Mainers remembered philanthropist Doris Buffett, who died Tuesday at her home in Rockport, as a fun-loving and gracious “fairy godmother” who gave millions of dollars to educational and social welfare programs in her adopted state.

Doris Buffett, seen being interviewed at her home in Fredericksburg, Va., in 2011, created the Sunshine Lady Foundation with the goal of giving away her fortune. Eva Russo/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

Buffett, 92, was the older sister of billionaire Warren Buffett and shared her family’s great wealth through the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Learning By Giving Foundation and the Letters Foundation.

The latter, overseen by Doris Buffett, distributed $10.5 million in humanitarian hardship grants before the foundation shut down this year. Buffett eventually gave away more than $200 million of her fortune, the New York Times reported.

The Times confirmed Buffett’s death through her grandson Alexander Buffett Rozek. She died surrounded by family and friends, listening to Billie Holiday music, Rozek told Bloomberg News.

Buffett, who suffered through a difficult upbringing, four failed marriages, financial ruin, two bouts of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, espoused the benefits of investing in “patient capital” that would yield long-term results.

“She saw herself as a fairy godmother,” said Karen Baldacci, wife of former governor John Baldacci. “She didn’t have one as a child, but she certainly was one to many here in Maine.”

Buffett gave the lead $3 million donation to build Educare Central Maine, which Baldacci oversaw when she headed the former governor’s Children’s Cabinet. The innovative early learning center in Waterville opened in 2010 and serves 200 children annually.

Baldacci got to know Buffett when the philanthropist flew a team from Maine to visit an Educare center in Chicago, one of 10 operating across the nation at the time.

“She was a remarkable person,” Baldacci said. “She had a personal touch that was charming. You could be intimidated by all her diamonds, but we connected in our shared purpose to make things better for people who struggle. With everything she was given in life, she saw it as an opportunity to give it away.”

Gov. Janet Mills praised Buffett’s lifelong devotion to improving the lives of people who are too often left behind, from children with disabilities to survivors of domestic violence.

“Her passion for investing in the potential of others transformed countless lives and she will be sorely missed,” Mills said in a written statement. “On behalf of the people of Maine, I express my deepest gratitude for Doris’ generosity and my condolences to her loved ones, as well as the community of Rockport during this difficult time.”

In choosing the beneficiaries of her wealth, Buffett disdained what she called “SOBs” – symphonies, operas and ballets. Instead, she chose to help people who faced insurmountable odds and support programs that would provide people in need with economic stability.

Her Sunshine Lady Foundation has sponsored inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren to pursue college degrees through the University of Maine at Augusta. Buffett attended several graduation ceremonies.

Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said Buffett’s passing is a tremendous loss to the citizens of Maine.

“Doris has been a trailblazer in her support for Maine’s incarcerated citizens,” Liberty said. “Through her generosity and vision, many individuals were able to obtain a college education, positively impacting several generations of Mainers. Her legacy of philanthropy is unmatched. She has been a gift to many.”

This year, the Sunshine Lady Foundation gave $175,000 to help the Families First Community Center in Ellsworth build a six-unit apartment building for homeless families. The facility will offer child care, cooking classes and parenting instruction, in line with Buffett’s desire to bolster the future success of the people she hoped to help.

“She was always looking for the long-term impact of her gifts, not just the feel-good moment up front,” said Lauren Sterling, a Portland-based philanthropy consultant who specializes in educational programs.

Doris Eleanor Buffett was born on Feb. 12, 1928, in Omaha, Nebraska, one of three children of Howard H. Buffett, a stockbroker and four-term Republican congressman, and Leila (Stahl) Buffett, a homemaker.

Buffett believed her mother was bipolar, something her brother disputes. Buffett described being the focus of emotionally abusive tirades throughout her youth, when her mother would yell at her for long periods, then calmly note her satisfaction in having a good talk.

Buffett shared her experiences widely in interviews and an authorized 2010 biography, “Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story,” by Michael Zitz. In 2018, she published “Letters to Doris: One Woman’s Quest to Help Those With Nowhere Else to Turn.”

Despite her traumatic childhood, Buffett was called Mary Sunshine as a young girl and carried a positive attitude throughout her life.

“She exuded joy and positivity,” said Sterling, who met Buffett while working in the Baldacci administration. “I always thought it was appropriate that her foundation was named Sunshine Lady. It was perfectly aligned with the person she was.”

Buffett built a personal fortune of more than $12 million from an investment made with her brother in the 1950s, then lost it all in the 1987 stock market crash.

She became wealthy again in 1996, when her mother died and left her shares in Berkshire Hathaway, an American multinational conglomerate headed by her brother. In addition to her brother and a sister, she is survived by three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Much of the money Buffett gave away went to people and programs near her homes in Fredericksburg, Virginia; Wilmington and Beaufort, North Carolina; Boston and Rockport.

One of her favorite causes was the Gen. Henry Knox Museum in Thomaston, which she supported at the urging of her daughter after the two women visited the sprawling white mansion known as Montpelier.

Renny Stackpole, a former museum trustee, worked with Buffett to establish a summer institute that she sponsored to help teachers bring Maine history to life in the classroom.

“She was a great lady, full of enthusiasm for our local history,” Stackpole said. “She was a steady supporter of the museum and regularly attended our events. We’re really going to miss her.”


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