Dick Holland remembered for generous giving and warm friendship that improved organizations and lives
Dick Holland remembered for generous giving and warm friendship that improved organizations and lives
Free-spirited entrepreneur gave with his heart and mind
Philanthropist’s gifts raised Omaha arts, culture, education health and public policy sectors
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the 2017 Metro Magazine Giving Guide & Event Book (https://issuu.com/metmago/docs/thegivingguideandeventbook2017)
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard D. Holland lived life large. Not in an ostentatious sense. He was too Midwest modest for that. Rather he lived out loud in a make-the-most-of-every-moment way that endeared him to many.
The Omaha native fit loads of living into his 95 years. A Unitarian and a liberal, he wore his beliefs on his sleeve and was unapologetic about it.
This benevolent, bellowing, love-to-laugh and make-you-laugh mover and shaker got much done in his hometown. He was considered a builder who contributed to Omaha’s physical and cultural landscape through the public structures and quality of life enhancements his giving helped build.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate first gained traction as an advertising whiz handling elite accounts through his own agency. He later entered the public sphere as a funder of major health, education and arts projects, public policy initiatives and political campaigns through his Holland Foundation. The art of persuasion he learned as a Mad Man era ad exec helped him coalesce support for things he put his heart and money behind.
The making of the man
As a young entrepreneur he sowed his adventurous oats by trying bookmaking, ice house hawking, door-to-door selling and riding the rails. He served in the U.S. Army chemical corps during World War II. He pitched for the University of Omaha baseball team. The world was his oyster and learning about it became a lifetime passion. The voracious reader accumulated a home library thick with biographies. He subscribed to and absorbed dozens of magazines ranging from science to sports to the arts. He read at least four newspapers daily.
He found an inquisitive soulmate in his wife Mary, with whom he helped raise four children: Dean, Barbara, Nancy and Mary Ann or “Andy” Holland, who said her playful father enjoyed a strong relationship with her mother that stood the test of time.
“Marriages are full of all kinds of things happening,” she said,
“and my parents were very committed to the marriage and very loyal to each other. It was a good marriage.”
The couple were together six decades before Mary preceded Dick in death in 2006. Perhaps their greatest trial came when their son Dean was killed in an auto accident.
“It was horrible,” Andy said. “I think that’s the first time I ever saw my dad cry. It was a terrible loss for my parents. It hit them very hard. It was a very difficult time.”
While no one ever really gets over losing a son or wife, nothing kept Holland down for long. He was too irrepressible for that. Despite tragedies and setbacks, he always rallied. He rarely met a day he didn’t welcome.
“He was always very forward thinking,” Andy said. “He never dwelt on the past. He would have wanted to go on living forever. I don’t know many people that feel that way. He never got tired of living because he was just interested in everything. It wasn’t really until the very end he decided, well, I’ve got to go.”
He and Mary were a matched set but, Andy said, “they were pretty different.” “My mother was much more outgoing. My dad appeared outgoing but where you’d have to drag my mom out of a party, my dad would have his little social fix and then be ready to go. I think my dad was more the intellectual. My mother went more with her feelings. But they did complement each other in a lot of ways. They made decisions together.”
Former University of Nebraska Medical Center chancellor Harold Maurer feels a portrait of the couple on display at the Holland Performing Arts Center captures their bond. The painting “Opening Night 2005” by Debra Joy Groesser shows the pair seated intimately together at the center’s grand opening.
“The painting depicts the strong interdependence between Mary and Dick,” Maurer said. “She has her head on his shoulder. It’s such a warm, wonderful feeling – which is what they personified in life. They were marvelous together. They seemed to agree on everything they undertook. They completed each other’s sentences they were so close.”
Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Center director John Cavanaugh said of the couple, “Mary was protective of him. He was so open, you know. Anybody could call him up and ask him for money (his number was publicly listed). Mary was a little more skeptical of the world out there and protected him from his own vulnerabilities. They were a perfect team together and the Holland Center is a perfect memorial to both of them.”
