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OLLI gets $1 million grant — again

ASHLAND — The 1,300-student Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has received a second $1 million grant from its namesake foundation to continue offering classes in Ashland and Medford, drawing older people into studies in everything from art, dance and film to investment, travel and literature.

Formerly called SOLIR — Southern Oregon Learning in Retirement — the program, headquartered at Southern Oregon University, changed its name to OLLI in 2007, when it received first two $100,000 grants, then $1 million from the Bernard Osher Foundation.

Since then, OLLI has doubled the number of students, tripled the number of classes to more than 100 and expanded to the Higher Education Center in Medford, where it holds 20 percent of its classes. It has kept its tuition fees at the same low rate of $100 a year regardless of the number of classes a person takes, says Lucy Strasburg, president of the OLLI council.

"It's the best deal around," says Strasburg, "and the grant letter from Osher summed it up, that this is a wonderful community of intellectually vigorous people. We have all kinds of students, from captains of industry to little old ladies, like I will be someday."

The agreement with the Osher Foundation was that a second million would be added to the endowment if the program was thriving — and it is, said Jeanne Stallman, executive director of Outreach and Engagement Programs at SOU.

The foundation is based in San Francisco and was created in 1977 by Bernard Osher, a businessman and community leader.

The first million provides an income of $50,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on the health of the stock market — and, remarkably, Stallman adds, it has done well since it was invested by the SOU Foundation at the nadir of the market in 2009. The second million is expected to add about the same to the budget, which also receives membership money and donations and has revenues totalling up to $350,000 a year, she said.

"I feel so proud of our association with OLLI and what we've achieved," she said.

"Unlike other (SOU) programs, this one is member-driven, not by me as executive director. It's an elected council with volunteer teachers and a couple of paid employees. It's about people contributing — and members feel a great love for the organization."

Past OLLI president Cliff Edwards, retired from business management and strategic planning with Mobil Oil, was a key player in landing the grants and notes that Osher's philosophy has been hands-off, essentially saying, "Here's the money, run it as you desire and do your best."

The OLLI council submits an annual report to the Osher Foundation. Their success with enrollment, quality classes and membership income were deciding factors, he said, in winning the additional $1 million grant.

Edwards said his favorite courses, as a student, have been about astronomy, Supreme Court decisions and the history of Persia. Strasburg's have been on geology of this region and investing in today's economy. Stallman says the investing class is probably the most popular one in OLLI.

"The Osher Foundation is so strongly supportive of OLLI," SOU President Mary Cullinan said in a press release. "They recognize the truly outstanding work that OLLI and SOU are doing together. In providing $2 million to OLLI in the last three years, the Osher Foundation underscores the importance of lifelong learning and adult learners to our university and our southern Oregon communities."

In addition to the key purpose of learning and stimulating the mind in later decades — the program has students from their 50s to 90s — it serves an important second purpose, said Edwards, of creating "a social atmosphere that gets people together and some people say it's why they get up in the morning."

OLLI has three terms and is exploring adding a summer term. OLLI's winter term starts Jan. 3. To see the class schedule or to register or propose a class, see www.sou.edu/olli.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.