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ASU mourns the loss of J. Orin Edson, philanthropist and entrepreneur

Gifts from Edson and his wife have increased opportunities for student entrepreneurship, health education and dementia research


J. Orin Edson smiling on his yacht
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August 29, 2019

J. Orin Edson built his first boat when he was just a kid boating around Lake Washington.

After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, Edson pursued his boating interest in his garage and started a small company that he eventually built up into Bayliner Marine Corp. Four decades later, he sold the largest manufacturer of luxury boats.

Edson died Aug. 27 at the age of 87, but his name and legacy live on at Arizona State University.

Edson — who developed a luxury boat company on his desire, talent and keen entrepreneurial sense — made a gift to ASU to help future generations of students do the same thing. In 2005, Edson gave ASU $5.4 million to create the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

The gift formed an endowment that gives ASU students the opportunity to pursue their creative and business goals by providing seed money to help them along in their entrepreneurial quests. The awards are for any type of business — ranging from high-tech for-profit startups to nonprofit public-sector ventures. The endowed initiative was designed to spur innovative thought and entrepreneurial spirit in ASU students by providing them the means to pursue their business ideas.

“Orin Edson represented the quintessential entrepreneur, a man who applied his talent, creativity and intellectual curiosity to his life’s passion and became a leader in every sense of the word,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “Orin embraced the challenges and fulfillment in entrepreneurship and philanthropy and through his gifts — both tangible and intangible — empowered ASU students and researchers to bring their game-changing visions to life. Sybil and I will miss his friendship.”

The Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative set the standard for entrepreneurial programs nationwide by providing students with the knowledge, skills and real-world experiences for entrepreneurial marketplace success.

The gift geared toward entrepreneurship was just the beginning of his generosity to ASU. Edson and his wife, Charlene, made a $50 million gift that was announced in March and split evenly among two programs with a focus on health care. The gift renamed the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and established The Grace Center for Innovation in Nursing Education (named for Charlene’s mother, who was a nurse) to enhance education and training for nurses and caregivers. The other half of the gift benefited the Biodesign Institute for research on causes and cures of dementia, as well as tools to manage the disease. 

Sybil Francis, president and CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona and standing co-chair and co-founder of the ASU Foundation's Women & Philanthropy, worked closely with the Edsons. She and husband Crow have known the Edsons for more than 15 years.

“Orin was a wonderful friend to me and to Michael, and we will miss him very much,” Francis said. “We were honored by the trust and confidence he placed in us and by his belief in the mission and impact of Arizona State University. Along with his wife, Charlene, his inspired and generous gift to ASU is transforming the university’s impact in carrying out its commitment to caring for the communities it serves.”

The research and education made possible by the Edsons' gifts to ASU will help others for generations to come.

“The generosity of Orin Edson not only helped students pursue their dreams, but also advanced ASU by providing real-world experiences to our students,” said ASU Foundation CEO Gretchen Buhlig. “Orin’s contributions to our university were indispensable and will be remembered for years to come. In all, the Edsons have donated more than $65 million to ASU.”

Edson is survived by his wife and two sons.

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