A force of nature named Dick Holland died at 95 on August 9.
The philanthropist’s passing triggered warm, appreciative tributes from leaders of organizations he supported as well as individuals who worked with him or just admired his frank manner and good heart.
Many say this plain-talking old lion of charitable giving changed the face of Omaha by funding major brick-and-mortar projects, some bearing the Holland name. Before the term social entrepreneurship came in vogue, he applied his wealth to humanistic causes in his hometown reflecting his broad interests.
Fellow Omaha philanthropist Todd Simon said, “Dick was a builder. He helped build and then supported many cultural, arts and human services organizations we take for granted today. He and my father (the late Fred Simon) had a kind of cultural brain-trust. As a kid, I remember going over to the Hollands’ house with my dad. They made plans to support the opera or symphony while listening to their favorite records. Today, I realize the seeds that grew into the foundation of Omaha’s cultural scene were planted in Dick Holland’s living room.”
As an adult, Simon said, “I learned so much about tenacity and determination from Dick, who accomplished so much in such an informal way. He was easy to approach and generous with his time – for seven decades.”
The accessible philanthropist kept a publicly listed phone number and often fielded calls himself from people seeking help. After listening to a plea, he’d tell personal assistant Deb Love, “We need to find a way to help them.” He usually did.
Holland’s various youthful escapades – Fuller Brush salesman, ice house laborer, drover, bookie – didn’t hint at his future except for his brass and hustle. The Omaha Central High graduate and World War II veteran found his calling at his father’s advertising agency. He then made his own way partnering in the Holland, Dreves, Reilly agency (later Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland) in the Mad Men era – its wild success rivaled only by Bozell and Jacobs. Valmont Industries became a breakthrough client that made him a player in the business-civic community. The devoted husband and father was all business but kew how to have fun, too.
In an interview, Holland said, “Some of the great lessons I learned in advertising, like how to talk to people to try and convince them of an idea, have served me well.”
He did things on his own terms. He once said, “I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody — I wanted to be my own boss.” He said a personality test developed by his brother, Jack Holland, pegged him “investigative, artistic and entrepreneurial.” His independent, outlier sensibilities found harbor in the Unitarian Church. Achieving wealth provided autonomy to follow his passions. He wealth came as an early investor in friend Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. He took credit for introducing Buffett to BH’s No. 2 man, Charlie Munger.
His real entry into circles of influence came after he and wife Mary formed a foundation that was the conduit for their giving the rest of their lives together. She died in 2006 (he earlier lost a son and is survived by three daughters, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild). He went right on giving and in his last decade he sought ever more opportunities to make a difference and leave a mark.
In a typical year, 2014, the Holland Foundation reported total giving as $19 million and total assets as $158 million.
His largesse can be seen downtown and midtown in the Holland Performing Arts Center, the Child Saving Institute and University of Nebraska Medical Center. In North Omaha his helping hand is seen at North Star Foundation and Jesuit Middle School. After breaking with Building Bright Futures, he formed the Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute to prepare and support at-risk youth for success from birth through college.
Virtually every Omaha arts organization of size benefited from his generosity and belief that the arts enrich a community and attract new talent and business.
“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community,” he once told a reporter.
Arts leaders were present at a private celebration of his life held August 15 at the Holland Center — a favorite venue where he was a familiar presence. Members of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra accompanied singers performing operatic selections.
Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said, “He well understood the impact the arts have on all of us. In the Holland Center’s 10th Anniversary video, he said ‘I don’t know of anything I’ve done that satisfies me more. We made a difference for the happiness of the people of the town. We opened the door to new feelings of all kinds of beauty.’ That was Dick. I know it’s not ever going to be the same without hearing Dick’s bird calls at the conclusion of a performance.”
Holland was a Omaha University graduate who became a mega contributor to his alma mater. He made key gifts to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Holland Computing Center and Baxter Arena, whose Community Ice Center is dedicated to him. His support of UNMC played a significant role in that institution’s physical growth, including the Durham Research Centers, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and the College of Public Health.
The self-described “liberal Democrat” used the platform his fortune and status afforded by voicing opinions about social causes, railing against policies he opposed and throwing his weight behind bills and candidates he supported. He decried local, state, federal government not working together for the country’s betterment. He criticized Omaha’s failure to uplift a large segment of its minority population who experience poverty. “To me, that’s the worst thing Omaha does,” he said. Though he felt the city did public education well from elementary school through college, he bemoaned early childhood gaps and disparities between what inner city children receive and what suburban kids receive.
“I don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem but as a community problem,” he said. “We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs.”
Someone privy to his most intimate deliberations was Deb Love, his personal assistant and a Holland Foundation staffer.
Love recalled the many op eds he submitted to the Omaha World-Herald and New York Times. “Sometimes his words were so frank, I would cringe and ask if maybe we should soften them a bit. He usually didn’t take my advice. He would stand up for what he believed.”
She said Holland was the same in private as in public when speaking his mind, asking probing questions and seeking ways to remedy problems or meet needs.
“We worked side-by-side in his small home office,” she said, “and I heard every phone conversation, every meeting plan, every decision – personal and business. He would share his innermost feelings and thoughts and would ask my opinion. There are so many things I will miss about Dick: his humor, his advice, his wealth of knowledge. But most of all I will miss our private conversations. He was not only a boss, but a mentor, friend and father-figure.”
Similarly, Joan Squires of Omaha Performing Arts developed a fondness for Holland.
“Each of us has a chance to meet a few very special people in our lives. People that touch us and who we feel privileged to know. For me, one of those people was Dick Holland. He was so much more than a board member and donor – he was one of my closest friends.,” Squires said. “He was so widely read and intelligent, you found yourself scrambling to keep up. He was fun, he was funny and most of all, he cared for others.”
Love said despite grants totaling many millions of dollars over the foundation’s life, Holland never felt he did enough.
“He always wanted to help people in any way he could, whether financially, helping find a job or giving moral support. He was a man of such generosity and humor and very observant of people’s needs. Not long before he passed, he said, ‘I wish I was a magician and had more money to give to all Omaha organizations.’ His joy of giving was contagious. He always said there was nothing that made him feel better than helping someone else. He believed if you have the means, you should share with those who don’t.”
Love said she marveled at his magnanimous spirit.
“Dick treated everyone with the utmost respect. He thoroughly loved children and watching them learn and giving them opportunities to do so. When in public, he would always talk to children. He enjoyed giving his time and money to organizations that help underprivileged children. He wanted them to be able to experience Omaha as any other child would. Some of his donations provide educational opportunities as well as transportation to events at the Holland Center.”
His contributions were well recognized in his lifetime, including by the national Horatio Alger Association. But even someone so accomplished needed assurance in what he’d leave behind.
“He told me he didn’t want to be forgotten after he passed and wanted his foundation and legacy to go on for many years,” Love said. “I am so thankful I will continue to work for the Holland Foundation to carry on Dick’s legacy.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.