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DISPARATE DISCIPLINE: Black, Latino Youth 2-3 Times More Likely To Be Suspended From School

February 11, 2019 Leave a comment

DISPARATE DISCIPLINE

Black, Latino Youth Are 2-3 Times More Likely To Be Suspended From School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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The harsh practice of early childhood centers and elementary schools meting out discipline to “difficult” children through suspension or expulsion is netting more attention. Even more disturbing is the higher rate at which African-Americans and Latinos face exclusionary discipline for behavioral reasons. Special-needs kids are also more frequently disciplined than the general student population. Punitive measures applied in special ed are higher yet for kids of color.

Black boys are consistently disciplined more than any other students across the educational spectrum.

These practices and trends happen nationwide in pre-K, elementary, middle and high school settings. Nebraska’s largest school district, the Omaha Public Schools, incurred a $1.85 million penalty from the Nebraska Department of Education in 2015 for disproportionate suspension of special-ed students. A district report for the 2017-2018 academic year revealed blacks and Latinos suspended at two or three times the rate of whites within the general and special-ed populations.

In the wake of community concerns, district suspension data is slated to be discussed at the Feb. 20 OPS board meeting.

Despite studies-reports, strategies-initiatives on the issue, data show a persistent problem here and across the U.S. where there’s diverse student enrollment.

Yet some schools-centers manage misbehavior without resorting to exclusionary discipline as a matter of policy.

There’s consensus by educators, academics and parents that repeated, prolonged removals from the classroom negatively impact a child’s educational, social-emotional developmental progress. It also poses challenges to parents and families.

“There are very few parents in a position where suddenly having a child home for some amount of time is going to be easily managed. This can create significant challenges for families.” said Juliet Summers, policy coordinator for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice at Voices for Children in Nebraska.

Jana Habrock, director of Early Childhood Mental Health at the Child Saving Institute (CSI), said, “Research and experts agree suspension-expulsion is harmful for young children. It has damaging effects on children and their relationship to school and the message it sends to them about their worth.”

“As a practical matter,” Summers said, “every time a student is suspended or expelled, learning time is lost. When the student returns to class, he or she will be a little bit behind, understand a little bit less of what the class is learning. The student may act out from boredom or lack of understanding, and the cycle repeats.

“This repeat cycle of behavioral choices, being excluded, feeling unwelcome, returning and feeling lost, can certainly foster negative perceptions about school, education and authority figures. Exclusionary discipline, particularly for young children, can have lasting impacts. If a child comes to believe he or she is unwelcome or unwanted in a classroom environment, one defense mechanism can be to decide he or she does not want to be there anyway and act out accordingly. Written or unwritten labels of ‘the bad kid’ can stick, not just with educators, but with children themselves.”

At Nelson Mandela School in North Omaha, principal Susan Toohey said, “We don’t believe in suspensions – we believe in timeouts.” Serving a suspension at home, she said, “is probably not going to be educationally fruitful and a kid gets the mindset that I’m bad.

“Doing restorative justice within the school setting – to change behavior to get the child back with peers – is much better.”

Sherwood Foundation-supported Educare centers do not use suspension-expulsion for the same reasons.

Path of least resistance

Exclusionary discipline is even more problematic when applied arbitrarily or as an expediency.

“At times, I think suspension-expulsion is used to send a message to the parent the behavior is serious,” said CSI’s Habrock, adding, “Sometimes the center or school does not know what else to do to improve the behavior.”

Resources are available to assist educators and parents.

At CSI, Habrock said, “we did not suspend or expel kids, but we also did not know what to do with kids coming in our doors that had been expelled from other programs and had significantly challenging behavior. So, we started a program, KidSquad, to support these kids and get them prepared for the behavior expectations of kindergarten and the school setting.”

Child care centers can become last resort “babysitting” options for expelled elementary school children. Age and developmental-needs differences pose problems.

“I think our program continues to exist and maintain a wait list for services because challenging behavior is hard, overwhelming and frustrating – and teachers and parents don’t know what to do,” Habrock said.

Another early childhood focused training program, Rooted in Relationships, works to prevent suspension by coaching childcare providers to use the Pyramid Model – a positive behavioral intervention and support framework – and providing information about the harm suspension practices cause.

Habrock concedes educators must “balance keeping all children safe.”

Studies and parent testimonies, however, suggest many children get thrown out of school for behaviors denoted as “disrespect,” “insubordination” and “verbal conflicts” that pose no safety risk. The severity of other behaviors resulting in suspension, such as fighting, are open to interpretation. Thus, there’s momentum around Too Young to Suspend legislation that limits suspension-expulsion to only clear threats of physical danger. Nebraska State Sen. Megan Hunt is sponsoring the Too Young to Suspend Act in LB 165. It’s been referred to the Unicameral’s Education Committee.

A mishmash of procedures in private child care centers makes standardized suspension-expulsion rules difficult. Public schools, however, have structures, policies and government funding in place that provide framework and leverage for system-wide uniformity.

“I think we have really great evidence that pushing a student out of school is not good for that individual student, and it’s not good for the rest of the students either,” said Voices’ Juliet Summers. “One of the best predictors of student achievement for a school is not necessarily the poverty or crime rate of a neighborhood but rather how strong the relationships are that parents, administrators, teachers and students describe.”

Lack of staff training and resources may explain why some kids get suspended or expelled.

“Even in classrooms where teachers have bachelor degrees in early childhood education,” Habrock said, “they often have very little hands-on experience in preventing behavior and implementing strategies to improve behavior. That is changing some in our colleges and universities, but there is still more to be done.”

As more children present Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), some disruptive behavior may be rooted in trauma requiring professional mental health intervention.

“More than one child in a classroom with these types of experiences can overwhelm the capacities of even the best teachers,” Habrock said.

Just don’t expect easy answers for “a multi-layered issue,” she and other experts say.

Adequate training and resources are only part of it.

“Making adjustments to meet the individual needs of each child is the gold standard in early childhood education,” Habrock said. “Programs in our community like Early Head Start, Head Start and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), accredited child care programs do this really well. Those programs often have additional resources like family support workers or lower teacher-child ratios to bridge home and school to learn the individual needs of each child. Programs without those resources have a more difficult time accommodating individual child needs.”

Early Buffett Childhood Institute founding Executive Director Sam Meisels said, “Almost always a situation that could lead to expulsion of a preschooler is an environmental problem. It’s a simple thing but a not-so-simple or unimportant thing. Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for preschoolers. To expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher. Mostly we can figure this thing out or get some help to figure it out.”

Said Habrock, “Nearly all early childhood experts agree play is how young children learn. But with the push for academics at earlier and earlier years, we see less and less time for things like center time and outdoor play.”

Making it personal

Educators believing they’ve failed a child is one thing. Parents having their child kicked out of school is another. Tunette Powell and her husband are well-educated, good-earning African-American parents of two young boys. The couple provide a safe, stable home, and yet their sons got suspended from a Bellevue preschool in 2014.

“If you looked at our situation you would say this would never happen – and here it happened. It was a shock and a wake-up call at the same time,” Powell said.

It evoked memories of her own elementary school suspension in her native San Antonio. The experience, she said, put her behind. Since her sons’ suspension, she gets triggered whenever their school calls.

Powell, a writer and public speaker, shared her family’s story in a blog that went viral. She instantly gained a national platform to address the issue. Today she’s Parent Engagement Coach at the UCLA Parent Project and a UCLA doctoral student in Urban Schooling. Her dissertation is based on interviews with black parents, including Omahans, who’ve had children suspended.

Powell was shocked again when she discovered how embedded racialized suspension is in early education.

“We always knew about K-12. For younger children the data is very new. However, we as a nation have been capturing data about this since the 1970s, so at this point we know there’s a problem. But I don’t think people expected the disparity would also be present for children as young as 3 and 4 years old.”

She traces the suspension epidemic and the disparity of its application to when integration introduced more black children to majority schools.

“It has its roots in desegregation and, if we want to go beyond that, we have to talk about the context in which black people were brought and put here in the first place. It’s always been about social control.”

Her thesis, she said, “looks at the damage done to the minds and spirits of black parents when they have a child suspended. They’re sharing some pretty              heartbreaking and emotional things about how this is impacting their lives. I call it collective trauma.”

She’s been there herself.

“It’s my life. It’s one thing to read statistics but it’s another to hear stories. And this is where black parents are especially important. We have to be sharing our stories. These parents hurt. They’re embarrassed. They’re made to feel that if my child is in trouble then they’re a problem and that means I must have given birth to a problem. That’s the way we frame right now.

“It’s not to say black kids don’t present behavior issues. But when we see the disparities we have to be honest and say it’s probably not the child that’s the problem.”

