Jennings Osborne, known for holiday lights, dies

By Nomaan Merchant

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, July 27 2011 7:40 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this file photo taken Dec. 14, 1993, automobile traffic lines up on the road in front of the Jennings Osborne family home displaying more than 3 million lights in Little Rock, Ark. Jennings Osborne died Wednesday, July 27, 2011, in Little Rock. He was 67.

Danny Johnston, File, Associated Press

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.

Osborne family spokesman David Bazzel said Osborne died from a heart ailment about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Baptist Health hospital in Little Rock.

Osborne, who became wealthy running a medical research company, supplied pork dinners for many public gatherings and rubbed shoulders with state and national politicians, but his Christmas lights put him on the map — quite literally, as they were visible from the air from miles away.

Decorations erected to humor his daughter grew from a relatively modest display in 1986 to one in 1993 that held 3.2 million lights. Thousands flocked nightly to Osborne's home on already-busy Cantrell Road, snarling traffic and angering neighbors who eventually sued.

The state's 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, and the state Supreme Court ruling stuck.

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.

Osborne sold for a pittance tremendous pork and chicken dinners to fans before Arkansas Razorbacks football games and sponsored fireworks shows in Little Rock.

In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Osborne called his unusual charitable acts "vehicles for happiness."

"Every day is Christmas to me. I feel like I am on a fantasy trip, and I like to take people along," Osborne said.

Despite Osborne's business success, people 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."

And Breezy Osborne said the celebration of her father's life will continue in the next life.

"My father was an amazing man who all my life showed what a big heart he had for everyone, young and old and regardless of background or wealth," she said. "Sadly my father's big heart finally gave out. But knowing my 'Dadoo,' there will be fireworks at the gates of heaven."

Osborne counted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among his friends. Former President Jimmy Carter attended Breezy Osborne's wedding.

Gov. Mike Beebe noted Osborne also worked to help people in need.

"Arkansas has lost one of our highest-profile philanthropists," Beebe said. "He brought comfort and entertainment to countless people, whether feeding disaster victims, donating fireworks, throwing unparalleled tailgate parties or lighting up Disney World. While a larger-than-life public figure, Jennings was also a kind and soft-spoken man, who always shared his financial success with others."

Osborne was a longtime supporter of Huckabee, paying for the remodeling of his office at the State Capitol and backing his candidacy for president in 2008. He also donated money to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.

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