In many ways, Donald and Mildred Othmer were like any other faculty
couple. He was a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnic
University in Brooklyn, a workaholic with scores of patents and a
sideline in consulting. She was a former teacher and a buyer for her
mother's dress stores who volunteered at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and
Planned Parenthood. They had no children, unless you count the students
he invited home to dinner.
When they died -- he in 1995 and she in April, both in their 90’s --
they left their money to many of their favorite charities, including his
university and the places where she volunteered.
But the level of their generosity distinguished them from the typical
academic couple, putting them more in a league with the Ted Turners and
George Soroses of the world. The value of their combined estates is
approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Although Dr. Othmer was a successful inventor and a tireless consultant,
there is another explanation for the stunning total. Some decades ago,
they invested most of their savings with an old family friend from
Omaha: Warren E. Buffett, the stock market wizard who runs Berkshire
Hathaway, the investment and insurance holding company. And thanks to
patience, the booming market and Mr. Buffett's golden touch, the Othmers
were transformed over the years from comfortable to wealthy to
staggeringly rich -- all with barely an outward sign of change.
Now it is the beneficiaries of their gifts, some of them modest
institutions of little renown, that stand to be transformed, with the
Othmers' bequests instantly multiplying their resources and vastly
broadening their possibilities.
Polytechnic, for instance, stands to receive nearly $200 million, a sum
about four times the school's entire endowment. Long Island College
Hospital, also in Brooklyn, is in line for about $160 million. The
University of Nebraska and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in
Philadelphia, also expect to get more than $100 million each, while a
number of other institutions will also get multimillion-dollar gifts.
'"It is an amazing estate," said Theodore R. Wagner, the New York
estate tax lawyer who helped the Othmers draw up their wills. "It is
really quite astounding that this nice couple was able to drop so much
money on so many institutions."
For the recipients, the gifts are like winning the lottery. Officials at
Polytechnic see the money as a way for the university of 2,000 students
to climb from a second- or third-tier engineering institution into more
selective company, with an endowment per student larger than that found
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., or Carnegie- Mellon
University, in Pittsburgh. "We start from being one of the have-nots
and go to being one of the very well-endowed schools," said
Polytechnic's president, David C. Chang.
The final amounts of the bequests will depend both on legal negotiations
surrounding the wills and on the stock market.
One set of negotiations is between the charitable institutions and Mary
Donahoo Seina of Omaha, Mrs. Othmer’s niece, who is to receive less than
$2 million under Mrs. Othmer's will. Mrs. Seina, who is in her mid-60's,
declined to be interviewed, said her lawyer, James Fitzgerald. But she
told The Omaha World-Herald in May that her own family deserved more,
and that her aunt no longer wanted to leave her money to the same
institutions and had revoked her will. Mr. Fitzgerald said only that the
settlement talks were continuing.
There are also questions about how much of the estate should be
disbursed under the terms of Dr. Othmer’s will and how much under Mrs.
Othmer’s; that issue could affect exactly how much each institution
And, of course, the sums will also be tied to the value of Berkshire
Hathaway shares. After initially investing $25,000 each in a partnership
with Mr. Buffett in the early 1960’s, the couple received shares of
Berkshire Hathaway in 1970 at $42 a share. The stock closed on Friday at
$77,250 a share.
Lawyers say that Mrs. Othmer’s estate contains about 7,500 shares of
Berkshire Hathaway stock; her husband's approximately 7,000 shares were
sold after his death in 1995, at just under $30,000 a share.
While the huge gifts hold the promise of substantial change for some of
the beneficiaries, the enormous wealth had little effect on the Othmers
themselves, who lived comfortably but not ostentatiously and rarely
talked about their money.
W. Fred Schurig, a protege and colleague of Dr. Othmer, recalls Dr.
Othmer's making only one brief reference to his investments, in the
elevator at Polytechnic, decades ago.
"He came back from Omaha and was telling me about this guy Buffett and
how investing with him was going to be lucrative," Dr. Schurig said.
"I said I had $5,000 and asked, ‘Would he take that?’ But he said,
‘That's not enough; he wouldn't touch that.’
"He never brought it up again," Dr. Schurig said.
The shares made the Othmers rich many years ago, and during their lives
they had quietly made a number of multimillion-dollar gifts. But it was
only in recent years that their wealth shot into the stratosphere. At
the time the Othmers wrote their wills in 1988 -- Dr. Othmer drafted
much of the meticulous detail himself, down to a small Rembrandt etching
and 12 carved elephants, each in a different Burmese wood -- Berkshire
Hathaway was selling at about $4,700, and their shares were worth about
$68 million. (He revised his will in 1994.)
