Omaha’s old lion of philanthropy slowing down but still roaring and challenging the status quo

Dick Holland gives to areas of passion in order to promote change and progress


Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights are generally male, old-monied Great White Fathers whose wealth and influence support health, human services, education and the arts.

A veteran of this deep-pocketed fraternity is Richard D. Holland. The Omaha native came from an upper middle class family that produced high achievers. Holland took over his father’s small advertising firm and built it into the metro’s second largest agency but his real fortune came from investing with Warren Buffett.

An entrepreneur from the jump, he ran an ice house that fronted for a bookie operation, he probed rail grain shipments, he sold Fuller brushes door to door, he cut lawns and he did janitorial work.

“I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody – I wanted to be my own boss,” he says.

He also served a stint in the Chemical Corps during World War II.

“It’s obvious I learned a lot as I went along.”

“There were disappointments in all the things I did,” he says, but it taught him the resilience he finds lacking in many today. He advises  young people that “by trying out things regardless of what they are you begin to gain confidence.”

According to the occupational assessment inventory developed by his late star psychologist brother John “Jack” Holland, he’s an investigative, artistic, entrepreneurial type. Those traits, along with some luck, helped him amass wealth.

The Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary Holland established  reported assists of $150 million in 2014. 

Like his first generation philanthropic cronies, Holland’s a Great Depression and Second World War product. While they largely operate behind the scenes on capital and building campaigns. Holland’s an outlier who speaks bluntly and publicly about things he’s passionate about. That’s in stark contrast to his peers, who parse words in carefully prepared press releases and sound bites devoid of personality and controversy. 

Where others prefer uniformity, Holland, a science geek, favors chaos theory. He’s the rogue who says what’s on his mind not only behind closed doors but in interviews and letters to the editor and lets the chips fall where they may. He’s equally capable being a team player or going his own way. For example, when an organization he helped found and fund, Building Bright Futures, balked at doing lobbying and research he favored, he cut ties with it to form two organizations of his own – Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute – charged with those two priorities, respectively. 

This Europhile’s opinionated critiques of what he deems American lapses can come off as the bluster of a crusty, crotchety old man. Like what he says or not, he puts his money where his mouth is.

The ultra progressive Holland is a robust Democratic Party political contributor. He proudly proclaims his liberal leanings and Unitarian beliefs by supporting humanistic public policies and rigorously questioning things. Unlike some fellow travelers, he favors giving the undeserved tools or means for success rather than hand-outs.

This blend of pragmatist and creative studied art at what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha and spent his salad days wooing ad clients. His agency devised campaigns for industrial clients, including Valmont, and political candidates.

His philosophy on giving is getting “results,” and “making ideas a reality.” “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big in order to get something done.” He does his homework before committing funds. “I’m not throwing money at it.” He says he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into anything big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.” He uses the same art of persuasion he practiced as a Mad Man  trying to win others over to his way of thinking. 

“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 adamantly endorses America providing free prenatal care and early childhood education for all at-risk families. He says the presence or absence of that care and education is often the difference between success and failure in school and later in life.

“Brain research indicates what happens to a child between 0 and 3 is far more important than anything else that happens to him in his life in terms of growing up and becoming a productive citizen. It’s a truth I’m trying to get across to the rest of society. Hell, yes, I’m trying to influence public opinion. “

He considers his advocacy for early childhood ed the most important thing he’s ever supported. “Oh, absolutely.”

He envisions a large, central funding apparatus to support another passion, the arts, but rues it iall take someone younger to launch it.

“I see the future not being so much private but much more public,” says the man for whom the Holland Performing Arts Center is named.

“I don’t see the enormous private fortunes coming along in Omaha where they can make $100 million gifts.”

Holland points out that some of the biggest local fortunes were made by early Warren Buffett investors like himself and by the heads of dynastic companies. Both groups are dying out and there isn’t necessarily new rich blood replacing them.

He says the more cosmopolitan Omaha that’s emerged was a long time coming as the city’s economic base transitioned from blue collar industrial to white collar professional and things like the arts became more valued quality of life measures

“We had a helluva time getting over the fact we were a cow town. That was Omaha’s original wealth. We had all the great packing plants. That whole thing just disappeared and a new system or class replaced it.”