Powell echoes others that school disciplinary actions can haunt youth into adulthood.

Omaha business owner David Mitchell dealt with “the negative results of elementary school suspension” into high school, when, he said, he was finally “comfortable exploring my scholastic abilities.”

Bias

“We know it’s an embarrassment for the child,” Powell said. “We know it severs early ties with peers and teachers. It’s completely disrupting to everything about the child’s life. It stigmatizes young people. Your suspension history record follows you in school the same way incarceration does when you’re job-seeking. Teachers are likely to see you through one lens only.”

Nelson Mandela principal Susan Toohey agrees. “We all come to our work with the lens with which we were given, and some of us need to change our lens.”

“We still need a lot of work in breaking down bias and implicit bias,” Juliet Summers of Voices said. “Teachers and administrators have huge hearts for their students, but all of us walk around with implicit biases drilled into us through our culture. Educators are not exempt.”

“Implicit bias is something we see in our work,” Habrock said. “We have done some community training-professional development on cultural competence. We also address implicit bias in our consultation with teachers. This spring we will bring a national expert on this topic to provide training to the KidSquad team and others to improve our skills at addressing implicit bias and disproportionate discipline.”

In schools with diverse students but predominantly white educators, “it’s inevitable biases and prejudices will be a factor,” said Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru.The former OPS teacher seeks to “change the culture and climate of the public education tree that seems to drop many African-American students like bad apples.”

Summers believes bias is one piece of the situation.

“Another piece,” she said, “is that black students are more likely to attend under-resourced schools in a classroom where a teacher has more students to handle, sometimes more with higher, more various needs. In those environments teachers don’t have what they need to meet any behavioral challenges with the same level of patience and grace and welcoming arms.”

Buffett Early Childhood guru Sam Meisels said, “There are problems of identification with the authority figure who looks different and is different – some children coming from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure previously.”

Given bias is real, Gaines-Liwaru said, “Building diversity understanding and cultural empathy through appropriate professional development for educators and support staff should be every urban school district’s mandate, and it should be on-going.”

For Gaines-Liwaru, remedying the “disproportionate suspension mess and injustice” should include engagement in curriculum students “can see themselves in.” She fears “It’s easier to put kids out of the classroom, document negative behaviors and allow suspensions to ensue than to individually research and design lessons that empower students in their racial-cultural identities.”

She advocates “putting resources towards diversifying teaching staff” and “utilizing restorative justice methods that teach kids healthy social skills and behavior management techniques versus suspending them.”

OPS has made diversifying its teacher-administrator ranks a priority. It contracts with the Minnesota Humanities Center for voluntary cultural competency training. The district’s plan to reduce disproportionate suspension among special-ed students includes closer partnerships with Project Harmony and other mental health resources. OPS is also working to implement a problem-solving model called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavior (MTSS-B) to more effectively and equitably address misbehavior and discipline.

Activism-Advocacy

“It’s not enough to have blacks in leadership roles,” said Tunette Powell. “We have a tendency to be content or complacent with that. We need to really push them. If you’re leading a district struggling with disproportionally, what are you going to do about it? We have to hold people accountable. We are so far beyond symbolism.”

If there’s to be change, Powell said, “black parents need to discuss their experiences and take those to school board and community meetings. We have to become the community leaders and activists. I think people don’t want to listen to black parents because often we don’t have a Ph.D. after our names. But we can’t ignore black parents’ voices anymore.

“I wish education officials would be bold enough to say that systemically we have failed black children. It’s the only way we can move forward.”

Omaha community activist Leo Louis II held fall public forums on school suspension after black parents asked him to be an advocate in dealing with OPS.

“Often times the parent is completely unprepared for what the school has planned for their child,” he said.

He’s concerned that terms associated with adult criminal allegations, such as “assault” and “abuse,” are used to describe some young children’s misbehavior.

The forums have yielded personal testimonies about suspension and alternatives to its practice.

“it’s been my task to educate the community this is not a unique situation to individuals and individual families but a systemic thing,” Louis said. “We’re seeking allies willing to have this conversation and to put in real work toward the solutions.”

One ally, Sharif Liwaru, was fired in December as director of OPS’ Office of Equity and Diversity after forwarding an email from Louis about a school suspension forum at North High to district principals. Liwaru said he didn’t direct or invite school officials to attend but merely shared the event notice. Two previous suspension forums were held at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, for which Liwaru is president.

Louis led a silent protest of Liwaru’s firing at a Jan. 7 school board meeting.

The district will not comment on personnel matters.

Liwaru has not moved on from the suspension issue. He’s now executive director of the new grassroots Justice for Kids Initiative that seeks to reduce school suspensions.  Organizers and supporters held a Feb. 3 launch to build awareness and raise funds.

He worries alternatives will receive short shrift as long “as educational exclusion is on the table.”

“We need to find alternatives to suspension that actually teach the appropriate behavior as an immediate response to violations and we need to have solutions that build relationships between students and teachers. Bigger than that, we have to have the difficult dialogue about racism and how it shows up here,” said Liwaru, whose wife is Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru.

“Cooperative relationships and open communication between school, student and parent are fundamental to every child achieving his or her educational goals,” Summers said. “When a student is excluded from the school environment, particularly if strong lines of communication have not already been created, it can send the wrong message.”

School-to-prison pipeline?

Some suggest the jarring interruption of being severed from school contributes to truancy and drop-out behaviors. Once youth come in contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, this pattern can be a school-to-prison pipeline gateway. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said so in 2014.

“You talk about setting kids on a wrong pathway – it just adds to the trauma many children experience. The science is pretty clear,” said Buffett Early Childhood Fund President Jessie Rasmussen. “These things happening in the earliest years of a kid’s life have a direct connection to their trajectory for life. It doesn’t mean we can’t do interventions later, but it’s harder, more time and resource intensive and far too often not successful.”

The skew of blacks and Latinos facing exclusionary discipline mirrors that of individuals in detention and incarceration. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights reports that schools with Student Resource Officers have much higher arrests and referrals to law enforcement for black students than white students. A permanent police presence in schools makes children far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests for disciplinary matters than a generation ago, said ACLU Nebraska Legal Counsel Rose Godinez, “A school-based arrest is the quickest route from the classroom to the courthouse.”

ACLU Nebraska recommends “positive alternatives to exclusionary punishments” to improve student safety.

It’s clear to Powell and others that the same “racialized narratives” behind over-policing, profiling and criminalizing of adult black male scours in schools, where black boys are viewed as “older or less innocent.”

“Just as communities are exploring alternatives to detention, we must consider alternatives to suspensions-expulsions which push kids out and cause them to disengage with education,” said ReConnect Inc. Executive Director LaVon Stennis-Williams. Her program works with families who have contact with the justice system. She sees a direct correlation between exclusionary discipline and delinquency.

“Often what we label as a disciplinary problem is actually the child acting out because he or she is so far behind in school that learning is not making sense,” said Stennis Williams. “Some of this might be due to learning disabilities that go unmet. I have had youth sent to my program for day reporting due to long-term suspensions or expulsions who have gone months with no educational services. So the youth will eventually quit school at an early age and spiral in and out of the juvenile justice system until reaching the magic age to be charged as an adult.”

No one wants children’s welfare to get lost in the shuffle.

“Because a child can be disruptive for your whole class, it’s easy to say in the interest of all the other kids this kid’s got to go, What we should say is that in the interest of all kids all kids need to stay,” said Rasmussen. “This is not anything about the children. This is about decisions by adults, and that’s how we have to see it.

“Our job is to promote this child’s healthy growth and development. Our responsibility is to figure out how best to do that and what they need and to work in partnership with parents to accomplish that,” Rasmussen said. “It’s more important to get the support to the parents and the caretakers than to somehow penalize children.”

Meanwhile, Sharif Liwaru sounds a note of collective remediation. “Because this is so complex,” he said, “we must all take ownership.”

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

 

A firsthand account of school suspension and trauma

Black mother, 2 sons suffer the wounds of expulsion

By Tunette Powell

When I was three 3 years old, I was expelled from preschool because — as my mother remembers it — I was “acting too grown.”

I was a preschool dropout.

My elementary experience was similar. Whether it was me “acting too grown,” fighting over something silly or passing letters because I was bored, the end result was the same: I was suspended, and because my mother worked, my Aunt Linda and my grandma watched me.

It was the early 1990s, and on the East Side of San Antonio, Texas, where I grew up, the black community was unraveling. Crack cocaine had kidnapped black mothers and fathers, including my father. When my grandma saw me in the principal’s office, it was reminiscent of the countless times she had seen my father strung out on crack cocaine as he was being hauled off to the county jail. To my grandma, my schooling experience had become my father’s prison experience.