Andy Holland said her mom’s death “was very devastating” for her father. “They were married 58 years and they had a wonderful time together, especially the last 20 years. He missed her very much and he was very sad about it. Somebody told me after my mom’s death he would probably follow her shortly, but he didn’t. My dad was an extremely resilient man. He picked himself up and moved on because that’s just how he lived. He was just always looking forward, acquiring new ideas, doing new things and finding new friends. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her but he wanted to live life – he didn’t want to just exist.”
|UNMC Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D., left, and his wife, Beverly, with Richard Holland at a Nebraskans For Research luncheon to honor Holland for his efforts to advance research in the state.|
A thirst for knowledge and getting things done
Nothing engaged him more than good conversation. He hosted a regular confab known as the Saturday Morning Gang. A faithful participant, author-essayist Rick Dooling, described it as “a cross between a literary salon and five old guys in a booth at the local diner,” adding, “Always fascinating banter with Dick as the maestro.” UNMC physician Dan Schaefer, retired film editor Mike Hill and photographer Pat Drickey completed the group.
Drickey said, “We would discuss the week’s events, including politics, art openings, movies, books we were reading and interesting stories from the New Yorker or the New York Times. Others made an appearance, like John Cavanaugh. Dick was very engaging and had a contagious laugh. Occasionally, he’d break out with his call of the loon. Thinking about it still brings a smile to my face. I think what Dick enjoyed about our company was the fact we were pretty much all down-to-earth native Omahans who’d reached the top of our professions.”
The Gang continues meeting. The group has an urn containing Holland’s ashes as a way of keeping his presence near.
His last few years Holland found a new companion in Marian Leary who gave him added reason to live.
He stayed connected to the people dearest to him, including Cavanaugh, an old friend who worked closely with Holland.
“I really miss the daily conversations I had with him,” Cavanaugh said. “He was just every day an inspiration in terms of things that needed to be done to mainly improve the lives of poor people in our community and across the country. We continue that work of improving early childhood care – a passion of his. Expanding access to quality care is a big part of our commitment. He was just a delight to have as a friend. He was a regular for Sunday dinner at our house. That was something he greatly enjoyed and we miss him tremendously.”
Following Holland’s August death a flood of tributes appeared. Recurring themes referred to his boundless generosity, caring, curiosity, intelligence, sense of humor and penchant for taking stands and speaking his mind.
Telling it like it is
His many admirers included daughter Andy Holland.
“He was courageous about speaking his mind and speaking out against things he thought wrong – no matter what it might have cost him. He was just never afraid to stick his neck out even when there could have been negative consequences to him. I know that’s relatively easy to do when you’ve got millions, but back in the 1950s he began an organization – Omahans for Common Sense – to counter McCarthyism. At the time he was a young man trying to build a business and had a wife and small children, so I think that was a very brave thing to do.”
Early Buffett Childhood Institute executive director Sam Meisels remembers Holland as “utterly unafraid,” adding, “He was such a strong and staunch defender of those things he felt right. He wanted to understand and he had an opinion. Anyone who knew him knew he wanted to share that opinion, and he always did. The critical thing was to hear him out because he did have a lot to say and there was a lot to be learned from him.”
Harold Maurer worked with Holland on several UNMC projects the philanthropist supported. Maurer recalled a particularly controversial area of research that he needed someone to champion and Holland jumped right into the fray.
“We were engaged in embryonic stem cell research early on
and we were getting killed by the press,” Maurer said. “I went to (then-Omaha World-Herald publisher) John Gottschalk and said, ‘John, I’m getting killed in the newspaper, what should I do?’ and he said, ‘Hal, you’ll hemorrhage for awhile but you’ll be okay.’ I spoke with (philanthropist) Mike Yanney and said, ‘I’ve got to know if the community supports what I’m doing or not,’ and he organized a breakfast I’ll never forget in his office with all the community leaders there, including Dick Holland.
“I asked them, ‘What do you think we should do?’ and someone said, ‘I think you should continue because we do not want to be last in Nebraska.’ I said, ‘Great, that’s the point. Now I’d like to ask one of you to head the development of an initiative to advocate this. They asked, ‘Who do you want?’ and I said, ‘Dick Holland.’ And Dick didn’t say not me or this or that, he said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to take it on.’ That’s typical Dick Holland – willing to go to battle for the right things. He even came up with the name Nebraskans for Life Saving Cures.”
Holland didn’t stop there.
“He showed up at a very tense (University of Nebraska) Board of Regents meeting when that subject came up,” Maurer said. “Those opposed and those for the research were there. Dick came and spoke before the board on behalf of the research and I think that had a major impact on their decision.
“I miss his willingness to speak up about taboo subjects in Nebraska. I miss his advocacy for things that were right.”
