Aug. 31, 1999 | Donald and Mildred Othmer were hardly a remarkable couple. He was a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, with a small consulting business on the side. She was a former teacher who spent most of her time volunteering for New York civic and arts organizations. They had no children.
But when Donald and Mildred Othmer died -- he in 1995, she in 1998 -- it turned out they were quite remarkable indeed. Polytechnic University, which once faced bankruptcy, unexpectedly found itself heir to $175 million. Planned Parenthood received $65 million. All told, the couple bequeathed $340 million to several perennially cash-strapped Brooklyn institutions.
Few who knew the Othmers had any idea of their enormous wealth, which totaled some $750 million. But the couple's hometown -- Omaha, Neb. -- offered a clue. Omaha, as any investor knows, is the headquarters of Warren Buffett, the greatest stock market investor of modern times. He also happened to have been an old friend of the Othmers. After investing $25,000 each in a Buffett-led investment partnership in the early 1960s, in 1970 the couple received thousands of shares of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Buffett's insurance and investment holding company, at $42 a share. By the time Donald Othmer died in 1995, the stock had soared to $30,000 a share. Too bad for Brooklyn he didn't live a few years longer -- Berkshire Hathaway currently trades at an astonishing $68,000 a share.
Buffett says he won't invest in a company unless he can "see" it, unless he can imagine what its balance sheet might look like in a decade or two -- a shockingly long view, especially at a time when many investors hold stocks for just days, or even minutes, at a time. Such behavior would get many contemporary fund managers fired, but it's hard to argue with a man whose own holdings have outpaced the Dow Jones Industrial Average for more than 40 years.