As I got older, rather than focusing on becoming better in school, I focused on getting out. The older I got, the less I attended school. I was chronically absent and despite a B+ average in high school, my mother was forced to pay a fine, to the courts, for my absenteeism.  I was assigned to a probation officer and sentenced to Saturday school and after-school detention for most of my 11th-grade year of high school to make up for all of the days I had missed. Despite skipping school and being suspended at nearly every grade level of K-12, I graduated from high school and tried college for a bit before dropping out. I eventually went back to college after a four-year hiatus, and in 2012, eight years after graduating from high school, I became the first woman — and just the second person — in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. On the surface, it appeared as though the adult-me had outrun the school-suspended child-me.  On the surface, the trauma of being cast out by schooling, and the trauma experienced in my family had been conquered.

And then in 2014, the phone rang.

“We need you to come pick up Jason,” the director of my oldest son’s preschool said.

“Is he being suspended?” I asked.

“We don’t like to use the word ‘suspended,’” the director said. “We just call it going home for the day.”

That same year, my oldest two sons, Jason and Joah, who were 3 and 4 years old at the time, went “home for the day” nearly a dozen times combined. By 2014, my life was completely different than that of the 1990s. Having escaped poverty and married now, my husband, who was in the Air Force, and I were living in suburban Omaha. I was a published author, motivational speaker and founder of a nonprofit. But no matter the years and miles removed, that phone call took me back to my childhood; that of not only being told that I was a problem but actually believing it. While on the first of multiple calls that year with my children’s preschool, I was reminded that I could not outrun trauma, out-accomplish trauma, nor could I buy my way out of trauma. The trauma of my childhood experiences with suspension and those of my children permeated my core being. Similar to a solider, safe and away from the battlefields, having a reflexive duck-for-cover response after hearing a loud sound, suspension had “impaired my hearing.”  Every time the phone rang, the sound brought tears to my eyes as I was always expecting it to be a suspension phone call. The trauma impaired my sight. As I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw the accomplished woman, only a problem who had given birth to two problems.

For black families throughout the United States, this has become the norm as black children have become the most suspended students in the country, according to a report released in 2018 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. According to that report and others like it, black boys are the most suspended of any group of students; and Black girls — the most suspended of all girls — have the highest-growing suspension rate of all students. Black K-12 students are nearly four times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white students. Among children in preschool, black children, who make up only 19 percent of preschool enrollment, represent 47 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Furthermore, according to a report released by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, even among students with disabilities, who carry federal documents that are supposed to protect their civil rights (e.g. IEP and 504 plans), black students are unprotected as they are suspended more often than any other group of students with disabilities. Based on these statistics, it is easy to assume black children – as young as 3 and 4 years old – are the problem, that their behavior and emotional responses are particularly maladaptive to schooling.  However, black and white children do not behave very differently; it is the adult response that is different. Previous studies have shown that adults typically view black children as older, less innocent and more blameworthy compared with non-black children, including Latino children.

In my case, I was a curious child who asked a lot of questions and enjoyed talking. At home, my family, especially my father, called me smart and gifted. However, at school, preschool teachers interpreted that behavior as me “acting too grown.” These school discipline disparities are rooted in a history of the dehumanization and adultification of black children. Black children are treated like they should know better, adultified and are consequently robbed of the chance to be children. For example, in 2016, a group out of Yale University found that the early childhood educators tended to observe black students more closely, especially black boys. According to their study, early childhood educators expected black preschoolers to exhibit more challenging behaviors compared with their non-black peers. This has resulted in the increased likelihood of dropping out of high school, academic failure, grade retention and future incarceration – all things that are harmful and traumatic to black children and their families.

As the Trump administration is repealing federal protections that guard students from these discriminatory practices, the fight to disrupt and dismantle what is happening in schools must be fought at the local level – and must begin and end with black families. All across the nation, in cities such as Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and Dayton, Ohio, black families are fighting against school suspension and supporting behavior intervention. In Omaha, where black families are met with the same fate as black families nationally, the time to be vocal is now. The single-most-important first step of disrupting and dismantling school suspension disparities is for black parents and students to share their experiences. Additionally, because parents in other states have launched grassroots efforts to combat school suspension, it is important to study those successes. For example, Dignity in Schools – a national coalition of parents, youth and community organizers to end school pushout – offers a toolkit for parents, youth and organizers who want to combat school pushout. This toolkit includes organizing and campaign strategies as well as fact sheets and sample reports.

Right after desegregation, black parents tried to alert us of school suspension disparities. More than 50 years later, the cries of black parents have gone unheard, resulting in black children being the most pushed-out children in the country. However, at this time in history, black parents are lifting their voices in ways that are forcing school districts to hear us and see us. Omaha needs this kind of rallying.

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Dick Holland remembered for generous giving and warm friendship that improved organizations and lives

February 8, 2017 1 comment

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.

 

 

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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.”

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Soulmate

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.”

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?'”

 

Image result for dick holland omaha

 

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,”

 

  • Holland is gifted a hockey jersey with his name on it during a parade outside his home, held in appreciation for his donation toward Baxter Arena.

  • Durango greets Holland at the parade.

  • Holland is recognized during Baxter Arena’s dedication ceremony.

  • Holland and Chancellor John Christensen share a moment during an early childhood education event held by the Aspen Institute and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Enriching lives

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.”

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

 

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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)

Dick Holland, Omaha’s Old Lion of Philanthropy


To commemorate the recent 95th birthday celebrated by one of Omaha’s favorite sons and most popular philanthropists, Dick Holland, I have compiled this set of stories I’ve done either profiling him or some of his passions. He is the proverbial fat cat with a heart of gold. The avuncular Omaha native has been a major player on the local philanthropic scene for a few decades now. He was already a highly successful advertising executive when he heeded Warren Buffett’s advice and invested in Berkshire Hathaway. Holland and his late wife Mary became part of that circle of local investors who could trace their incredible wealth to that fateful decision to ride the Buffett-Berkshire snowball that made millionaires out of dozens of ordinary investors. Unlike some donors who prefer to remain silent, Holland is not shy about expressing his opinions about most anything. This classic liberal makes no bones about where he stands on social issues, and you have to give him credit – he really does put his money where his mouth is. The causes that he and Mary put their energies and dollars behind have helped shape the social, cultural, aesthetic landscape in Omaha.

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

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.

Mary and Dick Holland, ©portrait by Debra Jay Groesser

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.”

Dick Holland is pictured in his Omaha home on Oct. 2, 2012.

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 Performing Arts Center

 

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.”

_ _ _

Holland Performing Arts Center

Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

When it comes to big time philanthropy in Omaha, a few individuals and organizations stand out. Richard Holland has become synonymous with king-sized generosity through the Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary started.

If the 88 year-old retired advertising executive is not making some large financial gift he’s being feted for his achievements or contributions. In April he was honored in Washington, D.C. with the Horatio Alger Award “for his personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings.” While his success is indisputable, how much adversity he faced is debatable. Closer to home Holland was presented the Grace Abbott Award by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation “for his work in creating positive change for children through community.” No one questions his devotion to helping children and families, causes that legendary social worker Grace Abbott of Nebraska championed.

Several area buildings bear the Holland name in recognition of gifts the couple made, including the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha and the Child Saving Institute in midtown. Mary was a CSI volunteer and benefactor. Her passion for its mission of improving the lives of at-risk children was shared by Dick once he saw for himself the pains that staff and volunteers go to in “restoring” broken children.

The couple made sharing their wealth, specifically giving back to their hometown, a major priority through the establishment of their foundation in 1997. Since Mary’s death in 2006 Dick, as he goes by, has continued using the foundation’s sizable assets, $60 million today and expected to be much more when he’s gone, to support a wide range of educational, art, health, human service and community projects.

True to his social justice leanings, Holland is a mover and shaker in Building Bright Futures. The birth-through-college education initiative provides an infrastructure of tutoring, mentoring, career advice and scholarship support for disadvantaged youth.

Like many mega donors he prefers deflecting publicity from himself to the organizations he supports. He makes some notable exceptions to that rule, however. For one thing, he vociferously advocates people of means like himself give for the greater good. For another, he believes in speaking his mind about issues he cares about and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers along the way, even if those feathers belong to a political kingpin.

Just last March Holland took the occasion of accepting the NEBRASKAlander Award from Gov. Dave Heineman to criticize a stance by the conservative Republican leader.  Heineman publicly opposes renewal of government-funded prenatal services for low income immigrant women in America illegally. Holland, who supports the care, used the evening’s platform to editorialize.