Maurer recalled a time when he and John Niemann, senior vice president of the University of Nebraska Foundation, visited Holland at his home.
“We went to ask him for a gift for the cancer center. He knew why we were there, and he got up and said, ‘Excuse me, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.’ He left for the bathroom, came back and without a word from us he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to give you’ his amount of money.’ And that was it – without any kind of instigation from us at all. John Niemann and I looked at each other disbelievingly. He was that kind of person.”
As recipients of Holland’s gifts attest, “he took a personal interest in things and it was important for him to trust you – that was a big factor in his giving,” Maurer said.
Then there was his brazenness. A favorite hangout was the Happy Hollow Club, where Holland delighted enlivening the staid place. Maurer recalled, “Once, the leaders of an effort to recall the mayor were sitting at a table and he went over to them and said in a loud voice, ‘Oh, here’s a table full of fools.’ and walked on. Often, Warren Buffett would be in the corner by himself or with some dignitary. This one time, everybody’s quiet, they don’t want to bother him, so Dick gets up in the middle of the room and hollers, ‘Hey, Warren, how you doing?’ and that got the whole place stirred up.”
“Yeah, that’s the kind of thing he would do – he had a lot of chutzpah,” Andy Holland said of her father.
Not much surprised Andy about her old man but she said the general public probably didn’t know “he loved to cuss.” “He always swore a lot,” she said. “I mean, we all grew up with it, so it was no big deal. The grandkids were all a little shocked by it.
They were like, ‘Hey, Mom, you know what poppa said?'”
A caring heart for the less fortunate
He could be profane or profound but was above all compassionate. His passing left a gap in the local giving community. Those who benefited from that generosity appreciated how he targeted his wealth to support things he felt would make the greatest impact. He was renowned for getting others to give, too.
“He was so admired in the community that he just had to ask people to participate and they did, at whatever level he wanted them to,” Maurer said.
“He inspired a lot of other people to become more involved in creating a great community,” Andy said.
“He was a great man who was unique in every way. Just an unequaled kind of guy with a marvelous mind and such clarity of purpose,” said Maurer. “He did a lot for the Medical Center in terms of supporting the cancer center, stem cell research and a number of other activities as well. He was a founder of the Nebraska Coalition for Life Saving Cures and its president until he passed away.”
Holland exemplified the work ethic and resilience of the Greatest Generation by becoming a self-made man. Leavened by the Great Depression, he knew the value of a dollar and the gulf between haves and have-nots. Thus, he established the Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Center to study avenues for alleviating poverty and giving all children a good start in life. For him, the need for universal early childhood education was a social justice issue of utmost importance.
He found a noted ally and kindred spirit in Buffett Early Childhood Institute leader Sam Meisels.
“We talked about children and services to children and what the state and federal government could do to help children and families,” Meisels said. “We were certainly on the same wavelength there. He found it very hard to tolerate that any child’s potential was ignored or lost or not fulfilled. He always wanted to give everybody the best chance possible, and that’s how I feel, too. So we had a lot to talk about on that.”
Meisels recalled an event that highlighted Holland at his best.
“We had a symposium on the UNO campus with the Aspen Institute. On the stage I had three or four billionaires sitting next to me and the former governor of the state of Massachusetts. The moderator was the CEO of the Aspen Institute, who’s the former CEO of Time Magazine. There were questions from the audience and Dick raised his hand and he basically castigated everyone on that stage for not thinking hard enough about the fact children growing up in poverty need more than what we offered and considered. He made it very clear he thought we had missed the boat. He let us all have it. Well, that was a very Dick thing to do. He just never would hide his thoughts or pull his punches – and that was very foreign to people there.”
Holland backed his bluster with facts and action. Meisels admired him for doing his homework.
“He was absolutely very informed and when he didn’t know something he wanted me to send him articles to read. He wanted to know who to talk to in order to get the best information. He recognized when he didn’t understand and needed to know more and he wanted to do something about it.”
Omaha Performing Arts executive director Joan Squires said Holland was generous not only with his money but with his time and expertise.
“Dick was a great resource to go through a plan. He not only wanted to know artistically what we were doing but he knew the financials inside and out and he had a great in-depth working knowledge of how the organization operated. He actively participated in our board meetings, offered really great advice and was committed the entire time I had the opportunity to know him, which was 15 years.
“To be that vibrant and engaged and active was really a gift to all of us.”
Similarly, Meisels believes the totality of Holland’s contributions are what set him apart.