Like his peers, Holland’s giving includes many education initiatives. He funded the Robert T. Reilly Professorship of Communications at UNO named in honor of his old advertising partner. Holland monies established the Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He helped found the Nebraska Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. He backed the purchase of a supercomputer at the Peter Kiewit Institute in the Holland Computing Center.

He’s equally bullish in his arts philanthropy. “I suppose it really began in the mid-’80s and really got going in the late ’90s.” His lead donations enabled construction of the Holland Performing Arts Center and renovation of the Orpheum Theatre.

“I was on a symphony committee about building a new home and every time we had a meeting we had great ideas and no money. I got to talking to Sue Morris of Heritage Services because I knew about its work with the Joslyn and so on. That was Bob Dougherty and Walter Scott getting together the fat cats. Bob was after me on it and then it was the SAC museum. Coming home from some meeting he and Walter were talking and they said we ought to set up a permanent organization to take on some of these things important to the city,”

That something became Omaha Performing Arts and Holland says his two giving buddies “are greatly to be complimented because few cities have this.” He recalls a backstage inspection at the Orpheum revealed an antiquated theater ill-equipped to accommodate large touring shows. “It was just dismal. I think that viewing of the Orpheum opened some eyes to the need and things began to move after that.” 

The Hollands made the biggest gift and later gave more but he credits others for actually making the Orpheum project happen.

“Without Heritage I don’t think we would have got it done then. Sue (Morris) is a wonderful gatherer. She also understands construction.”

Adapting the Orpheum from a vaudeville and movie house into “a full-blown theater” hosting Broadway shows before record crowds paid off.

“Hell, we have tours coming that take two weeks to load-in with eight over-the-road trailers. Elaborate damn things. That wouldn’t have been possible without that work. We reseated it, too. Cut out one aisle to make a better line-of-sight. We brightened it up. It’s a lovely place. If you had to duplicate it today you better start with $150 to $200 million.

Besides being home to the symphony, the Holland Center hosts dozens of shows a year across the live arts spectrum.

He’s proud of how generously Omaha supports its arts, as most recently evidenced by community giving that made the new Blue Barn Theatre possible. But he bemoans the way funding’s done.

“Our support of the arts leaves everybody gasping at the end of every year over a lack of funds. This to me we don’t see the arts is an economic engine for the whole damn society. Major donors tend to be heads of companies, corporations and generally they’re not artistics in the sense of having great artistic interests. The net is they dismiss the arts – there’s a lack of understanding of value.

“Nobody’s ever nailed down that value but I always think about European cities where they think nothing of putting up millions for operas and symphonies and privately and publicly support them because they recognize a major industry for Vienna or Berlin or Paris is the arts. And it’s not just the performing arts – it’s museums, galleries.”

He feels America must move away from its haphazard support to something more consistent and equitable but he concedes that sea change requires a new mindset.

“At the present time most of the arts struggle. Funding is dispersed, it’s spread around, there’s no leadership of it. That’s one of the reasons why I think a great coalition is needed.”

He says if the city can invest $150 million to build TD Ameritrade Park for the two-week College World Series there’s no reason it can’t invest similarly in arts that serve audiences year-round. It galls him that the public sector leaves the bulk of arts funding to the private sector.

He feels Omaha could capitalize more on its existing amenities and perhaps expand offerings to become a regional destination.

“It almost defies anybody saying the arts don’t amount to much because of all these things going on and the audiences that go there. In the 10 years since the opening of the Holland and the refurbishing of the Orpheum we’ve had millions of people pass through. Those people came from not just Omaha or the outlying districts. We’ve done studies which indicate that maybe 20 or 25 percent and once in a while as high as 40 percent come from beyond. It’s a support for the restaurants, hotels, parking garages-lots, shops and so on.

“I think there’s an enormous amount to be gained by making Omaha a Middle Western city that is well known for its arts.” 

For him, it’s part of the calculus that makes a city livable and attractive. 

“I think what’s greatly underestimated is why people come to Omaha and want to live here. One of the economic engines is the Med Center. I’ve talked to them about the arts and its effects and one of the things they point out is that when they want to bring in someone to head up a new initiative or an existing section they tell me the key is the wife. The first question she asks is, ‘What are the arts like?’ She’s the key because if she says no it’s no and it doesn’t make much difference how good the offer is. These decisions are made like that. 