“No one should be denied prenatal care in Nebraska,” he bluntly told the black tie audience and the governor. His comments were viewed as ungracious or inappropriate by some and as a strategic use of the bully pulpit by others.

Consistent with his Depression-era roots, Holland is not rigidly bound by the constraints of political correctness and so he doesn’t mince words or tip-toe around controversy when he talks. Neither does he hide his political allegiance.

“I’m a liberal Democrat and I underline that,” said Holland, a Unitarian who also prides himself on his free-thinking ethos.

Dick Holland

He recently sat down for an interview at his home, where he readily shared his frank, colorful, unparsed, unapologetic impressions on the state of America in this prolonged recession. Critics may say someone as rich as Holland can afford to be opinionated because he’s already made his fortune and therefore nothing short of a mismanaged investment portfolio can hurt his standing. Besides, dozens of organizations and institutions rely on his goodwill and they’re not about to object to his pronouncements.

Those who know him understand that Holland’s just being himself when he says it like it is, or at least the way he sees it. Most would concede he’s earned the right to say his piece because unlike some fat cats, he worked for a living. His proverbial ship came in only after he’d launched a highly successful business. It was after that he followed his gut and his head and became an early Berkshire Hathaway investor. The millions he accrued made him a Player, but he first made a name for himself as a partner in one of Omaha’s premier advertising agencies, Holland, Dreves and Reilly, which later merged with a Lincoln agency to become Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland, Inc.

All along the way, from young-man-in-a-hurry to middle-aged entrepreneur to mature tycoon, he’s been speaking his mind, only when you carry the clout and bankroll he does, and make the kind of donations he makes, people are more apt to listen.

The Omaha Central High graduate came from an enterprising family. His father Lewis Holland emigrated to the States from London, by way of Canada, where a summer working the wheat fields convinced him his hands were better suited for illustration than harvesting. Lewis settled in Omaha and rose to advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture. He later opened his own ad agency, where Dick eventually joined him and succeeded him.

Before Dick became a bona fide Mad Man in the ad game, he began studies at Omaha University. Then the Second World War intervened and after seeing service in the chemical corps he returned home to finish school, with no plans other than to make it in business and study art. Indeed, he was all set to go to New York when he met Mary. Their courtship kept him here, where he found the ad world fed his creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial instincts. He built Holland, Dreves, Reilly into the second biggest agency in the state, behind only Bozell and Jacobs.

He was certainly a well-connected, self-made man, but by no means rich. That is until he started investing with fellow Central High grad Warren Buffett, who is 10 years his junior. Much like Buffett, he’s careful about where he invests and donates his money. When Holland sees a problem or a need he can help with, he does his homework before committing any funds.

“I’m not throwing money at it,” he said, adding that the best thing about giving is getting “results.” He said, “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

The socially-conscious Holland is keenly aware that in these financially unstable times the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened, something he finds unforgivable in what is held out to be a land of plenty for all

“What has happened in the United States over the past 40 years has been to make a helluva lot of people poor and less wealthy and to make a few people much richer, and we’ve done that by taxation, by trade policies, by not controlling health insurance costs,” he said. “We increased poverty during this period by at least 35 or 40 percent, but the worst thing that’s happened is the middle class itself, which was coming along after World War II very well, suddenly starting making no gain, particularly when inflation’s  taken into account.”

He said the great promise of the middle class, that repository of the American Dream, has actually lost ground. The prospects of poor folks attaining middle class status and the-home-with-a-white-picket-fence dream that goes along with it seems unreachable for many given the gulf between minimum wage earnings and home mortgage rates

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We might as well say we’ve screwed ’em. I mean, it’s a really sad thing because this country is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The general idea is to provide an equal opportunity and life for almost everyone you possibly can. It sure as hell isn’t having huge groups of impoverished people going to prison and posing all kinds of social problems. All these things should be brought under control by education. It is not supposed to be a South American republic with wealth at the top and a whole vast lower class at the bottom, and we’re headed in that direction unless we make some serious changes in the way we approach this subject.”

When Holland considers the deregulated environment that led to unchecked corporate greed, the Wall Street bust, the home mortgage collapse and the shrinking safety net for the disadvantaged, he sees a recipe for disaster.

“We began to deregulate everything, thinking that regulations made things worse and deregulation would make everything better, and the truth is there are a lot of things that need to be regulated, including human behavior in the marketplace,” he said. “We just ignored that. In fact, it’s almost like saying our social system is every man for himself, and that’s crazy. It’s not every man for himself, we’re interdependent on one another on everything we do. This whole thing is wrong. 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 guess I sound like a doomsday guy, but I really believe unless we correct some of these things the United States risks its future.”

The health care reform debate brought into stark relief for Holland how far apart Americans are on basic remedies to cure social ills.

“Why can’t we get together more on this?” he asked rhetorically. “I have a hunch that part of it is misunderstanding, a growing ignorance among a large body of the populace, not recognizing just exactly what has happened. Talking about health care reform, poor people or middle class people objecting to it don’t seem to understand all the benefits they’re going to gain from it, they’re worried their health care won’t be as good as it was when it’ll be just as good,”

He said health care reform will help the self-employed and small business employees get the coverage they need but couldn’t afford before and will allow persons with preexisting conditions to qualify without being denied. Someone who will benefit from reform is right under his own roof.

“I have a helper who looks after the house. She has a preexisting condition. I pay her insurance, and it’s just over $1,300 a month,” an amount the woman couldn’t possibly afford on her own. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.He said the ever rising cost of health care under a present system of excess and waste drains the nation of vital resources that could be applied elsewhere.

“There’s no question in my mind that a nation as wealthy as the United States having to pay 17 percent of its gross national product for health care versus every other advanced country in the world sticking around 10 or 11 is just leaving several hundred billion dollars on the table that should be available for education, which at the primary level is in terrible shape.”Education has become the main focus of Holland’s philanthropy. Years ago he began seeing the adverse effects of inadequate education. He and Mary became involved in two local programs, Winners Circle and All Our Kids, that assist underachieving schools and students in at-risk neighborhoods. The couple saw the difference that extra resources make in getting kids to do better academically.

Dick and Mary Holland portrait by Debra Joy Groesser

He views education as the key to addressing many of the endemic problems impacting America’s inner cities, including Omaha’s. He wasn’t surprised by what a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed in terms of African-American disparity. Blacks here experience some of the worst poverty in the nation and lag far behind the majority population in employment and education. He said he and other local philanthropists, such as Susan Buffett, were already looking into the issue and formulating Building Bright Futures as a means to close ever widening achievement gaps.

“I think one of the things we don’t really understand really well about cause is the effect of abject poverty,” said Holland. “Most people who have a decent life don’t understand that having no money, no transportation, not having an adequate diet or health care or stimulating opportunities for children in a very poor family is a straight line to prison and social problems. Those children, more than half of them, enter kindergarten not ready at all, with limited vocabularies of 400 words when they should have 1,200 to 1,500, and you can just go from there and it just all goes down hill.”

He said those critical of the job teachers do miss the point that too many kids enter school not ready to learn.

“That’s not because a bunch of teachers are dumb, that’s because there’s a bunch of kids that have not been looked after properly from the beginning. You can blame teachers until the cows come home, but I just say to you, How is a teacher going to teach a child who is that far behind? It’s almost impossible, and that’s the first great neglect. If we had been doing that differently, we would avoid an awful lot of this. In fact, we’d avoid most of it.”

When students enter school unprepared to learn, he said, there’s little that can be done.

“After they get into the grades, there again, there’s no family, no money, no reading, no looking after, no stimulation, no going places, and the net result is the child goes from 1st through 4th grade not catching up and instead starting to diminish. By the 7th and 8th grades they find out they can’t hack it and they get awfully damn tired of being regarded as dumb, and the net effect of that is dropping out.

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face this is what goes on and this is what we don’t do anything about. It’s a tragedy and one of the great national disasters.”

Things get more complicated for children who enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Teen pregnancy and truancy add more challenges. The entrenched gang activity and gun violence in Omaha, he said, has at its source poverty, broken homes, school drop outs, lack of job skills and few sustainable employment options.

He said the fact the majority of Omaha Public Schools students come from households whose income is so low they qualify for the free/reduced lunch program indicates how widespread the problem is. “When a child has to have a free lunch all you can say is something is terribly wrong,” he said.

To those who would indict an entire school district he points out OPS students attending schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods do as well or better than students in the Westside and Millard districts. He said the real disparity exists between students from affluent environments and those from impoverished environments.