“He made a huge difference,” Meisels said. “You see it all around the city. Then there’s places you don’t know where to look even and if you know what he was committed to, there he is, too. He made a difference to everybody who came in contact with him personally. Not everyone loved him. Not everyone even liked him, I suspect. But those of us who were lucky enough to have a friendship with him, will never forget him.”
A social justice advocate
Just as he fought for children’s rights, Holland worked to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska and to raise the state’s minimum wage. He also backed many Democratic Party candidates.
John Cavanaugh knew his heart and mind as well as anyone.
“In the last 10-12 years we basically talked two or three times a day almost every day,” he said. “We worked very closely on public policy initiatives he was very passionate about. He was a terrific communicator and an inspirational voice and he would just go all out. A real goer and doer. He was still writing op-ed and letters to the editor at over 90 years old and still engaging in the political process, supporting candidates and causes.
“He was very strong in supporting the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska. Up until his own death that was something he was proud the Nebraska Legislature had done and was supportive of the ballot effort to retain the repeal.”
Nothing though stirred Holland as much as early childhood and Cavanaugh said his friend play a key role in a major victory.
“Four years ago Nebraska reversed its position on providing prenatal care for undocumented pregnant women. Dick took up that cause and I worked with him in the Legislature to get that reinstated. It took the Legislature to pass legislation and then to override Governor Heineman’s veto. Dick was a driving force behind that effort and just felt passionately every child needed a chance to have a healthy start in life that begins with prenatal care. So we’re now one of six states in the country who provide publicly funded prenatal care for every expectant mother.”
Leveling the playing field for jobs and earnings also found Holland leading Nebraska to take progressive action.
“He spearheaded the effort to raise the minimum wage in Nebraska from $7.25 to $9. He did that as the primary funder for a ballot initiative that passed by over 60 percent – projecting Nebraska into one of the highest paying minimum wage states in the country, adding probably more than $250 million to the income of low income Nebraskans ” Cavanaugh said.
“After that passage a number of major national chains raised their own internal wage, so it had a huge ripple effect. He felt very strongly income inequality and the fact people work full-time and aren’t able to support their families was a critical issue of our time. He was very personally committed to addressing that, so we now have in Nebraska the lowest unemployment in the country and among the highest minimum wage.”
Making a difference
Andy Holland said her father “was very proud of some of the impact he was able to be a part of in education and in helping families and children in poverty.” “He really wanted to make this a better place because he loved Omaha,” she said. “He lived here his whole life and wanted to make a difference here.”
Even after he found professional success and substantial wealth, Holland never forgot the values of his solid middle class upbringing. He also never lost the common touch with every day folks of whom he considered himself a most fortunate son.
Far from an all work and no play bore, Holland appreciated the finer things, especially the arts, and his giving reflected that. In making the lead gift for the Holland Performing Arts Center and contributing to the Orpheum Theatrer refurbishing he helped expand and enhance Omaha’s live arts scene.
OPA’s Joan Squires said the Holland Center actually fulfilled a long-held dream of the philanthropist’s to gift the city with a special venue.
“He had been committed to helping develop a performing arts center years before and the process never really got started until he and Mary were introduced by John Gottschalk to Sue Morris from Heritage Services. With their lead gift and John’s leadership all of this happened. Dick remained engaged, involved and passionate about our institution and the community from the time I first met him to the end of his life.
“One of the most meaningful things he said was that the Holland Center so far surpassed his expectations, He knew it would be beneficial for Omaha and the region but I think he did not understand the breadth and scope of what we would be able to accomplish. It really transformed the arts community here. He said, ‘I will always love it forever and it can only get better.’ It exemplified who he was – he just wanted to make this place a better community for everybody. And I know he took great pride in that and in how his and Mary’s philanthropic support and leadership encouraged others to join them and all of it came to fruition.”
Squires said both Dick and Mary were “very involved” in the design and construction process and she was “grateful” Mary had a year to enjoy the finished facility before she passed.
Despite their accomplishments, the Hollands remained humble.
“They were low profile, they were not looking for the spotlight, they just felt they were so fortune to have these gifts to share with others,” Squires said. “It really was never about recognition – it was about having a world-class performing arts center for Omaha.”
Andy Holland said her father enjoyed raising the city’s cultural profile.
