Omaha's cancer center will have an internationally known name, thanks to a multimillion-dollar donation by Warren Buffett's former family baby sitter.
Pamela Bartling was a teenager when she baby-sat Buffett's children, and she later married his first cousin, Fred C. “Fritz” Buffett.
Today, Pamela Bartling Buffett is the lead donor in a successful campaign to raise $160 million in private money toward a $370 million medical project in Omaha.
The amount of her pledge will remain secret, but it's so large that the project's main facility will be called the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, named after her and her late husband, who died of kidney cancer in 1997. Her wealth comes from investments decades ago with Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of Omaha.
“I think it's terrific that she's doing it, and more importantly, she absolutely loves doing it,” Warren Buffett said. “She couldn't be more enthused. She's just a wonderful, generous person. … Fritz would like it.”
The donation and name were officially announced at a Friday morning press conference featuring Susie Buffett, Warren’s daughter, and university officials.
Pamela Buffett is in Omaha for the annual meeting of Berkshire shareholders and to sign her pledge of support for the cancer center.
“I have been wanting to honor Fred with a meaningful tribute to his roots in Nebraska, and when I heard about the center, the idea of supporting it resonated,” she said, calling her husband “a kind and principled and glorious person.”
“Fred grew up in Omaha and loved it. Our gift speaks to the happy times he and I spent here with our daughters Sarah and Rebecca and to the extended family Fred grew up with and who always remained so important to him.
“Fred was a serious athlete who was careful about his health, yet died from cancer at age 60. ... Fred would have understood the long-range impact that this center can have and what it can do for Nebraska. He would have been an enthusiastic advocate for it and the vision it represents.”
Although she is an active philanthropist, her cancer center donation is “by far” the largest she has ever made, according to her attorney, Robert Freeman of Omaha.
Word of her pledge drew praise from university officials, Buffett family members and even the physician who tried to save Fritz Buffett's life more than a dozen years ago in Chicago.
The gift speeds the day when Omaha can integrate its research and patient care, said Dr. Ken Cowan, director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Eppley Institute for Cancer Research, one of 65 cancer centers that receive funding through the National Cancer Institute.
Even though Fred and Pamela Buffett are not as widely known as Warren Buffett, Cowan said, the larger Buffett family supports the cancer center's objectives, and Pamela Buffett's wealth comes from investments in Berkshire Hathaway.
“We're going to be identified with Berkshire Hathaway, no matter what,” Cowan said. “This is going to link us to that name and everything about it. It is somewhat magical. We're going to be part of the yellow brick road,” a reference to Warren Buffett's occasional nickname of “the Wizard of Omaha.”
The cancer center will be the second public building in Omaha to bear the Buffett name, though neither is named for Warren Buffett. The Omaha Public Schools' Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School is named after his aunt.
Announcement of the pledge is a milestone for the cancer center, which has generated some controversy because part of the funding comes from $90 million in state and local taxes. The $370 million medical project, a joint effort by UNMC and its hospital partner, the Nebraska Medical Center, also can borrow up to $120 million by issuing bonds.
The Buffett Cancer Center portion of the project is to cost $323 million, with the other $47 million for a clinic for non-cancer outpatient care that could be named separately.
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The thousands of donations totaling $160 million make the medical project the state's biggest public-private partnership, said Omaha businessman Michael Yanney. He and his wife, Dr. Gail Yanney, head UNMC's portion of the NU Foundation's capital campaign.
In 2001, private donors gave $75 million toward downtown Omaha's $291 million convention center and arena, which was the state's most expensive public building project at the time.
Many major community projects have been supported by people who have benefitted from Warren Buffett's investment skill, Yanney said, and by Omahans who have become wealthy through other businesses.
“Omaha is being so rewarded by the success of Berkshire Hathaway and what Warren and the rest of the staff have done,” Yanney said. “And it isn't just in what their (Buffett) foundations give. It's what so many other foundations give that are in one way or another tied to (Berkshire Hathaway).”
University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken called Pamela Buffett's gift “transformational.” Dr. Hal Maurer, chancellor of UNMC, said: “The community has really, really supported this project. It's amazing. There are small donors and huge donors.”
A groundbreaking is planned for Tuesday to mark the start of construction.
Though the NU Foundation reached its $160 million goal for private donations, foundation CEO Brian Hastings said, fundraising will continue to support researchers, physicians, staff and programs at the center.
“Building a facility is just a start,” Hastings said. “What's going to cure cancer is the research we do in that facility and the people we put into it. We are not done until cancer is cured.
“We will be the envy of a lot of people out there in the cancer world that would love to have a brand like Buffett associated with their medical center and their cancer center.”