Even without the Buffett millions, it is easy to see Dr. Othmer as the
classic American success story: a poor boy who reached the top of his
profession, widely known as a consultant and co-editor of the
Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology.
Born and raised in Omaha, he developed a lifelong frugality as he earned
money picking dandelions from neighbors’ lawns, delivering newspapers
and telegrams and walking a farmer's cow to and from pasture. After
graduating from the University of Nebraska and receiving a Ph.D. from
the University of Michigan in 1927, he set out for Rochester and Eastman
His research contributed to more than 40 patents for Kodak, most of them
involving the distillation and concentration of acetic acid. But unhappy
to be making only a $10 bonus for each patent, he headed out on his own
It was the Depression, however, and business was slow, so when Brooklyn
Polytechnic made him an offer in 1932, he accepted. Polytechnic gave him
a lab, allowed him to collect his patent earnings and provided
graduate assistants for his research and consulting. Unless he was
traveling, he was usually in his lab six days a week.
By conventional measures, he was not much of a teacher. Former students
recall that he was so wrapped up in research and consulting that he
spent little time preparing lectures and would abandon class to take
calls from his consulting clients. But to generations of ambitious young
students, many of them first-generation immigrants, he was the ideal
role model and mentor, one who involved them in his research, took them
home for dinner and found them jobs. Some named their children after
him. Others, like Joseph J. Jacobs, called him the most important
influence in their lives.
"He was not only an excellent chemical engineer, but he was also
ambition incarnate," Dr. Jacobs, chairman of his own engineering firm
in Pasadena, Calif., wrote in his autobiography, "The Anatomy of an
Dr. Othmer's first marriage fizzled. But then he met Mildred Topp, known
as Mid, a former high school teacher who received a master’s degree from
Columbia Teachers College in 1945 and was a buyer for her mother’s
fashion shops in Omaha. Friends describe her as Dr. Othmer's
intellectual equal, someone who shared his devotion to his career but
was also able to stand up to him.
"Mid was very smart and a full participant in decision-making," Mr.
Buffett said in a recent interview by telephone.
They were married at the Plaza Hotel in 1950, and settled into a town
house in Brooklyn Heights with a view of the harbor stretching from the
Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge. They lived on two floors and
rented the other three.
Mrs. Othmer was an active volunteer while her husband distilled
chemicals. She helped out in the Botanic Garden’s plant sales and at
Planned Parenthood’s thrift shop. She was also on Planned Parenthood’s
board, while her husband became a trustee of the Long Island College
Hospital, just a few blocks from their house.
Dr. Othmer, a tall, solid man with wavy brown hair, impressed everyone
with his insatiable curiosity and his strong will. When other professors
planned a new encyclopedia on chemistry, for example, he muscled his way
into the project, convinced that it should include chemical engineering
to broaden its interest to industry. He became co-editor of the
resulting Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, which quickly
became the industry bible.
At the Othmer home, Dr. Othmer’s students, colleagues and clients were
frequent guests. So were visitors from Omaha, including Mr. Buffett, who
became a good friend.
As Mr. Buffett recalls it, Mrs. Othmer’s mother, Mattie Topp, first
approached him about investing for the family around 1958, when he was
27 and managing less than $1 million. She had used Mr. Buffett’s father
as her broker before he became a United States Representative.
Other family members withdrew money, but the Othmers were patient
investors, adding money from time to time. When Mr. Buffett dissolved
the partnership in 1969 and the Othmers took shares in Berkshire
Hathaway, Dr. Othmer’s investment had grown to $770,000 and his wife’s
to $817,000. "They just rode along," Mr. Buffett said, adding that the
growing investment "never changed their lives."
It was only in recent years that some of the Othmers’ intended
beneficiaries began to get a clue about the windfall they had coming.
Even those who knew they would inherit had little idea of how much.
"Don and Mid had said, ‘Don't worry, we’re putting you in our wills,’ "
said Arnold Thackray, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation,
a group dedicated to the history of chemistry and chemical technology.
"When someone does that, you smile and say, ‘Thank you, that’s very
nice.’ " But Mr. Thackray never expected that the foundation would
receive more than $100 million.
Mr. Buffett is used to dealing with large sums of money, but he, too,
calls the Othmer bequests an "amazing story."
"They were such high-quality, nice people, who had no children and
wanted to translate their wealth into something beneficial to society,"
And Mr. Buffett suggested, somewhat tantalizingly, that there might be
others whose investments with him will eventually yield vast bequests.
"There are more coming," he said. "There are going to be some bigger
ones than this."