“The way I sometimes put it to people is, ‘The kids make the school.’ It’s a funny thing how we don’t understand this. It’s very obvious to me,” he said, that on average children from “reasonable affluence” do better than children from poverty. He said Winners Circle and All Our Kids, two programs under the Building Bright Futures umbrella, are full of success stories, as is another effort he and Bright Futures endorses, Educare. Through these and other programs Bright Futures is very intentional in putting in place the support students need from early childhood on.

“We’re going to have a thousand kids this year in early childhood programs. We have organizations that are working in something like 12 or 14 schools. We’ve got five hundred volunteers of all kinds. And we actually have cases. From the very beginning it’s been shown that if we get a hold of a child, even after this bad beginning, and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.  In All Our Kids we have 40 kids in college, 50 that have graduated, several with master’s degrees, and every one of those kids was a kid at risk. So we know what to do if we work hard enough on it. What we have to overcome is the kid who doesn’t think he’s so hot. At home an impoverished child often gets put down, diminishing his ego. We have to overcome that, and that’s one of the things we really try to do.”

Mary Holland recognized there must be a continuum of support in place all through a student’s development. Dick said that’s why she encouraged the merger between Winners Circle, whose focus is on elementary school students, and All Our Kids, whose focus is on junior high and high school students.

Image result for dick holland omaha

“We’re trying to take those kids all the way through the 11th grade, taking them every where and teaching them what college requires, what businesses are like, exposing them to the world,” he said. “Bright Futures is not a five or six year program, it’s a 15-year program. It’s gotta be done like that.”

The idea is to get kids on the right track and keep them there. Getting kids to believe in themselves is a big part of it. “If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence you don’t try things, and we try to overcome that. With some kids it works. Some find out, I’m better than I thought, I can do that.”

The goal is qualifying students for college and their attaining a higher education degree. Towards that end, Bright Futures works with students from 12th grade through college.

“We follow you there,” said Holland. “We’ve set up things in universities to help people. We’re still trying to bring it all together. It’s an effort to refresh, restore, make them understand what they have to achieve in order to do anything in life.”

Enough funding is in place that cost is not an issue for Bright Futures students.

“We have adequate scholarship money for thousands, we don’t even have to worry about that, and yet we don’t have enough people to take them that qualify. Just because you graduate from high school doesn’t mean you’re ready for college. Sometimes I think they (schools) get ‘em out of high school just to get ‘em out of high school.”

Holland has a better appreciation than most for the barriers that make all this difficult in practice. He and Mary mentored some young people through All Our Kids and they experienced first-hand how things that most of us take for granted can be stumbling blocks for others. He recounted the time he and Mary mentored a young single mother. Things started out promisingly enough but then a familiar pattern set in that unraveled the whole scenario. He said the young woman got a job, her employer liked her and her performance, but she stopped coming to work and she got fired. The same thing happened at another job. And then another. Each time, he said, the challenge of affording child care, getting health problems addressed and finding reliable transportation sabotaged both the young mother’s and the Hollands’ best efforts.

“She couldn’t hold a job, and we gave up,” he said. It’s not something he’s proud of, but he’s honest about the frustration these situations can produce. Other mentoring experiences ended more positively but still highlighted the challenges people face.

“You find out an awful lot about how tough this is because they don’t have the same kind of get up and go confidence like my daughters, who think that nothing is beyond them. You try to instill that, and when you see a little bit of it happening it’s worth the price of admission.”

He acknowledges that despite government cutbacks there’s still plenty of public aid to help catch people who fall through the cracks. But he feels strongly that a different emphasis is required — one that helps people become self-sufficient contributors.

“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 sooner or later it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

Policies also need to change in terms of guaranteeing people a living wage, he said.

“Let me give you an idea of how we look at things,” said Holland. “We had a $2 (hourly) minimum wage in 1975 and that was adequate to get people out of poverty, it really was. But since the ‘80s the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and inflation. It’s kept people in poverty. The Congress of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to really go after that. They failed to understand it.”

He said despite the minimum wage having increased to $7.25 in Nebraska and higher in other states, “it ought to be $10 or $11” to give families a chance of not just getting by but getting ahead. “We’re not looking at this problem the right way, we’re just creating it. There’s a dismissal of the problem by people that don’t have it.”

Similarly, he said early childhood programs must be learning centers not babysitting or recreational centers, that address the entire needs of children.

“We have a fractional help system. Somebody helps them after school, somebody sets up a club, somebody sets up something else over here. Some of those after school things make you feel better, they’re fun to go to, they’ve got cookies, but that doesn’t focus on their actual intellectual needs. There’s a lot of that that goes on.”

Holland calls for systemic change that comprehensively affects lives.

“I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution. We’re going to have to stop what we’re doing and start doing something along the lines I’ve talked about. At various times there’s been various suggestions about poverty, but one thing that will help alleviate poverty a helluva lot is money, there’s no getting around it. If it takes 5 or 10 percent of the gross national product it will be a benefit over time because once you have a little money you begin to be able to do a few things, and then you begin to learn a few things, and your children do the same.”

A model approach in his eyes is Educare’s holistic early childhood education. “We’re (surrogate) parents there, that’s what we are,” he said, “and the people that bring their children there know what’s happening, they know that suddenly the whole world is opening for that child. When those kids enter kindergarten they’re ready, they’ve got these big vocabularies. We know it can be done, but we also know the price.”

To those who might balk at the $12,000-$13,000 annual cost of caring for a child in a state-of-the-art center, he said it’s but a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate someone or to navigate someone through the justice system or the foster care system.

Agree or disagree with him, you can be sure Dick Holland will continue putting his money where his mouth is and where his heart is.

– – –

Omaha is known as an unusually philanthropic community and the following story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) charts how a venerable childcare institution found support for a badly needed new building from a circle of dedicated divers and why these well-heeled individuals contributed to the project. The result is that the drab, old and cramped institutional-looking structure was remade into a gleaming, new and expansive showcase. What a difference a few million dollars can make

 

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha‘s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

The Child Saving Institute has a brand spanking new home for its mission of “responding to the cry of a child.” CSI dedicated the new digs at 4545 Dodge St. in March, turning the next chapter in the organization’s 106-year history. The social service agency addresses the needs of at-risk children, youth and families.

The project was made possible by donors who saw the need for a larger, more dynamic, more kidscentric space that better reflected the organization’s expanded services and more comfortably accommodated staff and clients. A $10.7 million campaign secured funds for a complete makeover of the old building, which was stripped to its steel beams, redesigned and enlarged. An endowment was created.

The goal was soon surpassed and by the time the three-year campaign concluded, $12.2 million was raised.

Upon inheriting the former Safeway offices site in 1982 CSI officials knew it was a poor fit for the child care, emergency shelter and adoption programs then constituting the nonprofit’s services. The mostly windowless building was a drab, dreary bunker, its utilitarian interiors devoid of color, light, whimsy, fun.

The two-story structure was sound but lacked such basic amenities as an elevator. The day care and early childhood education classrooms lacked their own restrooms. Limited space forced staff to share offices. Inadequate conference rooms made it difficult for the board of directors and the guild to meet.

The drab, old Child Saving Institute

There were not enough dedicated facilities for counseling/therapeutic sessions. As CSI’s services have broadened to address youth, parenting and family issues, with an emphasis on preventive and early interventive help, more clients come through the doors.

Additionally, the organization’s outdoor playground was cramped and outmoded. Limited parking inconvenienced staff and clients alike.

“We were dissatisfied with the building,” CEO Judy Kay said. “It had at least been 10 years prior even to the decision to build that we knew we needed a different space.” She said CSI once explored new building options but “gave up, because, honestly, we all became so frustrated and we didn’t have the funds to do it.”

Enter philanthropists Dick and Mary Holland. The late Mary Holland was a CSI board member with a passion for the agency and its mission. At his wife’s urging Dick Holland toured the place Mary spoke so glowingly about. Two things happened. His big heart ached when he saw the children craving affection and his bad knees screamed from all the stairs he had to climb.

Holland pestered CSI to install an elevator. One day he and Mary summoned then-CEO Donna Tubach Davis and development director Wanda Gottschalk to a special meeting. “And at that meeting he said, ‘Ladies, it’s time to have an elevator. We’re going to get started on this project,’ and he handed us a very large check. It was for just under $3 million,” Gottschalk recalled.

He wasn’t done giving. After Mary passed CSI remembered her at a board luncheon. Upon accepting a plaque in her memory daughter Amy surprised CSI with a million dollar check from her father.

“I don’t think anybody in the city could hear anything more meaningful to them then to have Dick Holland say I will help you,” said Gottschalk.

