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Mary and Dick Holland
Mary and Dick Holland. photo by Joe Mixan

Sharing The Wealth

by Warren Francke

March 2005

In the 1930s, "a child of the Depression," Dick Holland walked the nine blocks to Washington School from 5851 Pine St, the only place he'd ever lived. He still lived there when he returned from World War II, matured by military service, but now strolling 60th Street and cutting through Elmwood Park to Omaha University.

The man who didn't own a car as he headed to art classes would have enough money from his advertising business, "plus a substantial amount from his wife, Mary," to join the fortunate few who invested with Warren Buffett in the 1960s. "Mary and I made some very successful investments," he says, then modifying the understatement: "Enormously successful."

One version of Buffett's "Oracle of Omaha" story says $10,000 at the start (less than the Hollands invested) grew to roughly $280 million. In return, Dick introduced Buffett to Charlie Munger, a church friend who chanced to walk by the Holland residence one day on a visit from California.  He was invited to a Holland party where he met Buffett and ended up as his sidekick and successor.

Court of Honor

Dick wore a tuxedo for the walk he took on a recent October evening at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball, arm in arm with Mary, the woman he married soon after graduation from Omaha U. in 1948. With five grandchildren looking on and three daughters beside them, they shared the promenade with four escorts during the couple's induction into the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor. The escorts represented causes to which the Hollands have devoted considerable time, talent and treasure: the Performing Arts Society, Child Saving Institute, Winners Circle and All Our Kids.

Omaha's $90-million Performing Arts Center will open in the fall of 2005 bearing the names of Richard and Mary Holland, whose multi-million-dollar grant made it possible. They won't specify that amount or total giving from the Holland Foundation, which recently stood at $43 million after disbursing many large donations.

Recipients of such gifts insist his generosity is matched by his humility. "So down-to-earth, so real, not even one little bit of pretentiousness," one admirer said. Donna Tubach-Davis, now retired as head of the Child Saving Institute, adds, "If the world were made up of Hollands, it would be a much better place."

Dick recently wrote a six-figure check fully endowing the Robert T. Reilly Chair, honoring his former partner in Holland, Dreves and Reilly Advertising. The gift made that Communication School professorship among the most rewarding on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.

The late Bob Reilly left his children a one-word summary of Dick Holland: "integrity."

Home Roots

The Hollands now live a few blocks south of Pacific on 80th Street, straight west of his boyhood home, not far from her Dundee birthplace near Brownell Hall. Dick graduated from Central High School, Mary from Brownell before attending Mills College in California. "We wouldn't think of leaving Omaha," she emphasizes. They depart only for a few winter months in Arizona.

Richard Dean Holland was born on July 2, 1921, and grew up with three siblings on that Pine Street acreage. "We had fruit trees, gardens and a playground—a football field and miniature golf," he recalls.

His father, Lewis Holland, moved from London to Omaha in 1911, stopping in Canada long enough to learn that he didn't want to spend his summers working in wheat fields. A talented artist, the senior Holland became advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture, then formed his own ad agency, where he was succeeded by his son.

His youngest boy didn't aim straight for dad's business. At Central, he tried things he didn't really care for—math and science—and majored in chemistry at Omaha U. before the war.

He had always been drawing, winning an art contest before high school graduation in 1938. Wartime duty as an officer in the chemical corps convinced him he wasn't cut out to be a chemical engineer, so he majored in art on return to Omaha U.

He met Mary at a party and gave up thoughts of applying for art study in New York City. He needed to make money "if I was going to keep her in even half the style to which she was accustomed."

Still, he winces at the motto beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: "To have money and a business in art and advertising." Dick declares the words "tasteless," a Depression byproduct. That same annual headlined another theme: "The returned vet . . . his serious attitude."

Pre-war, his older brothers and sister outshined him in the classroom. Postwar, "My mother nearly fell over when I made the dean's list."

Not that he was all business at Omaha U. He found time to arm himself with a foil and become fencing champion. A Gateway photo of the 1947 Tom-Tom Revue shows Dick kicking in a hairy-legged chorus line of "six beautiful girls" with frilly undies peeking from the lads' skirts. He also took the stage as an artist, aiming a raised thumb at a big easel and exiting as the easel was turned to reveal the portrait of a big thumb.

And he co-authored a liberal column, "Political Scenery," in the weekly Gateway. The first one dealt with labor, management and steel prices, accusing industry of "the same baloney" using "relatively small wage increases as the whipping boy for a tremendous profit."

Holland would split with his co-author on such issues as the candidacy of former vice president Henry Wallace. Dick didn't beat around the bush, leading with "Wallace would make a lousy president."

His worldview and philanthropy stem partly from his Unitarian upbringing. "Yes, it's an influence," he said, "in that it's based more on morality than any one creed." Liberalism "has been kicked around as a dirty word by Republicans. It ought to be because liberals believe in controlling excesses of wealth and fighting poverty."

