Cherished friend, generous donor and 2003 Mercy College Honorary Degree recipient Doris Buffett passed away in August 2020 at the age of 92, leaving behind the fruits of a vast philanthropic labor that bettered the lives of countless individuals.
With the goal of giving away her entire fortune during her lifetime, Buffett donated more than $150 million of her own money to fund a variety of community service programs close to her heart. She was also always quick to act on the steady stream of donation request letters that found their way onto the desk of her younger brother, business mogul Warren Buffett. According to a New York Times obituary, Warren Buffett described Doris as the family’s “retail philanthropist. ”
To achieve her goal, Buffett established The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc. and recruited smart, spirited and altruistic women, and a few men, to be her “Sunbeams” – philanthropic advisors on the ground who identified the causes and populations in their own communities most in need of financial assistance. Through the foundation, Buffett supported young women in Afghanistan, domestic violence prevention organizations, residential services for mentally and physically disabled adults, senior housing facilities and prison education programs.
In fact, Buffett was first introduced to the idea of funding prison education, an eventual major focus of her philanthropic efforts, through Marjorie Jones, a designated “Sunbeam,” former Mercy assistant professor, and conduit between Buffett and the College.
Jones met Buffett while attending a seminar on Elizabeth I at Oxford and they quickly became best friends and partners in goodwill. Jones described Buffett as, “…one of the most colorful women I’ve ever met. Charismatic and compassionate, with a great sense of humor.”
In the 90s, after making a transition from law and banking to teaching, Jones pursued, and was offered, a position teaching European history at Mercy College’s Dobbs Ferry Campus. A few years into her role, Jones started teaching history and government classes to inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York through Mercy College’s partnership with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison (Hudson Link), an initiative formed in January 1998 to help restore college education in prison after state and federal funding cuts led to the discontinuation of such programs.
Jones humorously recounted her introduction to Hudson Link – she learned about the program in the late 90s while eating a BLT sandwich in the faculty cafeteria with Rosemary Murray, a professor of English literature at Mercy College. The fateful lunch led to an immensely rewarding experience for Jones - instructing motivated, smart and challenging inmates - that energized and enlightened her personal and professional future.
With this newfound passion, Jones presented prison education as a potential philanthropic investment to Buffett and invited her to attend a Sing Sing graduation ceremony. Moved by the event, Buffett added prison education to her funding priorities and The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc. began supporting organizations throughout the country, including the Mercy College collaboration with Hudson Link and Sing Sing.
“Doris took to heart what the superintendent of Sing Sing said – he believed that being imprisoned was enough of a punishment, and that it was important to provide prisoners an education that would make their lives potentially better when they got out,” said Mitty Beal, executive director of The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc., who accompanied Buffett to the graduation.
Buffett’s contributions to the Sing Sing program made it possible for Hudson Link to expand the program. The Hudson Link location has honored Buffett’s support, and greater championing of prison education, by naming their office building the Doris E. Buffett Building for Higher Education in Prison. The Mercy College/Hudson Link partnership robustly persists, with the annual graduation ceremony at Sing Sing being one of immense celebration and gratitude where College President Tim Hall personally confers degrees.
Buffett’s spirit also endures through “Sunbeams” Jones and Beal. Jones continues the work that she and Buffett initiated as a highly regarded expert, author and national advocate for prison education and reform, now teaching at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford, a program sponsored by Villanova and augmented by a generous contribution from The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc. “Doris made it all possible for me,” she reflected.
Beal shared memories of Buffett and her influence: “Just being with Doris - she was fabulous, fun, interesting and an intellectually curious person. We had dinner in London with Prince Charles once – with Doris, I stumbled upon these types of experiences. But most strongly, I was taken by Doris’s amazing compassion for people with very limited options in life.”