Mary and Dick Holland, ©By Debra Joy Groesser

The CSI campus is named after Mary Holland. Dick didn’t want his name anywhere but conceded to the elevator being dubbed, “Dick’s Lift.” RDG Schutte Wilscam Birge’s redesign more than doubled the square footage, opened up the interior to create bright, spacious work areas, added multiple meeting rooms and provided vibrant colors and active play centers. The large lobby is awash in art and light.

CSI can now serve twice the number of children in its day care.

The Hollands’ generous donations launched the building-endowment campaign. A committee of past board presidents set about raising the remaining funds.

“We were very blessed with their help.” Gottschalk said. “These past board presidents obviously also had invested a lot in CSI and cared very deeply about it.”

She said donors become “total advocates” and ambassadors for CSI. As a result, she said, “we were able to raise the $12.2 million with about 30 people.” None of it may have happened, she said, had Holland not taken the trouble to see for himself why his wife was so moved.

“Mary had become an important participant and she got me interested in it,” he said. “Together we began to do whatever we could for the Child Saving Institute. It just became one of the loves of our life. It was a pleasure to work with them and we got all kinds of things done. We saw opportunities to do more things, bigger things, and in a decent environment.”

“He was truly then invested in child saving and what we do here,” Gottschalk said. “The passion that he has for kids just keeps coming through.”

The Hollands’ enthusiasm won over others.

“We got some of our friends interested in it,” he said.

Such links can pay big dividends.

“I think it’s always about the relationships,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a one-on-one relationship. It can be with any one of us on staff. A lot of times those relationships are through board members.”

CSI was delighted when Holland offered to loosen some well-heeled friends’ purse strings. Gottschalk accompanied him. “He’s very powerful. It’s very hard to say no to Dick,” she said. Sometimes the Hollands worked on their own.

“One of the donors asked to meet with just Dick and Mary,” she said. “They walked out of this gentleman’s house with a million dollar check.”

One friend the Hollands turned onto CSI was the late Tom Keogh. The retired architect volunteered there nurturing babies.

“He rocked, he cuddled, he wiped noses. He’d eat with the kids. He was phenomenal,” said CSI Developmental Child Care Director Kathleen Feller.

“It made Tom’s retirement very meaningful,” his wife Rae said.

When a weak immune system dictated Tom avoid the child care area he helped in other ways — filing, stuffing envelopes and serving on the board of directors.

“He also brought with him his architect’s mind,” said Kay, noting that Keogh shared with staff a book he read that urged connecting children to the outdoors. His enthusiasm set in motion a nature playground.

“Tom was very instrumental in helping develop that,” Kay said. “He worked with a young man he had mentored who helped design it.”

The playground became his sweet challenge.

“He solicited in-kind donations from nurseries, irrigation companies sod companies, stone companies,” Rae said.

He didn’t stop there. “Tom went out and raised a lot of money and contributed himself,” Gottschalk said.

Rae said her husband rarely approached others to support his causes but in the case of CSI he did. “It had to be something that he was truly interested in before he would ask anybody else to contribute,” she said.

That same passion got Rae involved, too. Since Tom’s death she’s continued the family’s support.

She said before donating to an organization it’s vital “you get to know what their beliefs are and how they handle things. There’s no replacement for that personal contact.” CSI won the Keoghs over. “We got to know the staff and the operation,” she said. “We were very impressed by how they treated the children. They’re very careful with the care they give. It’s a very warm environment.”

For her, as it was for Tom, giving’s return on investment is priceless: “It’s very simple,” she said, “I think you gain more than you give. The personal joy I receive in giving is important to me.”

Former CSI board member Charles Heider, who contributed to the building-endowment, was long ago sold on the agency. “I saw the mission and how they were carrying out their good work,” he said. “I was impressed by their good management. It’s a very good organization.” When the building campaign got underway he didn’t hesitate.

“I was quick to respond when they asked if I wanted to be involved financially.”

It’s gratifying for him to see CSI realize its building and endowment goals.

“The satisfaction is that they are obviously moving forward. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have the new building,” he said. “The enthusiasm they have with this new facility is very evident. They built a very attractive building.”

Heider said behind the gleaming facade is a track record of substance and service.

“Buildings by themselves don’t satisfy the mission,” he said. “CSI has a marvelous record of assisting young people. My wife and I have enjoyed giving to it.”

The Paul and Oscar Giger Foundation that Janet Acker and her two siblings administer has long supported CSI.

“We’re just a little foundation,” Acker said. “We can’t support everything. We have to pick and choose and do little projects. We fund a lot of programs that affect kids and music. We’ve given pianos away all over Omaha.”

For CSI’s nature playground the foundation donated an outdoor xylophone in memory of Acker’s late aunt, Ruth Musil Giger. The instrument belonged to Giger, who was a piano/organ instructor. “This was a real match with Aunt Ruth’s interests in music,” Acker said.

Previously the foundation supported CSI’s emergency respite center and adoption program. While the foundation’s support can’t compare to the mega gifts of others, Acker said, “You need a lot of little donors to pull off a big project.”

Gottschalk said CSI depends on contributions from “our bread and butter donors” to help fund daily operations. Donors who give a few hundred dollars or even at the $25 or $10 levels are vital, she said, as major funds are often restricted for certain uses. If CSI’s to remain sustainable, she said, a safety net must secure donations of all sizes, from diverse funding streams, year-round.

Everyone has their own reason for giving. What’s the joy of giving for Dick Holland? “Results,” he said. In CSI he sees an organization helping undo the damage some children suffer and an agency needing a new space to further its mission. “We were in a position to put up enough funds to make some of the ideas a reality,” he said. “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 said he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into a thing big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.”

_ _ _

Like any city of any size Omaha’s had all manner of presenting arts organizations, some small, some large, some financially well-endowed, some financially-strapped.  There have been organizations with sizable staff and there have been one-man bands.  Some have cast a wide net across the performing arts spectrum and others have been more narrowly focused on a particular niche or segment.  Most presenters have come and gone, never to be seen or heard from again, and a few disappear for a time, only to resurface again.  The following story for Metro Magazine  (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is about today’s major Omaha Player in this arena, Omaha Performing Arts, the organization that both books and maintains the two principal performing arts venues in the city, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre.  Befitting its well-heeled status, the organization is celebrating 10 years in a big way this fall with an October 16 gala and an October 17 Holland Stages festival.  These will be boffo, bring-the-house-down blow-outs that are as much a recognition of the rich programming that enhances the cultural fabric here as they are opportunities for OPA to say thank you to its patrons for the community to return the gratitude for all the great shows that come here on a year-round basis.

Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

Presenting organization serves as steward of major halls and brings Broadway and other world-class shows to town

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

What a difference a decade makes.

In that relatively short period the Omaha arts and entertainment scene has blown up thanks to a critical mass of new organizations, venues and events. Together with the treasures already here, this cultural synergy’s transformed Omaha from sleepy flyover spot into dynamic destination place.

Leading the new arrivals is Omaha Performing Arts. The organization books world-class artists at the venerable Orpheum Theater and its state-of-the-art companion, the Holland Performing Arts Center. As the steward of these spaces, OPA’s charged with caring for them and filling their halls with high quality events that appeal to all demographics.

Growing the performing arts scene
Great halls are only truly alive when people inhabit them. OPA schedules year-round offerings that keep its spaces hopping to the tune of 3 million-plus patrons since 2005. All those folks, many from out of town, pump $40 million into the local economy each year.

By bringing the best of performing arts to town, OPA adds to the rich stew of the Blue Barn Theatre, the Rose, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha – all of which are thriving.

OPA president Joan Squires says, “Across the board the arts community has elevated attention and we’re seeing a lot of our colleagues doing well at the same time. So there’s been renewed energy downtown and in our community for people wanting to come to performances and there’s more options to select from than ever before. I do believe we contributed to had a lot to do with that sea change.”

Dick Holland, who with his late wife Mary made the lead gift for the Holland, has no doubt of OPA’s impact. “It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”

That’s on top of popular attractions such as the Old Market, College World Series, Omaha Storm Chasers, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

Celebrating a decade but looking ahead
OPA board chairman John Gottschalk says the public’s reception to the programming has “vastly” exceeded expectations and quelled any doubts Omaha could sustain two major performing arts centers.

This organization that never rests is pausing long enough this fall to commemorate its boffo first decade run. The October 16 Celebrate 10 Gala will feature Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in a Holland spectacular. The October 17 Holland Stages will be a free daylong festival highlighted by diverse performing artists at the Holland.

“We’ve had a lot of milestones in a short period of time,” Squires says, “and we really want to use our anniversary to celebrate what everybody has done for the institution and to start looking forward to the next decade. I think it’s something Omaha as a community should really celebrate. It’s an extraordinary story and opportunity for us.”

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways,” Gottschalk says. “We’re a very healthy arts organization.”