Holland ticks off a list of liberal accomplishments, from Social Security and Medicare to regulation of the stock market. He supports universal health care and raising the $5.15 minimum wage, which he calls "ridiculous." He echoes Warren Buffett's views on taxing wealth and other topics, parting with his friend "only on Schwarzenegger."

Push against Poverty

While the Hollands generously back Opera Omaha, the Symphony and other arts, a dominant giving goal is "to get a whole lot of people out of poverty." Dick and Mary don't just write checks and retreat, either; both do hands-on work with efforts too wide-reaching to describe in this article. Both serve on boards, both meet the people served by their dollars.

Their enthusiasm for the arts brings them regularly to concerts, operas and other performances. Dick even studied voice for several years and sang in the opera chorus.

He speaks bluntly about those who don't share their wealth. When honored recently by the Salvation Army, he borrowed words once rendered more elegantly by his father. The senior Holland had compared a man who'd done him an injustice to an equine posterior. The son described non-givers as "horses' asses" and brought down the house.

Speaking of houses, the Hollands have occupied the same modest home since 1957. Bookshelves line a living room wall. The coffee table pairs photo books by Howard Buffett with a pictorial history of the Dundee neighborhood.

A 50-year subscriber to the New Yorker, Dick reads novels, biographies and other history. After reading about John Adams, then Hamilton, he came to a conclusion: "I liked Jefferson more as a person, Hamilton was okay, but Adams was a pain in the butt."

Listing Hemingway, O'Hara and other favorite writers, he soon names Willa Cather, noting, "I always thought ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop' ranked among the greatest novels."

A reader but never a couch potato, he played freshman football at Central and later coached a Dundee team. Holland started playing golf in nearby Elmwood Park at age 12, shooting between 75 and 80 in his prime at the Omaha Country Club. Notorious as an "advisor," his persistent coaching is described by architect Jack Savage. Struggling with his putting on the practice green, Savage didn't buy Holland's tip on wrist movement until Dick shambled slowly back to the clubhouse and returned with a wrist cast. It worked.

The Hollands take their causes seriously, but can laugh at themselves. Mary speaks out when she hears racist or anti-Semitic remarks, but loves to play pranks. One long-past Halloween, Dick opened the door to a trick-or-treater disguised in a witch mask and costume. Bare beneath the black garb, the witch flashed Holland and fled the scene.

Dick was too astonished to recognize the nude flasher as his wife. He's still living that down, not to mention a sequel the following Halloween, Mary sitting primly in the living room while an unidentified co-conspirator encored the flashing role.

But such fun back then doesn't explain why he sums up life now by saying, "I'm having a swell time." He retired, having built Omaha's second-largest advertising business with such accounts as First National Bank, UniRoyal and Valmont, a name he suggested to founder Bob Daugherty. His firm led winning senate and gubernatorial campaigns for candidates such as Jim Exon, a politician he adds with Bob Kerrey to a most-admired list topped by FDR and George Norris.

Comfortable then with candidates sharing his views, "I matured even more after 65 and became less self-centered." At 83, the business pressure against holding unpopular opinions is gone, and "that's one reason I'm enjoying old age." He can joke about being "the Country Club pinko."

He writes about politics, but not for publication: "I just put it away and call it my stuff." When Dick and Mary write checks, though, they hope to make Omaha and the world a better place.

Family Affair

Dick wasn't the only Holland to graduate from the university. He followed brothers William D., 1938; John L., 1942, and sister Jean, 1946.

"We all had wonderful teachers," Dick noted. "And we still talk about it a lot."

The eldest, William, now deceased, "was the best scholar of us all. He took four years of Latin at OU." William headed a major chemical firm.

John (Jack) was "Bill Thompson's fair-haired boy," referring to Dean William Thompson, a clinical psychologist and later father-in-law of Warren Buffett. Recently inducted into the Central High Hall of Fame, John Holland earned a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and became a leading researcher in the field of career development. He received the UNO Alumni Association's Citation for Alumnus Achievement in 1981. He's now professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Their younger sister Margaret, known as Jean, majored in science and became a professor of pathology at the University of North Dakota. She joined her brothers as contributors to university fund campaigns.

None of the four, though, was on campus before their father, Lewis. The 1924 Gateway yearbook mentions him as an assembly speaker during his tenure as advertising manager for Orchard & Wilhelm Company. "Indeed, assembly this year has meant social and moral improvement in the student's lives which time alone will reflect in the life of our communities and nation,"

As the only one of the four siblings to remain in Omaha, Dick tells the others of the university's bright future. He especially notes the IS&T College, calling it "a profound thing" that promises to bring high-tech industry here.

Warren Francke is a contributor to The UNO Alum, the magazine of the UNO Alumni Association.  He can be reached at wfrancke@earthlink.net.

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