus and made its sole employee a full-time coordinator.

When the second $100,000 arrived in 2008, the program expanded to Medford. Since adding courses in September at the Higher Education Center shared by SOU and Rogue Community College in downtown Medford, the program has gained members from Grants Pass, Eagle Point, Butte Falls and Medford. It now has about 920 members — up from about 660 in 2007 — who each pay $100 a year to take classes taught by volunteers in a variety of disciplines — from strenuously academic to personal enrichment to just plain fun, said Anne Bellegia, an OLLI member and volunteer spokeswoman. Spring term, which starts March 30, offers 74 classes, she noted.

"It's an opportunity for personal growth," she said.

The Osher Foundation also gave SOU $50,000 in 2008 for scholarships for nontraditional students returning to college after a significant break in their studies.

Education is a primary focus of the foundation, which also supports alternative medicine research, the foundation Web site notes. The foundation now funds 123 lifelong-learning institutes, but, after a roughly five-year expansion phase, is now focused on making sure the programs are sustained, Blazevich said.

Bernard Osher, a native of Maine, got his start in business in his family's hardware and plumbing supply store, then went on to success in banking, investing and the operation of a fine-art auction house. He ranked 746 on Forbes' 2006 list of the world's wealthiest people and was named to Business Week's 50 most generous philanthropists lists in 2007 and 2008. In addition to The Bernard Osher Foundation, he and his wife, Barbro Osher, Consul General for Sweden in San Francisco, have foundations to support Jewish and Swedish causes.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.