How did philanthropist Doris Buffett become the person she is? What molded her into a woman determined to spend her life making a difference in the lives of those who are, as she says, “unlucky through no fault of their own?” Why has she given away over $100 million of her own money putting battered women, prison inmates and low-income kids through college and trying to ease the pain of the mentally ill and their families?
There were moments, including some here in Fredericksburg, in her life that would be critical to her future philanthropy. They played a big role in shaping her outlook.
One such moment that would barely have registered with most white people at the time took place here in 1943. Fifteen-year-old Doris and her 13-year-old brother, Warren, were living in a house at Chatham and attending then-segregated James Monroe High School. Their father had been elected to Congress months earlier and the family moved from Omaha, Neb., to Fredericksburg. One fall day, Doris was walking down Caroline Street with two JM classmates when they passed a black woman who worked as a maid in her home. Doris said hello. “You never speak to them outside the house!” the two horrified white girls informed her. She never forgot that. Part of the reason it hit her so hard was the cruelty she herself endured day after humiliating day as she had been brainwashed into believing she herself was inferior.
Three years earlier, when she was 12, she had locked herself in a closet back in Omaha. “I won’t remember this when I’m 40,” she kept whispering to herself, crying. Outside the door, her mother, Leila Buffett, continued one of a lifelong series of tirades that would sometimes go on for two hours. “She was never happy ’til I was sobbing,” Buffett said.
She later came to believe her mother suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. She recalled a time when she color-coded the Buffett family tree with green for suicide and red for mental illness. “When I was finished, it was a Christmas tree,” she said. Her mother’s fury would come “in spurts, minute by minute.” Warren Buffett told me when I was writing “Giving It All Away,” his sister’s biography, that he told his first wife, Susie, that he was surprised Doris didn’t end up in a mental institution because of the abuse.
“I never heard the words, ‘I love you,’ ” Buffett 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.’ There were so many times I just wished some fairy godmother would come and understand me or like me—whisk me out of there or something.” Later she would say, “If there was no fairy godmother for me, maybe I could be one for others.”
While Leila Buffett encouraged son Warren to go to college, she continually told Doris she was so stupid it would be pointless for her to enroll. Fifty years later, she looked at school records that showed Warren’s IQ was 150 and hers was just two points lower—more than enough to qualify for Mensa.
She lost everything in the 1987 stock market crash, going $2 million into debt, and had to rent out rooms in her Fredericksburg home to Mary Washington College students to survive. When that happened, Leila Buffett wrote in her daybook, “Don’t give Doris a cent.”
When Leila passed away, her estate was split between Warren, Doris and their sister, Bertie. Before Doris inherited hundreds of millions of dollars in stock in Berkshire Hathaway—the company Warren built—she already knew what she wanted to do—how she wanted to help others unlucky through no fault of their own.
Because of the racial prejudice that bothered her when she was a student at James Monroe High School, she donated money to cover fees so kids who live in the nearby Mayfield neighborhood of Fredericksburg and other city kids could swim free at the Dixon Park pool now named for her.
Because she herself had been told she was “less than” and unworthy, she spent millions funding the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program that has put thousands of physically and emotionally abused women—who had finally found the courage to leave their abusers—through college. She knew all too well what it was like to be beaten down.
Because she feels too many are being sucked down by unfair disadvantages, she wants to offer a second chance. She funds a prison education program for inmates that helped prisoners at 20 institutions across the nation—including Coffeewood Correctional Center locally—earn college degrees. She has spent $500,000 at Coffeewood alone. Germanna Community College faculty members teach the inmates there.
When she read in The Free Lance–Star about mentally ill homeless people living in tents in woods around Fredericksburg, she thought of her own family’s mental health issues and built the Sunshine House in Fredericksburg. There, the mentally ill who had fallen upon hard times have a place to stay while they receive care.
Because she herself might have lost her house after the stock market crash, she donated $1 million to Micah Ministries to help the homeless.
Because she wanted to let kids know someone believes in them even though she felt worthless and hopeless as a girl, she donated $1 million to build Sunshine Ballpark in a low-income neighborhood in Fredericksburg and another $100,000 so kids there could play free in the Sunshine Baseball League. There, those kids would get mentoring and plenty of encouragement and positive feedback.
For that same reason, she committed $2 million to a Germanna program that reaches out to local young people who need help and are willing to work hard to succeed. GCC’s Gladys P. Todd Academy provides mentoring, tutoring and dual enrollment scholarships for students at James Monroe and Spotsylvania high schools. The five-year program launched in fall 2015. In May, 21 of 22 students in the first cohort graduated. There are currently 44 students in two cohorts. The program is for underserved students who are the first in their families to go to college.
The goal is for the students to earn associate degrees by the time they graduate from high school and transfer to a university with no student debt. “Too many young people from families with little education are dropping out or barely making it through high school,” Buffett said when she announced plans for the academy in 2015. “Too many are headed toward a life of poverty and hopelessness. With this program, we have a chance to do something to revolutionize the way higher education engages young people.”
In 2016, Buffett moved from Fredericksburg to Boston to be close to her grandson and son who live there. She is 89 years old and her philanthropic work is winding down. But she says Fredericksburg is always close to her heart. She says she hopes others here will continue the work she began.