Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland doesn't remember the exact date, but the year was '47, the uniform number was 42 and the ballplayer, fortunately, was a man of fortitude.
“Jackie Robinson comes to bat the first time,” Dick recalled, “and there is a buzz — everybody is watching to see what he will do. Well, he gets on first base with a single and the buzz gets louder, because everyone knows he's going to steal second base.
“Sure enough, he steals second. Then the buzz gets even louder and he steals third. He was driving the pitcher and catcher mad. He got three hits that day.”
Holland was 26 or 27 when he saw that game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Robinson was 28 and in his historic rookie year.
Saturday night in Omaha, 66 years later, Holland attended the movie “42” about Robinson becoming the first black player in the major leagues in the modern era. Robinson endured racist catcalls and played with dignity.
Dick liked the film, but he most enjoys recounting the memory of visiting brother Bill Holland in New York and seeing Robinson play in person.
“I had read some of the tales of how Jackie was treated in some towns,” Dick recalled. “He overcame the prejudices.”
A longtime backer of the civil rights movement, Holland followed Robinson's baseball career and his life afterward. Both were relatively short.
Because he came to the majors late, he played only 10 years. And because of a heart attack in 1972, he died at a mere 53. But his impact was huge.
To hear 91-year-old Dick Holland expound enthusiastically on a memory from long ago is delightful enough. Even more enjoyable is knowing that he has recovered from pneumonia and complications last year and is “up to my ears in all my interests, even more so than I had hoped.”
“He has bounced back,” said attorney John Cavanaugh, a friend and the executive director of the nonprofit Building Bright Futures, of which Holland is board chairman.
If you've never met Dick, listen to Cavanaugh's apt, one-word description of his personality: “Ebullient.”
His name and that of his late wife, Mary, grace Omaha's $100 million Holland Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2005. The amount they donated never has been revealed, and I couldn't pry it out of him, but Dick said: “It was a lot.”
For a guy worth hundreds of millions of dollars, saying “a lot” says a lot.
Though he doesn't remember the exact date that he saw Jackie Robinson play, Dick can come up with another date quicker than you can say Jack Robinson: May 16, 1961.
That's the day he and Mary had the sense to join the original partnership of a 30-year-old financial whiz named Warren Buffett. Yes, that guy — a fellow Omahan who became the world's greatest investor.
As Dick says, if you've had the good fortune to amass a fortune, you should share it with others. He is doing so with many charitable and civic causes.
Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts, said that after 7½ years, the Holland Center is approaching a total attendance of 1 million.
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“Dick is passionate about everything that happens at the Holland Center,” Squires said Monday. “He attends regularly, he's engaged and he is our No. 1 ambassador. He's a believer in the arts, and he's committed to this community.”
He also is a believer in education, especially in bringing people out of poverty, the mission of Building Bright Futures.
“A major problem in education,” he said, “is getting a kid ready for kindergarten. That means a good vocabulary and exposure to all kinds of stimulation in the family. Very poor kids often don't get that.”
The recipient of a 2010 Horatio Alger Award in Washington, D.C., for “personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings,” World War II veteran Holland is attuned to those who work hard to improve their lives.
Jackie Robinson, whom Dick Holland saw as a rookie, created a buzz — he worked hard, overcame prejudice and laid the groundwork for others to build bright futures.
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