“He was very proud of the impact he had on the arts in our community because of the tremendous difference it made,”
Squires appreciated Holland the man, not just the philanthropist. “From the day I met Dick Holland I knew he was an extraordinary person,” she said of her dear friend.
She and her late husband Tom were struck, as others were, by his voracious reading habits.
“Tom and I would get him a book for his birthday or the holidays because what else could you get for him. We had to scramble to find something he hadn’t read that might be of interest, and it could be wide-ranging, on so many topics. We would comb the New York Times Best Sellers List to find just the right book. It was usually nonfiction, current events or historical and things he was engaged in. One of the books I gave him was about the Wright brothers and he read it cover to cover and loved it, because he just had to know how things worked.”
Heritage Services president Sue Morris worked with Holland on several brick and mortar projects he contributed to.
“Dick knew that facilities inspire excellence,” Morris said.
Even though he was a UNO alum she was “blown away” when he made the lead gift for the Baxter Arena – a sports facility. “Honestly, I think he got a kick out of doing something “different” and he was especially pleased the community ice rink was named Holland Ice. We didn’t know how to thank Dick for his generosity and he was beginning to be restricted in his trips, so we brought a parade to his home with the UNO marching band, the hockey players, convertibles with pretty ladies. He laughed and laughed and laughed. No plaque or crystal bowl or sign could have meant more to Dick than his very own parade.”
Just as Squires got close to Holland, so did Morris, and like everyone else who knew him, they miss his friendship.
“My life has been enriched in so many ways by Dick Holland. I miss him,” said Morris.
She and Squires said they will remember Holland always looking expectantly to the next step, the next phase, the next project and getting impatient if things didn’t move fast enough.
Following the old lion’s death a private memorial celebrating his life was held at the venue that meant more to him than any other bearing his name, the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Andy Holland said, “The final thing that closed out the memorial service was an opera duet with two sopranos called “The Flower Song” from the opera Lakme. It’s a beautiful song.”
That night she and some close friends of her father’s remembered the man they all loved.
“I was very touched by how many people really loved him. We had an awful lot of grown men crying. There were a few people we asked to say a few words and they just couldn’t.”
Rather than feel she had to share her father with others, Holland said, “I always thought my father enjoyed his life so much that I felt there was plenty of him to go around.”
Of that night, she said, “It was a wonderful tribute to him – I just thought it was perfect. My dad would have loved it.”
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“He was always very forward thinking. He never dwelt on the past.. He would have wanted to go on living forever. I don’t know many people that feel that way. He never got tired of living because he was just interested in everything. It wasn’t really until the very end he decided, well, I’ve got to go.”
“He was courageous about speaking his mind and speaking out against things he thought wrong – no matter what it might have cost him. He was just never afraid to stick his neck out even when there could have been negative consequences to him.”
“He really wanted to make this a better place because he loved Omaha, He lived here his whole life and wanted to make a difference here.”
“I was very touched by how many people really loved him.”
(Quotes by Andy Holland)
_ _ _
“He was just every day an inspiration in terms of things that needed to be done to mainly improve the lives of poor people in our community and across the country.”
He was a terrific communicator and an inspirational voice and he would just go all out. A real goer and doer. He was still writing op-ed and letters to the editor at over 90 years old and still engaging in the political process, supporting candidates and causes.”
(Quotes by John Cavanaugh)
_ _ _
“He made a huge difference. You see it all around the city. Then there’s places you don’t know where to look even and if you know what he was committed to, there he is, too. He made a difference to everybody who came in contact with him personally. Not everyone loved him. Not everyone even liked him, I suspect. But those of us who were lucky enough to have a friendship with him, will never forget him.”
(Quote by Sam Meisels)
_ _ _
“I miss his willingness to speak up about taboo subjects in Nebraska. I miss his advocacy for things that were right.”
(Quote by Harold Maurer)
” … he just wanted to make this place a better community for everybody. And I know he took great pride in that and in how his and Mary’s philanthropic support and leadership encouraged others to join them and all of it came to fruition.”
(Quote by Joan Squires)
_ _ _
“Dick knew that facilities inspire excellence.”
“We didn’t know how to thank Dick for his generosity (for making the lead gift for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Baxter Arena) and he was beginning to be restricted in his trips, so we brought a parade to his home with the UNO marching band, the hockey players, convertibles with pretty ladies. He laughed and laughed and laughed. No plaque or crystal bowl or sign could have meant more to Dick than his very own parade.”
(Quotes by Sue Morris)
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