OPA grew out of an initiative Gottschalk, Dick Holland, Walter Scott and others led to renovate the Orpheum and build the Holland. Gottschalk says much effort was made recruiting Squires from the Phoenix Symphony to oversee the Omaha facilities and “she’s done a wonderful job,'” Holland says, “I don’t think we’d have the same success without her. Joan is a perpetual motion machine looking after every single detail you can think of. She’s just plain marvelous.”

Investing in the community
Squires deflects accolades to others.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.

“The people involved in this organization are highly committed and passionate and that starts with our board of directors. John Gottschalk, who’s been our chairman since inception, certainly Dick Holland, and the entire board have been tremendously committed, generous and great stewards. Their leadership has been everything.”

The public’s done its share, too.

“The response by the Omaha community buying tickets and showing up at performances has been incredible. We can continue to get better and better shows because producers look at our ticket sales and results. Broadway shows come in here and report this is one of the best opening night audiences they have.”

She says the fall anniversary events are “our way to say thank you to everybody who’s a part of this,” adding, “The folks that started this institution made an extraordinary investment and you just have to stand back for a moment and say, ‘Bravo.'”

Getting to this point required a remarkable growth spurt for an organization that began with Squires, an assistant production manager, a desk and a computer in 2002. The Orpheum renovation was underway. The Holland was still in the planning stages. Heritage Services raised more than $100 million in private giving to complete the two projects and to help get OPA up and running.

That level of community buy-in is what attracted Squires to take the job and she continues to be impressed by the ongoing support that feeds her organization and to make enhancements at its venues.

“Omaha is known for the deep roots of its philanthropic community. The leadership behind this project was extraordinary. They were invested in its success.”

Then there’s the fact OPA filled a void left by arts impresarios and presenting organizations no longer around.

“There were no other major presenters in town, so I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

She says the support that coalesced around all this “is really about
a commitment to quality of life and making Omaha better for current and future generations.” She adds, “We couldn’t have done this without the partnership of Heritage Services raising the money to get the Holland up and open at the same time we were getting things started here. It’s another key why we were successful from the beginning. That partnership gave us an advantage coming out of the chute.”

Gottschalk says donors made substantial gifts “because they thought it would be good for Omaha and it was, and that’s really been the legacy of the community – we’ve been able to sustain that view – if it’s good for our community, let’s do it.”

Scaling up

The Orpheum renovations have allowed the theater to host the biggest Broadway touring shows (The Lion King, Wicked, Once) whose wildly popular runs make the venue one of America’s best draws. The Holland is home to the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and to a diverse slate of jazz, dance and specials that range from the Omaha Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam to the Hear Nebraska indie music showcase to the Salem Baptist Church holiday concert to Film Streams’ annual Feature event.

The buildings are rich in patron and guest amenities, the latest being the addition of Zinc restaurant just off the Holland courtyard.

Squires spent her first three years putting in place OPA’s infrastructure and branding, including the Ticket Omaha service it operates. She now has a full-time staff of 50 with another 50 part-time staff, plus a volunteer corps of more than 500.

“I’m really delighted with the administrative team here. They are passionate, committed, and talented. They drive so much of this business. We’re lucky to have our volunteer Ambassadors and Presenters. There are hundreds of people involved who are passionate and committed about Omaha Performing Arts.”

With its $18 million operating budget OPA is the state’s largest arts organization. It’s growth, even programmatically, has been gradual.

“You can’t be everything to everybody the day you open the doors,
so you phase it in in stages,” Squires says. “Also by the nature of presenting we’re continuously experimenting in what works or what doesn’t. One of the challenges our very first year is that the Orpheum schedule didn’t allow for much touring Broadway productions. When the symphony moved to the Holland the schedule opened up to allow us to build that Broadway market. That took time and now we’re having tremendous success. This next year is probably going to be our most successful yet. We’re having a wonderful response with subscriptions.”

The mixing and matching OPA does to serve different tastes is always a work in progress but Squires says, “We really have hit our stride in the series we offer. Broadway is one of the biggest draws but we get great responses to our jazz, dance, family and showcase series. New last year was the National Geographic Live Series. The 1200 Club has a following.

“Our mission is to bring in breadth, so we want to really provide a good cross-section to reach lots of segments and to grow audiences.”

The search for new headliners never ends.

“We always have opportunities to bring new shows in but sometimes when they’re touring we may not have availability, so we’re always juggling the schedule. It’s a complex and complicated process to book every year. It’s one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you can imagine. It takes a lot of coordination to get it all put together.”

Image result for dick Holland omaha, ne
Dick Holland

More than numbers
She says while OPA depends on earned revenue for 75 percent of its budget, ticket sales are not the only barometer for success.

“For some types of performances, a thousand people is just great because that’s what we expected and budgeted.”

The experience people have is more important than anything.

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience,” she says. “You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.

“The arts have that capacity to move people in ways I think nothing else does.”

In addition to the performances it books OPA has a growing education and community engagement mission piece that brings school-age students together with visiting artists and recognizes area youth arts.

“It’s a real important initiative for us,” Squires says. “It’s a chance to reach the community in new ways and have them connect to the arts in ways they may not have a chance to otherwise.”

OPA’s implemented anti-bullying and social justice programs around certain shows and organized master classes with top artists. Its Nebraska High School Theater Awards program is going statewide.

She appreciates how OPA is increasingly seen as an arts leader.

“We’re becoming more and more respected nationally because of the success we’ve had, the quality of the programs and the quality of the buildings. Omaha’s on the map for the kind of work we’re doing.
Artist management companies recognize this is an important tour stop. We’ve been asked to be on some national symposiums and organizations, where we didn’t have that seat at the table in the past.”

Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), says, “Running a large arts program and arts center is extremely challenging. The best nationally recognized arts organizations have the equally daunting tasks of presenting the very best artists available and truly engaging with their respective communities. These endeavors take years of dedicated commitment and experience. Kudos to Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center for their well-deserved success.”

A solid foundation and a bright future
Squires says OPA will continue building on what it’s done.

“There’s always more to do and more money to raise. That never stops. We never rest on our laurels. There’s always new opportunities for people to make a difference by giving to our institution. The philanthropic side, we’re always working. Nothing is ever a given.

“For the future we have set up the planned giving Marquee Society. Those gifts will go into a permanent endowment.”

She feels OPA’s proven itself a worthy recipient of planned gifts.

“We had to attract people in large numbers and financially we had to show we’re responsible by meeting our budget numbers every year, which we have done. If people have confidence in the organization then you can start to talk about the future so they can leave legacies that will continue to sustain these programs and facilities. These legacy gifts will ensure the longer term future of this institution.”

“We’ve started down that road and I think it’s going to be well-supported,” Gottschalk says of the endowment.

With a decade under its belt, Squires says OPA is squarely focused now on “where do we go from here, how do we build on our success and how do we continue to evolve and grow to continue to touch the community.”

Gottschalk says, “I think there’s more growth ahead for us in terms of amenities and facilities and programming.”

For event or ticket info, visit http://www.omahaperformingarts.org or http://www.ticketomaha.com.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.”

“…I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience. You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.”
-Joan Squires

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways. We’re a very healthy arts organization.
-John Gottschalk

“It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
-Dick Holland

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

December 4, 2015 1 comment

Nebraska has one of the highest per capita millionaire ratios in the nation and that stinking rich club includes a gallery of characters from all walks of life.  One of the most colorful is Dick Holland.  The Omahan’s penchant for unscripted, off-the-cuff, colloquial-style remarks is refreshing in this all too polished and canned age.  Here is a new profile I did about him for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  It’s part of a larger look at philanthropy and philanthropists in the December 2015 issue.  Following this piece is a shorter one I did on some of his fellow charitable givers: Michael and Gail Yanney, Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith.  Like any town of any size, Omaha has a mix of old and new money and these philanthropists represent a nice blend of each.

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

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.

DickHolland1

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.”

 

 

 

Dick Holland is pictured in his Omaha home on Oct. 2, 2012.

 

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 but 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 Performing Arts Center

 

Child Saving Institute

 

 

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 infinity. 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.”

_ _ _

Giving for the greater good

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s philanthropic community is known for its unusual generosity.

Some attribute this largess to the small town feel of a city where relationships still matter and where it’s possible to rally people around a good idea or cause. Others point to the concentration of several wildly successful companies grown here that give back. Then there’s the metro’s large number of wealthy families, some of whom acquired their fortunes through business and others through investments. The latter include those who’s trust in a young Warren Buffett to invest their money in Berkshire Hathaway was rewarded beyond belief.

