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The price of goodwill.

With Legal Showdown Brewing Over Lights, Jennings Osborne's Giving Goes High Profile

LIKE AN ENERGIZER rabbit that runs on cash rather than batteries, Jennings Osborne just keeps giving and giving and giving. He seems to have everyone on the dole.

Riverfest and the upcoming Rhythm on the River have benefited from his magnanimity. The latter received a $30,000 donation toward the Beach Boys concert. He puts on extravagant summer fireworks shows on Hot Springs' Lake Hamilton, where he has a second house. And he gave the Miss Arkansas Pageant a $25,000 donation this year.

Even the central Arkansas media have enjoyed Osborne's generosity, receiving $2,000 for their local softball league. And a spoof about his familiar red lights at the Farkleberry Follies, a biennial media event, moved him to foot the bill for a cast party replete with seafood trays, fancy cakes and two cases of aged Dom Perignon.

These are just some of the more recent, better-known examples of Osborne's beneficence.

There was also the $100,000 kitchen he donated to the Union Rescue Mission some years ago. And it's anyone's guess how much he's given his No. 1 charity, Christ the King Catholic Church, where his family attends.

Osborne has a history of giving, says Bob Lowry, his lawyer and longtime friend. Lowry, who screens the charitable requests that inundate Osborne, should know. The two men met at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where they were roommates in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house.

Lately, Osborne's private giving has become more public. Lowry says Osborne has been increasingly pushed to acknowledge much of it.

Since May, two sizable advertisements have appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette touting his sponsorship of Riverfest and the pageant, as well as a half-page color ad marking the 13th birthday of his daughter, Breezy.

The pageant program book also carried an ad mentioning Osborne's donation, the largest he's given in his five years of boosting the event's scholarship fund. Pageant executive director Bob Wheeler, however, claims responsibility for that ad.

"He wants to be very low-key," Wheeler says. "I've asked him to stand and be recognized |at the pageant~, and it's awfully hard to get him up standing. He's a very shy person."

Likewise, Julia "Bitty" Martin, an advertising account executive at the Democrat-Gazette, says she approached Osborne about running the Riverfest and pageant ads that appeared in the paper.

Still, the man people describe as shy and private -- he lives in a house resembling a fortress -- suddenly seems to stay in the limelight.

Skeptics wonder whether all this is some carefully managed publicity campaign. After all, Osborne faces a court battle over the fate of his massive Christmas lights display that annually transforms his white-walled home on Cantrell Road into a fiery expanse of redness.

Osborne acknowledges allowing a bit more publicity for his giving, but he dismisses the suggestion that his generosity has an ulterior motive.

Sitting in a conference room at Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center, the company he started in 1968, the soft-spoken Fort Smith native fidgets incessantly with a gold Mont Blanc pen as he talks about the personal gratification that giving brings.

"We're just tickled to death to do it," Osborne says of the financial support he, wife Mitzi and Breezy give others. "You know it really makes us feel good."

Osborne says the family has not stepped up its charitable contributions but notes, "We probably went public a little bit just due to the adverse publicity."

The publicity has pitted Osborne and the lights against his neighbors in Robinwood and residents in two other nearby subdivisions, River Ridge and Echo Valley. After seven years of watching the display grow, bringing with it gawkers and standstill traffic, the neighbors have risen up.

In late May, the West Little Rock Property Owners Coalition filed a chancery court lawsuit against the Osbornes seeking an injunction against their Christmas lights (see accompanying article).

"I think that possibly the lawsuit has something to do with it, but that's OK," Arleta Power, a spokesman for the neighborhood coalition, says of Osborne's higher-profile giving. "I don't have a problem with that."

Power realizes that the coalition's efforts fly in the face of strong public support for Osborne and his lights.

"I know there are people who support Jennings Osborne, but they don't live here," she says. "We have no choice but to go through that traffic."

Some have tried to dissuade coalition members from pressing on by saying what a wonderful man Osborne is. Power says the lawsuit "has nothing to do with his character; it has to do with our rights."

While noting he is sensitive to opinions about him, the man of a million lights says he realizes he can't buy goodwill.

"I'm the biggest realist in the world. I can cry like everybody else," Osborne says. "I realize there are some people that, no matter what I do, will never like me ... It makes you feel bad. I could never be a politician."

Even if Osborne is trying to rally support as his day of legal reckoning nears, the efforts are probably futile. The decision on his lights will be made by a judge, using the law rather than public opinion as a guidepost.

It might be a different story if a jury of his peers sat in judgment.

