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Philanthropist Dick Holland key Democratic contributor

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Richard Holland

Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland. (Courtesy photo)

OMAHA -- He enters the room steadied by a walker and carefully makes his way to a chair, where he's guided to a safe and secure landing. 

Don't be deceived.

Once Dick Holland has settled in, a vigorous, engaging, intellectually active, informed and funny man emerges.

Holland is at home in his comfortable corner house nestled in a green neighborhood a few blocks south of Pacific Street not far from Omaha Westside High School. It is a peaceful June morning, the street is empty, and the only sound is the song of birds. 

Life is good for Dick Holland -- but that's not good enough for him.

"Our government was not designed to just reward the wealthy," he says, his mind locked in and on the move. "But our policies have encouraged more wealth and created more poverty."

The costs of poverty are measured not only in individual personal terms, Holland says. They come in price tags attached to social problems, educational challenges and a huge prison system, he says -- and in hopes and dreams that are either lost or never emerge.

"We see it in Omaha.

"It's harder for poor people to get jobs, to go to the university, to have the mobility to go places, to see things, experience things," he says.

Holland, who will celebrate his 90th birthday next month, is a very wealthy man who has focused his attention and a substantial chunk of his fortune on poor and disadvantaged people, especially children -- and particularly on early child care. 

But he also has contributed tens of millions of dollars to the arts, to the University of Nebraska Medical Center and to political parties, causes and candidates. The most visible signature project is Omaha's state-of-the-art performing arts center, a downtown cultural jewel that bears his name. 

Holland also is the Nebraska Democratic Party's most generous and dependable contributor, and his money helps fuel Bold Nebraska, the progressive political movement led by Jane Kleeb that seeks to provide an alternative voice to Republican conservatism.

"Dick is a very wise man, not just a contributor," Democratic State Chairman Vic Covalt says. "He is a force. He has ideas. Dick and I are on the same plane as far as political thought. I really like the guy."

Kleeb describes him as "the bricklayer for a progressive infrastructure in our state."

A retired Omaha advertising executive, Holland boarded a meteor called Warren Buffett at the beginning of his incredible ride and soared to enormous wealth.

"A little investment turned into a giant fortune," Holland says. "I luckily met Warren Buffett. I luckily saw he was a different kind of animal (when) he was being pooh-poohed by half of the town's leading investor minds."

Buffett, he said, "didn't give the appearance of one of the great minds of the financial world" at the time.

But he had a unique talent for reducing risk by successfully identifying investments that were vastly undervalued, Holland says.

The commitment and contributions to programs for poor children are acts of conscience, and the gifts to the arts seem natural for a man who has painted, sketched, enjoyed writing and appreciated music for a long time. 

But what about an estimated $100,000 or more in annual political contributions?

"I'm a liberal Democrat," Holland says. "I made a decision to do more to try to help elect Democrats.

"The Republican majority in the Legislature and the governor continually ignore serious problems," he adds. "Child care is one of them. There's a failure in early child care and pre-natal care, a failure to look after poor children.

"As a nation, we don't seem to look upon the birth of a child as a very precious thing."

Poverty, he says, is the cause of most school problems.

"It's a straight line in performance between poverty and wealth. The poorer you are, generally the worse you do. And then it's a straight line to becoming social problems. We can rescue some of these kids," he says. 

"It's almost a laboratory in OPS (Omaha Public Schools). The out-of-poverty area schools do very well."

Other issues concern him, too.

"I am deeply disturbed by attempts to bar embryonic stem cell research at the University of Nebraska," Holland says. "That is a public place for public findings," not a private institution that should be governed or influenced by religious convictions.

"I say that if you don't like embryonic stem cell research, take the pledge. I say pledge that you will not let anyone in your family make use of the great results we will see in treating Alzheimer's or Parkinson's or other diseases."

Stem cell research is fundamentally pro-life in nature despite what its pro-life opponents contend, Holland says, because it can protect and extend life.

"Opponents use very dubious logic in barring the use of embryonic stem cells when those cells are going to be destroyed anyway," he says.

Religious views also should not interfere with or overrule abortion rights, Holland says.

"It's a legal method approved for people to end pregnancy." 

While Nebraska is conservative, Holland says, he does not believe it's "as conservative as its very conservative political leaders."

At some point, he says, the pendulum will begin to swing back to more of a two-party state with both Republicans and Democrats holding elective office.

Sen. Ben Nelson may not be a liberal Democrat who is in tune with his views, Holland says, but "I know Ben is an honest man who cares a lot about Nebraska, and he does a lot of things that are good for the state."

So Nelson has his support.

"The first order of business for Democrats now is to control the excesses of the Republican Party," Holland says.

"Guys like me can't get elected to the Legislature.  I'm a pain in the ass."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at


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