Each summer, Jim Oelschlager ignores the grades on the report cards and invests $125,000 in high school seniors.
After 44 years of successfully wagering billions of dollars through his Akron investment management firm, Oak Associates Inc., Oelschlager sees something in each student that can’t be interpreted by sifting through test scores and transcripts.
“Maybe the kid’s not living up to his potential,” said Oelschlager, whose philanthropic donations are funding the 12th annual Oelschlager Summer Leadership Institute (OSLI).
In those 12 years, the weeklong leadership residency program, which began Friday at the University of Akron, has served 478 students from 150 high schools across Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where Oelschlager and his wife of 20 years enjoy a summer vacation home.
This year, 12 of the program’s 48 students were selected by guidance counselors and teachers from Ellet, Hoban, Firestone, St. Vincent-St. Mary, Copley, Revere, Green and Coventry. Admission into the weeklong leadership camp is limited to students who have a GPA lower than 3.0, or a B average. The students must, however, exhibit an earnest desire to learn and do good.
That desire is measured in community service and participation in school activities. Oelschlager and program facilitators at UA tap into that potential for students who might not get the chance to participate in “life-changing” leadership programs.
“They fall down and get forgotten,” Marie-Paule Scanlon said of hardworking students like her daughter. “She doesn’t see herself as smart.”
The Pennsylvania woman said her daughter has to work hard to achieve average grades that college admission workers scoff at.
“She can only see her goal for tomorrow,” Scanlon said.
Try as she might, she doesn’t “shine.” And, like so many other students lost in the middle of the academic spectrum, programs for gifted and talented students aren’t available to her.
And so “they may fall through the crack,” Oelschlager said.
Most scholarships are merit- based. And most leadership programs cater to the brightest minds. But the Oelschlagers focus their philanthropy on a different kind of student: those with potential for greatness who lack the educational aptitude or financial means to reach their goals.
Since he took his first big account managing Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.’s $250 million pension fund in 1969, Oelslager has spent his life making millions on underperforming — and often underestimated — assets.
“Akron is where I made my money, and it’s appropriate to give back to the community,” said Oelschlager, who has donated millions to Akron Children’s Hospital and UA over the years.
It’s a generational investment that should continue to pay off long after he’s “pushing up daffodils.”
“The good that we’ve done, we’ll never see. We won’t be around,” said the 70-year-old, who added that it wasn’t his idea to attach his name to the leadership institute.
Helping children and promoting education is a family affair for the Oelschlagers. His wife writes children’s books and is a resident author at UA. She resigned her position as a teacher so she could take care of her husband, who was diagnosed with a progressive multiple sclerosis in 1973 and uses a wheelchair.
Forty years later, the Akron businessman said he doesn’t know how to spell “retire.” Since he made his first investment at 12 years old, using proceeds from a paper route to purchase stock in General Motors, he’s found something that he will forever enjoy.
That’s what he hopes each student who completes OSLI can one day say.
Those who know him say he’s a humble man who doesn’t take ownership of the hundreds of success stories that have come from OSLI’s 12 years of graduates.
“I just foot the bill. That’s the easy part,” Oelschlager said, commending UA mentors who run the program.
For the majority of the past three years, that’s been the pro bono pleasure of two people: Aysen Ulupinar-Butzer and Brandon Mikulski, who both work in campus life and housing at UA.
Ulupinar-Butzer said each December, the leadership institute is retooled and expanded, building on programming that worked the year before and accepting more students than ever.
Those students are separated from their parents for a week to undergo an intensive program — an Aeros game after leadership-building seminars on Saturday, followed by team-building and problem-solving exercises on Sunday after a morning campus tour.
Icebreaker exercises on Monday form trust and friendships that program graduates say continue during and after college.
“That’s when the students become a family,” Ulupinar-Butzer said of the “transformational” icebreakers. “They will share things about themselves that their best friends don’t know.”
On Wednesday, former Buckeyes football coach and UA Vice President of Strategic Engagement Jim Tressel will speak to them about philanthropy, laying the groundwork for a day of community service. The students then travel to Access, a homeless shelter for women and children.
“Most of them don’t have dads in their lives,” 2012 OSLI graduate Ryan Cutlip remembered about that trip. Cutlip and other graduates have continued community service efforts because of the time they spent at the Summit County homeless shelter.
“I learned more from [the kids there] than they learned from me,” Cutlip said. “They’re still smiling and couldn’t have a care in the world. They’ve got it rough and they look at the bright side of life.”
By Thursday, the last day of the program, most graduates describe OSLI in the same way.
“Life-changing,” said Christine Carley, one of last year’s graduates. “I know it’s cliché, but it was just a really good experience.”
Carley entered OSLI as a junior with a 2.8 GPA and graduated this spring with a 3.5 GPA. She’s attending Kent State University’s Stark campus in the fall. She hopes to be a speech pathologist, helping children.
“After going to OSLI, I knew it was something that I had to do. I had to know where I want to be five or six years down the road,” Carley said.
Each of the 48 OSLI students graduating this year receives a $500 scholarship to be used for college expenses. As an incentive to enroll at UA, the university also waives admission fees for program graduates.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.