Many landmarks and streets are named after early figures whose late 19th century and early 20th century philanthropy built Omaha. Joslyn.
Dodge. Kountze. Creighton. Hitchcock. Cudahy. Doorly. Kenefick.

As those early givers passed, new figures stepped up such as Leo A. Daly, Peter Kiewit, Walter Scott, Bob Dougherty, Mike Harper, Tom Nurnberger, Dick Holland, the Storzes, the Durhams, the Hawks, Alan Marcia Baer, the Blumkns-Batts. More recently, Susie Buffett, Bruce Lauritzen, Wally Weitz, John Gottschalk, David Sokol. Bill and Ruth Scott, Allan and Dianne Lozier, the Simons and the Smiths have emerged among Omaha’s new generation of major givers.

These movers and shakers underwrite some of Omaha’s great public-private places and endeavors. Holland Performing Arts Center. Orpheum Theatre. University of Nebraska Medical Center. UNO. Creighton. Film Streams. Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Durham Museum. Omaha Community Playhouse. Omaha Symphony. Opera Omaha. Great Plains Theatre Conference. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. And many others.

They have skin in the game, too, in things like the United Way and Building Bright Futures, whose greatest benefactor, Susie Buffett, is a notable female exception in what’s otherwise ostensibly a men’s club.

These charitable doyens not only give money but provide leadership on boards and committees and lend more informal advice and service.

Few donors are as colorful or irascible as Dick Holland (see main story). The 94-year-old represents a dying breed who tells it as he sees it, throwing political correctness out the window, but getting things done, too.

 

Gail and Michael Yanney

Michael and Gail Yanney

A bridge figure between Holland and today’s new generation philanthropists is Michael Yanney, 81, founder and chairman emeritus of The Burlington Capital Group.

Yanney, who came from poverty in small town Neb. to work his way up the ranks of commercial banking and commodities markets, found key mentors he tried emulating in his own leadership and philanthropy.
One was former Peter Kiewit Sons Construction head Walter Scott and another was former Northwestern Bell head Tom Nurnberger.

“Both of these people I trusted a lot. And my wife has probably been one of my best mentors.

Yanney and his wife Gail are a team when it comes to their giving.

“We really like to do things that will make a difference and we want to do them the best we can. Therefore you don’t pick a lot of projects, you pick very few and you make sure they’re outside of the box and you’re going to have to stretch to get there.”

He says giving decisions are not arrived at by accident but by due diligence. “It is something that comes as you see the demand and the opportunity to pick things up.”

Youth mentoring is a prime giving area for him. What’s known now as Partnership4Kids has grown from 20 to some 5,000 young people served. “It’s certainly a commitment and we feel it’s working and there’s very good leadership.” The program mentors at-risk kids from early elementary school through college to try and break the cycle of poverty many come from. “Anything we can do to eradicate poverty is going to make a long-term difference to the overall picture and happiness of our community,” Yanney says.

Health care, particularly UNMC, is another prime giving area. “We have an absolutely strong feeling that medical center is making a big difference to this region. Anything you can do to improve medical research, quality of patient care will make a huge difference.”

Yanney doesn’t see an end to the generosity that’s made “Omaha a very unique place,” adding, “I think there’s a very good chance it will continue as long as there’s very good leadership. The money is there but there’re not going to give if the quality of leadership isn’t there.” He says the leadership of Walter Scott, whom he calls “the chairman of the board of Omaha.” will be “very hard to replace” whenever he’s gone.

Still, Yanney says, “I’m very optimistic. We’ve really got some great young people moving into the leadership.”

 

 

Photo (L to R): Helena Maria Viramontes, Victor LaValle, Jeff Chang, lê thi diem thúy, Luis Ubiñas; Credit: Chris Callis © 2010

Photo (L to R): Betiana Simon, Mia Simon, Todd Simon, Judith Helfand; Credit: Chris Callis © 2010

 

 

Todd and Betiana Simon
Todd Simon points to the fourth generation of his Omaha Steaks family empire, including his late father philanthropist Fred Simon, as “very inspirational to me personally.” He adds, “It was basically leading by example. That giving back to the community is just something you do both through financial support but also by being on boards, helping with capital campaigns, providing leadership where appropriate. I think it was my uncle Alan who said to me one time, ‘Community service is my hobby,’ and I think that really struck with me. It’s a great hobby to have when you can take something you’re really passionate about and turn it into something you really want to spend time on.”

He says the calculations he and his wife Betiana use in making giving decisions “starts with the heart” and follows with the head. “The question Betiana and I ask is. ‘How can we have the most positive impact on the project, whatever that project is, and on the community that project serves.’ We’ve made the choice to support the arts and human services and obviously those are both really big buckets. Within those we make the decision of how we’re going to support.

“We have been focused on doing programming support in the arts and making sure the institutions we’re supporting can do first class programming work. In health and human services we’re more focused on the mission of the organization and in those instances we’re happy to fund just direct operating support because we know so much of the work of these organizations goes right to their beneficiaries.”

In weighing an organization and its need, he says, “I try not to over-think it,” adding, “I think what it really comes down to is people give to people and so I look to the leadership of the organizations both from a staff and a board perspective and the question I ask is, Does this organization have the capacity to deliver on their mission? That’s usually a fairly easy determination to make and once I’m confident they can, then we’ll typically feel good about giving. I leave it up to the leadership of the organization to deliver on their programming and promises, which they almost always do.”

The Simons prefer going with sure things and sticking with them.

“What we tend to do is find organizations doing a terrific job and we stay with them, not only financially but also from a time commitment perspective. We join the board or participate in a committee or get involved in leadership in some way. That keeps us really connected.

“We kind of want to go deep rather than broad. We’re most effective in our philanthropy when it’s not just about writing a check.

“I think the most fulfilling thing is planting seeds and seeing them grow into the community.”

 

Image result for paul and annette smith omaha

 

Paul and Annette Smith

Philanthropists sometimes partner on projects. The Simons joined forces with another new era power couple, Paul and Annette Smith, in founding The Impact Circle for Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

The Smiths, recipients of the 2015 Sower Award in the Humanities, have used others’ giving to guide their own.

“There are a host of great examples we’ve borrowed from,” says Paul Smith, a founding member of Tenaska Capital Management. “Our approach is probably an amalgam of different approaches we’ve seen with others.”

An early influence on them was Howard and Rhonda Hawks.

The Smiths divide their giving between youth serving organizations and the arts. In each case, their head and heart enter the equation.

“We try to focus on outcomes – on how much impact we’re really having,” Smith says. “I suppose that is the head part but we’re pretty passionate about both of these areas, so there’s a lot of heart in it, too. So it’s some of both for us.”

When it comes to young people they look to impact “underserved and disadvantaged youth, especially through avenues that enhance their educational and social opportunities,” Smith says. “What we look for is a real efficacy and real difference made sustainably over time in the lives of young people in our community.”

When it comes to the arts, he says, “we’re looking to create cultural assets in our community.” He says they prefer to support programming of the kind that Film Streams does that “serves to create a cultural connection around people and a dialogue around important issues – I think that’s true of all of the arts organizations we support.”

Annette Smith says such activities enrich the cultural landscape. “It makes our community a more vibrant place to live for everyone.”

Paul says they support any arts endeavor that promotes access and diversity “in creating community around art.”

Sometimes, their passions for youth and arts overlap, as in the examples of their investments in the Kent Bellows Institute and Omaha Conservatory of Music.

He says their giving reflects their belief the arts are integral to a well-rounded life and city.

“Imagining our city without these things – without a symphony, an opera, art museums and challenging places where new art is being created – imagines a less interesting, less connected, less enjoyable place to live. So that’s why we think of it as a form of investment when we invest in the arts.”

Smith says he and his wife remain “active in the dialogue that exists in our community broadly around these sorts of institutions, so we try to support them not only with contributions but with counsel and service. And sometimes that means a board seat and sometimes it doesn’t.”

 

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

October 9, 2015 1 comment

The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to.  The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years.  Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood.  He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.

Samuel J. Meisels

Sam Meisels

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.

The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.

The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”

In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.

“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.

“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”

Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.

The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.

Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.

On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.

Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.

Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.

These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.

“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.

“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”

A Vision of the Future

Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.

“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”

Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.

“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.

“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”

He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.

“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”

He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.

“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.

“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”

All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.

With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.

“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.

Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.

“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.

Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”

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The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”

Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”

Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”

A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.

Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.

“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.

“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”

He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.

“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”

He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.

“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”

He says education intervention is generally well-received.

“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”

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He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.

“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.

“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”

He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”

When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”

“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.

“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”

Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.

“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”

Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.

“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”

Samuel J. Meisels

He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.

“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.

“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”

Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.

“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.

“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”

Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”

He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”

The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.

“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.

“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”

Visit http://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu.

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