Every large fundraising campaign needs a lead donor, he said. In general, 5 percent of the donors for such projects contribute 95 percent of the money raised. “Significant gifts by generous donors ultimately make things happen,” Hastings said, and Pamela Buffett's donation will have “a profound impact.”
The gift's impact will grow as the researchers, physicians, patients and patients' families benefit from the cancer center's work, he said. “That's where it has the most meaning. We have great gratitude and appreciation for somebody with the means to make a difference and to make it become a reality. It's humbling.”
Pamela Buffett's connections with the Buffett family date to the 1950s. Her older sister, Sally, was a high school friend of the late Susan Thompson, who married Warren Buffett in 1952. When the Buffetts moved back to Omaha from New York City in 1956 with two young children, Pamela's family lived nearby, and she became their regular baby sitter.
“She was just sensational with the kids,” Warren Buffett said. “She got to be a good friend of mine and Susie's. She went on trips with us and did all kinds of things. She was a member of the family.”
Through the Buffetts, Pamela met Frederick Clarence Buffett, who delivered groceries from the Buffett & Son Grocery in Omaha's Dundee neighborhood. He was nicknamed Fritz to distinguish him from his father, Frederick William Buffett, who ran the store with his father, Ernest Buffett. Warren Buffett's father, Howard, and Frederick were brothers.
The money pledged by Pamela Buffett, now 70, is from investments her husband made decades ago with his cousin Warren. Early Buffett investors ended up with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Berkshire stock if they stuck with Buffett over the decades.
After her husband's death, Pamela Buffett donated $2 million to endow a professorship in her husband's name at the University of Chicago, where he was treated.
“He was one of the healthiest people you'd ever seen,” said Susie Buffett, Warren's daughter. “He was a really, really wonderful person, just a sweet, lovely man.”
She said Pamela Buffett's donation is not directly related to prostate cancer treatments her father received at the NU Medical Center last year. But Pamela Buffett knew about Warren Buffett's condition, and Susie Buffett told her about the need for donations to support the new cancer center.
“It seemed like something that she might be interested in,” Susie Buffett said. “Pam totally loves my dad and adored my mother. She would definitely say that she and Fritz learned so much by watching my parents' example of how they lived their lives and their own philanthropy, and how much they cared about people who were less fortunate.”
Pamela and Fritz Buffett lived in Evanston, Ill. They established the Rebecca Susan Buffett Foundation and named it after their daughter who died in 1978, at age 7, of a congenital heart condition.
Pamela Buffett, now of Los Angeles, is president of the foundation, which held about $5.7 million in 2011, including Berkshire Hathaway stock, according to the foundation's latest financial statement. It made donations of about $800,000 that year to nonprofits, including some in Omaha.
She is a graduate of Omaha Central High School and the University of Nebraska and taught kindergarten in the Chicago area for about 25 years. Today she is married to Dusty Fleming, a former Omahan who became a Beverly Hills, Calif., hairdresser. His clients have included actors Jill St. John and Barbara Bach, former first lady Barbara Bush and model Claudia Schiffer.
Fritz Buffett also graduated from Central High, where he played basketball, and from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. He was a skier and an avid runner, competing in the Boston and New York Marathons several times.
His brother, William, said Fritz worked at an Omaha foundry, on Union Pacific Railroad dining cars and in administrative jobs for Caterpillar and Stewart-Warner Co., a speedometer manufacturer, among other companies. William Buffett said his brother was able to retire early after receiving an inheritance from his Aunt Alice, who also was an early investor with Warren Buffett.
“He was definitely the fittest of the two brothers,” William Buffett said, but he died from a rare form of kidney cancer.
Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, the first Fred C. Buffett Professor at the University of Chicago, treated him with chemotherapy, operations to remove tumors and new anti-cancer medications.
Buffett's case of papillary renal carcinoma, which had spread to his liver, happened just as a wave of experimental drugs became available, said Vogelzang, now with the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada. Buffett volunteered to try the new medicines, but even today that form of cancer is virtually untreatable.
“Fritz and Pam were amazing,” Vogelzang said. “He could run like the wind and was fantastically fit. His body could take virtually anything I could throw at him, and yet it was just repeated failure after failure, very tragic. He was a stoic guy. He just sort of said, 'OK, I've got to do this,' sort of a typical Midwestern attitude.
“We were grappling to find something that might work. And Pam just was a rock by his side. We would literally have nightly phone calls about what was the next step.”
After Fritz died, discussions between Pamela and Susan Buffett, Warren's wife, led to the professorship endowment so the University of Chicago would have a research doctor permanently focused on cancer.
Vogelzang, who founded the Kidney Cancer Association, said he is not surprised at Pamela Buffett's decision to support cancer research in Nebraska.
“I've been encouraging her to stay in the cancer field,” he said. “She has a deep, deep commitment, and I think it was just a matter of her finding the right venue.”
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
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