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2010 Newsmaker

Philanthropist Doris Buffett
named 2010 Newsmaker

Virginia Press Women and the public will recognize immediately why Doris Buffett is VPW’s 2010 Newsmaker. She is a Virginia woman who has made a great deal of news over the past several years for giving her money away. From ABC’s Nightline, Good Morning America and the Charlie Rose Show to the Wall Street Journal, virtually every national news outlet has covered her and her recent biography by longtime Free Lance-Star reporter Michael Zitz, director of media and community relations at Germanna Community College.

Those who don’t know her remarkable story might glimpse the title of the philanthropist’s life story, Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffet Story, and presuppose she had a fortune initially in order to give it away to others. But the facts belie any such presupposition. The committee that read the nomination by Gwen Woolf was impressed by the cycle of misfortune and fortune followed by yet another cycle of misfortune and fortune in her 82 years of life. A happy ending was never a foregone conclusion to the story of Fredericksburg resident Doris Buffett.

Her life, as Woolf said in her nomination, will “resonate with women. She was the victim of abuse growing up and from her husbands. She’s had problems with her children. Yet despite her personal unhappiness, she finds satisfaction in giving to others. Much of her charity has focused on abused women and society’s forgotten people — the mentally ill and prisoners. I think people would find her story uplifting — her personal triumph over adversity — and inspiring, because of all the good she does.”

Press Women also will be interested in the fact that her maternal grandparents owned the Daily Nebraskan, and her father was a Congressman. Prestige, however, couldn’t overcome her lack of self-confidence resulting from psychological abuse as a child, nor could it prevent her $12 million in assets, in 1987, from plummeting to a debt of about $2 million very quickly. She told Charlie Rose that she put off asking her famous brother for advice because “he’s the family icon.” Warren Buffett wrote the forward for the book.

A Richmond Times-Dispatch review called “Giving It All Away” “a stirring and profoundly moving story.” Publisher's Weekly, which reviews only 3 percent of books published annually, gave it a rare, starred review as "a lively, inspirational read." Michael Zitz, whose story of putting it all into book form is also compelling, will accompany Buffett to the VPW Fall Conference, where they will take questions from VPW members and guests. The conference is open to the public.

Buffett’s philanthropy dates back to an act of charity for a friend afflicted with polio in the 1950s. From there, she copied a program created by her brother in recognizing outstanding public-school teachers. Then, to quote Elizabeth Pezzullo’s Free Lance-Star article, she “immersed herself in . . .'entrepreneurial philanthropy,’ as her sister, Bertie, calls it.”

Unlike most people who set up foundations, Doris Buffett is hands-on and continues to involve more than 160 other people nationwide as “extra eyes and ears” to help her select those who receive assistance from her. Her Sunshine Lady Foundation, created in 1996, “has set up the Women’s Independent Scholarship Program for victims of domestic violence, sent at-risk kids to camp and created a Boys & Girls Club in Morehead City, N.C. And those are just the highlights,” according to Pezzullo’s article.

In addition to her own charitable giving, she assists her brother with his philanthropy. According to Free Lance-Star reporter Bill Freehling, Warren Buffett “considers himself a ‘wholesale’ philanthropist [who] lacked the time and inclination to evaluate the letters” he’s received from people all over the world asking for help. He told his sister he would fund those requests coming to him that she evaluates as worthy.

“‘He says he’ll fund it until he runs out of money, and he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon,’” Doris Buffett told Freehling.

— Martha Steger, VPW Awards Committee

In her own words

“I never heard the words, ‘I love you,’ she said. ‘I never had a story read to me. Rarely was I tucked into bed. Nobody ever said, ‘Call us when you get there so we know you’re safe.’ — Excerpt from Michael Zitz’s Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story

“Buffett said her father was fond of sage bromides such as ‘You can’t carry the whole load, but you can’t let your part down’ and ‘Much is given, much is expected.’” — The Free Lance-Star, July 4, 2004, Elizabeth Pezzullo

“We’re supposed to empower, but not enable. It’s a fine line and I think it makes them more responsible in the end.” — Doris Buffett, The Wall Street Journal, Aug 3, 2007

Subpages (1): Women's Strike Force