LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Little Rock philanthropist Jennings Osborne, whose losing battle with neighbors over his 3.2 million-light Christmas display reached the nation’s highest court, died Wednesday. He was 67.
Family spokesman David Bazzel said Osborne died from a heart ailment Wednesday at a Little Rock hospital.
Osborne had ties to state and national politicians and was known for supplying pork dinners for many public gatherings. But his Christmas lights fight gained him the most attention.
What started as a relatively modest display in 1986 grew to 3.2 million lights in 1993. Arkansas’ highest court declared the display a nuisance and ordered Osborne to take the lights down.
Osborne asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that doing so would diminish his religious right to celebrate Christmas as he wished. Justices rejected his appeal.
Undaunted, Osborne strung his lights in Little Rock’s downtown River Market District and in dozens of other Arkansas cities. He went on to provide light displays for Disney World and Graceland.
“Every day is Christmas to me,” Osborne told The Associated Press in 1998. “I feel like I am on a fantasy trip, and I like to take people along.”
Osborne became wealthy running a medical research company. However, those who knew him reacted to his death by recalling how he played, not how he worked.
Former President Bill Clinton praised Osborne’s living for others.
“Jennings had a big heart and gave so much to so many people throughout his extraordinary life,” Clinton said in a statement.
“From personally providing holiday cheer through his light shows to helping families get back on their feet after natural disasters, Jennings’ capacity to give was truly awe-inspiring,” Clinton said.
Besides Bill and Hillary Clinton, Osborne also counted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among his friends.
“I often said that Jennings was like a little boy who never had candy, but who one day bought the candy store — and found his greatest joy in giving candy to kids who were like he once was and couldn’t afford it,” Huckabee said in a statement.
“He had the biggest heart in the world. He used it mostly for others. It finally gave out.”