When it comes to new ventures, Ed Stolman is as eclectic as they come.
Back in 1982, he helped launch the Dove ice cream bar. Then a decade ago, the Glen Ellen resident went into the olive oil business. Most recently, he started a lifelong learning program for older students.
Along with being its creator, the 77-year-old businessman is one of the most avid participants in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University.
"I've taken [classes] every semester," said Stolman, who was awarded an honorary degree on May 31 from Sonoma State in recognition of his efforts in forming the institute.
Just wrapping up its second year, the program drew some 845 students ages 50 and older this year to courses on topics ranging from Hollywood musicals and geology to Beethoven and the California prison system.
"I feel that people must continue their learning," said Stolman. "Just like you must exercise to stay healthy, I feel you have to exercise your mind also."
The Sonoma State program is modeled after the S.F.-based Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, where Stolman was a student before moving to the Sonoma County community of Glen Ellen.
Meeting one day with SSU President Ruben Arminana, Stolman suggested the idea of a similar center at Sonoma State. The response was "OK. Go ahead and do it," recounted Stolman.
So he did.
In another fortuitous conversation, Stolman casually mentioned his new project to a friend, philanthropist Bernard Osher. The result was a $100,000 grant for three consecutive years and, this spring, a $1 million contribution to the center's endowment.
In recognition of that gift, the institute was recently named in honor of Osher, who also funds a number of local Jewish institutions and programs.
"I had no idea," that Osher would financially support the institute, Stolman said. "We were just chatting about it."
A former board member of the Jewish Museum San Francisco, Stolman headed a hospital management company based in Nashville before moving to California. While in Nashville, he served on the board of his Reform congregation. He is now a member of Congregation Beth Sholom, an independent synagogue in Napa.
In the early 1980s, he helped introduce the Dove Bar, which was originally created by a small Chicago candymaker. In 1984, he sold the enterprise to M&M/Mars.
He moved to California in 1986 and eventually settled in Glen Ellen. "I didn't want to grow grapes like everyone else does," he said. He decided instead to plant olive trees and traveled to Italy to buy 1,000 of them.
Seven years ago, he opened a store called the Olive Press, where he makes olive oil and presses olives for other growers.
"I'm loving the olive oil business," he said. "I now have 1,400 trees that I look at every day."
By his estimates, he's taken 16 classes in the lifelong learning institute since its inception in the fall of 2001. Last semester, he took a course on the California prison system taught by the warden of San Quentin.
With no grades or exams, "you just learn for the pleasure of learning," said Stolman. Most classes are taught by emeritus professors. Fellow students, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s, are largely college educated.
The title of the class is less important to Stolman than the learning he soaks up inside. "Usually I pick Thursday" as his day to go to school. "I'm really going to learn whatever there is to learn."