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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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From a distance, the philanthropic world can look much like the for-profit world. The metrics that seem to matter most are the numbers. Big is good. Bigger is better.

However, inside the foundations and other organizations dispensing grants, the measurement that brings the most satisfaction often runs not to the bottom line but directly to people like the single mother in southern California who was able to attend a university only because of a foundation-provided scholarship.

“Your generosity has touched not only my life, but the lives of my children,” the woman concluded in a letter to the Osher Foundation, which made her return to college for a final semester financially possible.

The man behind this act of “generosity,” and many others, is Bernard Osher, a former banker who has a passion for the arts, fly-fishing, and, in his eighth decade, is taking weekly piano lessons. He says the thing he enjoys most about sharing his life’s earnings through the foundation he began in 1977 is the gratitude expressed by recipients.

“Reading their letters is the high point of each day,” he says.

Mr. Osher has been called the “quiet philanthropist,” a reference seemingly rooted in his New England background and general lack of pretense. His philanthropic giving has gone on for decades, some of it publicly visible and some of it anonymous and without ceremony.

The “quiet” label has stuck, and it seemed perfectly apt at a ceremony earlier this year when Osher appeared alongside California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gratefully accepted a pledge of $70 million in scholarship grants for the state’s community college students. Watching respectfully from beside the podium as the governor praised the donation, Osher declined to address those gathered.

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