“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community.”

He’s dismayed America forces presenting organizations to be perpetually on the beg and cuts arts ed in public schools.  

“They cut out the arts in the schools at a time when they’re needed most,” he says about a nationwide patern. “They cut out the arts in a town when they have to balance budgets. This is nearsightedness.”

An area he feels Omaha has fallen much shorter in yet is handling its growing poverty population.

“It’s neglected its poor people badly. Omaha’s doing OK economically but it is has great difficulty educating poor kids. To me that’s the worst thing Omaha does.”

While he applauds the metro’s “highly developed educational system” he says too many children enter school unprepared to learn and too few programs address preparing them. Reading difficulties, for example, get magnified when kids become adults and don’t have the education or skills to get living wage or salaried jobs.

“‘I don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem as a community problem. 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. There’s no question in my mind it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

He insists universal early childhood education is the key to reversing the situation but claims legislators ignore the evidence. 

“We are terribly ignorant in this country about early childhood. We just plain are dumb. We don’t understand how kids get educated even though it stares us in the face and we are not willing in many cases to turn around and fix this. The proof is all over the place, all you have to do is look at it. There’s no point sitting around speculating about it. If we do it, it will end the problem. It’s very clear. Hell, we can look at all kind of European education systems – you’ll see the same thing.”

He feels America may have missed an opportunity with Head Start. “If we had continued to develop Head Start we might have got there.”

New models have emerged that show promise. “We have something going on in Neb. headed by Susie Buffett, Educare, that’s a helluva good idea. It’s also expensive. But it is a proven thing now.”

“The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation is one of the largest in the United States. What they’re attempting to do in education and the schools through Building Bright Futures is just monumental.”

He’s also encouraged by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the impact it’s making in raising awareness and standards.

The goal is creating holistic after school and daycare programs that are educational and developmentally based, not just caretakers.

Holland, whose support of the Child Saving Institute is legendary, says,  

“I just decided to focus on this problem. It’s difficult because it’s costly. Trying to get the kind of money from the state and the nation to really look after these children is just plain expensive.” 

He says even as Building Bright Futures, Partnership4Kids and other education efforts have scaled up their impact “is tiny in terms of the need,” “Five thousand-plus kids enter the Omaha Public Schools each year and half of them are probably not ready to learn, which indicates a serious problem,” he says. “Multiply that over some years and these kids are more likely to have problems becoming productive citizens. That describes in Omaha the size of the problem. It’s enormous.”

Mentoring is another thing he supports.

“It’s been shown that even after this bad beginning if we get a hold of a child and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.”

Holland wants America do something overarching, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan or the Great Society, to once again assert leadership that’s inspirational at home and abroad. 

“We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be. I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution.”

The old ad man in him tells him “we haven’t really been able to sell the benefits of doing something like this even though it would be far better than the cost of not doing it.” 

“We have more than two million people in prison in the United States, leading the world, and not realizing this is our own fault. We think they’re just bad people. They weren’t bad when they were born, I’ll guarantee you.”

He’s concerned the American Empire he came of age in is eroding.

“I’m worried about it terribly. I think our national government and even our state governments are not using their ability to think about the good of the country and to work together to improve it. Hell, everybody and his brother knows about it that pays any attention.”

Compounding the problem, he says, is America’s own policies.

“We have not reformed our immigration policy. We’re getting fewer immigrants as we make stupid requirements to get a person into this country anymore. That’s backwards because immigrants are highly motivated people who work hard to succeed.. 

“We don’t tax the wealthy or anything like that. We don’t seem to have any ability to take a look at a good country in Europe and realize that those people pay much higher taxes than in the United States but they’re better educated, they’re happier, they have decent transportation systems, they have universal health care.”

He’s not sure the country has the will to do what’s right.

“I used to think of the United States as affinity. In the post-World War II era we dominated the world. One of my great disappointments is that we’re not leading the world, we’re responding to problems.”

Better sooner than later for him that America take action.

“I want it to happen now. What the hell, I’m 94.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.


Category: Art

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