Last Christmas, as neighbors became more vocal about the lights and more insistent that City Hall do something about them, the Osbornes bought a clip-out ad in newspapers throughout Arkansas and gave away postmarked cards to encourage people to show support for the lights to city leaders.

Did they ever.

In a situation recalling the classic Christmas film "Miracle on 34th Street," mountains of mail arrived at City Hall. Employees quit opening it after counting 11,600 pieces of mail supporting the lights. Only 91 negative responses had been tallied by Jan. 5, and about 1,200 letters remain unopened.

The outpouring would seem to bear out Osborne's opinion that the people who don't like the lights are "a very small group."

"No matter where I go, people thank me for the lights," he says. "There's millions of people that like it."

Osborne supports his habit of giving money and enjoyable experiences through his other addiction: work.

"A lot of people derive energy from playing golf, country clubs, socializing," he says. "I enjoy working."

He says he's become successful by doing the work of 10 people. At his research testing center, the microbiologist tests mostly prescription drugs for major pharmaceutical companies.

"We're doing a topical cream looking for adrenal suppression, and I'm doing an antihistamine right now. Just meat and potatoes," he says. "We get nice things once in a while."

Osborne declines to discuss annual sales of his privately held company that employs about nine. He also declines comment about what seems a curiously low 1992 annual sales figure of $420,000 for his company as reported in "Microcosm," compiled by Dun & Bradstreet Information Services.

Lowry, who participated in the interview, notes wryly of the figure that "it's either high or low."

A spokesman for Dun & Bradstreet says the figure comes from corporate credit reports, as reported by individual companies. "We tend to believe in its accuracy," the spokesman says.

Osborne says his small business, like most, has had its trials.

"Every year's a hard time," he says. "Everybody has problems, you know."

But somehow Osborne finds a way to keep giving. He shrugs off questions about whether he ever tires of being viewed as an easy target for fund-raisers.

"I really have trouble saying no," he admits. "Bob handles everything for me."

Osborne may have trouble turning down those pleas for help, but as for moving his lights to a more public arena, he's not giving an inch.

Christmas Lights Debate

Parties to Suit See High Court Potential

IT'S A HOT POTATO THAT may very well land in the lap of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both sides of the Jennings Osborne Christmas lights debate say the issue comes down to constitutional rights, and they are prepared to take the case all the way to the high court.

For now, the drama will be staged in Pulaski County Chancery Court.

Judge Ellen Brantley has drawn the unenviable task of ruling on whether Osborne's massive Christmas lights display on Cantrell Road is indeed a hazard and nuisance, as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Osborne contend. A pre-trial hearing in the case is set for July 14.

Filed by six individuals and the West Little Rock Property Owners Coalition, the lawsuit comes after a Christmas season that saw the Osbornes reduce the hours their lights blazed and police officers try to expedite traffic outside the Osbornes' house. But neighbors say the efforts did virtually nothing to alleviate the problem.

In fact, it seemed to get worse.

"We wish we could have settled it without going to court," says Arleta Power, a plaintiff in the suit and spokeswoman for the property owners coalition that represents the Robinwood, River Ridge and Echo Valley neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs would like to see Osborne's roughly 1.6 million lights moved to a non-residential location more accessible to large crowds. War Memorial Stadium or Riverfront Park are among their ideas.

Power says the coalition has about 300 members and has raised enough money to hire lawyer William R. Wilson Jr. Power declines to say how financially equipped the group is for all-out legal war, but she says members are aware the case could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We'll just go as far as we can go to protect our rights," she vows.

The plaintiffs allege the lights have led to gridlock traffic, trampled and trashed lawns, illegal parking in yards and traffic hazards, among other problems. They say the Osbornes' insistence on celebrating Christmas in such spectacular fashion hampers their ability to enjoy the season.

In an answer to the lawsuit, the Osbornes contend the lighting display constitutes their exercise of free speech and religious freedom.

When rights collide, the legal case gets serious.

"Basically, you have two competing rights -- the right of the landowner coming head to head with the First Amendment right of the individual ... If it is phrased in those terms, I believe it will go up," says Bob Lowry, the Osbornes' attorney.

Meanwhile, Little Rock City Director Joan Adcock is heading up a committee to study ways to make the light show more acceptable to everyone, whether it continues at the Osborne home or is moved. If the Osbornes get to keep their lights, one option being considered is using city buses to shuttle onlookers onto their property from a parking lot at nearby Systematics Information Services Inc.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; complaint against philanthropist Jennings Osborne, owner of Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 5, 1993
Previous Article:Behind the boom.
Next Article:Digital development.

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