Monday, April 25, 2016

The Angel of Omaha

You've all heard of the Oracle of Omaha - now I want to introduce you to the Angel of Omaha.  Omaha is a weird place.  Yes, it is odd that the second richest man in the United States is not only from here, but still lives here in a very modest house he purchased in the 50's.  There are five Fortune 500 companies here.  There are three billionaires on the board of Omaha Performing Arts (OPA) - where my wife is employed.

The only thing about Omaha that seems to stand out is that it doesn't stand out.  Omaha doesn't really have it's own culture - like the weather - it's more of an amalgam of Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  People here act a lot like folks from Minnesota.  They are usually very nice and hardworking - they may have pride, but they don't brag.  But we have good BBQ here - like our neighbors to the south, Kansas City.

Within the first six months of us moving to Omaha I got a good example of how unexpected this place can be.  We were invited to the Knights of Aksarben Ball (which deserves its own post) to honor Kendra's boss, Joan Squires.  I sat next to Harriet Otis - all I knew about her was that she gave money to OPA and that she was good friends with Joan.  In fact they lived next door to each other in an apartment building downtown.

Harriet had just come back from Italy - she had spent time at a 1,000 year old farm - taking art classes, eating wonderful food etc.  The painting above was made by her.  We talked a lot about travel, which I love as much as she did.  Even though she was almost 50 years older than me - we seemed to be kindred spirits.  I'll have to be honest that my curiosity got the better of me.  I asked some questions, that I thought were subtle, trying to figure out where her money came from - because she didn't act like many people do who have money.  I could tell that she was deliberating about whether she should tell me something - she finally said "my husband and I used to play a lot of bridge.  One of the couples who we played with regularly you might have heard of - the Buffett's."  I didn't ask any other questions, but I assumed that meant that they got in on the ground floor of Berkshire.  I would later learn there were a lot of people like that in Omaha.  Warren Buffett did not start out with tons of money - he is one of those rare people who was not only adept at getting people to trust him - he actually made really good decisions once he got their money.  So, there are a lot of very rich people in Omaha - who in any other place or time would have been upper middle class - they just happened to be lucky enough to play bridge with Warren Buffett.

And Harriett knew she was lucky - as she put it "I never thought that I would have the money to be a 'philanthropist'."   Her focus, when it came to philanthropy, was education.  She made many of the masters classes given by internationally touring artists possible.  But she didn't just write checks.  She came to pretty much every class.  She asked questions.  Even though many of these classes were designed for children she fit right in - because she never stopped being curious about the world.

It's been a rough six months at OPA.  The organization was central to a controversy regarding whether three historic buildings should be torn down in order to make way for a multi-use building that would have including parking.  It's a long story and I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say that OPA somehow became a pariah in the minds of some people in Omaha.  Disturbing to me, was the fact that many people who should know better - who have experienced first hand the dedication that OPA has to this community stayed silent and didn't come to the defense of the organization.  In January there was a city council meeting where a decision was going to be made regarding funding for tearing down the historic buildings.  Finding people in the community who would speak on behalf of OPA at this time was difficult.  Harriet was one of the few willing to speak up.

The above picture is from the Omaha World Herald at the city council meeting in January.

Harriet's death was unexpected.  She had health problems, but who doesn't at 87?  A week before she died I saw her at a concert at the Orpheum.  We talked during intermission and she started talking about her life.  She told me about her childhood on the Southside of Chicago and her time in college at the progressive Grinnell in Iowa.  She told me about how she had moved back to Chicago after college and came out to Omaha one weekend to visit some friends.  One of them set her up with another Grinnell grad.  After three days he asked her to marry him.  "What did you say?" I asked - looking rather shocked.  "I said yes!" she beamed.  Seeing how I was a little scandalized - she added with a smile - "Now don't go around spreading rumors about me!"

Joan wasn't feeling well that night and left at intermission.  Harriet wanted to stay - "Well I can walk you home if you want", I offered.  So, after the performance I met her and we walked home.  I even got a few other stories out of her.  As she entered the building she turned to me and blew me a kiss.  It was the last time I saw her.

I wanted to write this because I haven't seen anything written about Harriet in the local press.  She did a lot for this community - but as a true Omaha citizen - she didn't brag about it.  She did things quietly.  There were numerous people at her memorial yesterday who had been touched by her - whose lives were enriched because they knew Harriet.  Some, like me, didn't know her for very long - others had been close friends with her for over 50 years.  Some people you meet in this life appear to be angels sent from heaven.  Harriet Otis was one of those people.  Omaha has lost a very incredible person - but more than that - there are many of us who have lost a friend.

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