LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Photos bearing celebrities' autographs sat on tables adorned with Christmas lights and Elvis songs played Monday, as Little Rock philanthropist Jennings Osborne was remembered by friends and family as a larger-than-life figure whose generosity and friendships crossed party lines.
Former President Bill Clinton, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former first lady Rosalynn Carter praised the late Osborne as someone whose over-the-top style was matched by a desire to help others.
"He was flashy and he kept his hair long and his lights bright, but some of the best things he did in life were when nobody was looking and no one could see," Clinton said to an audience of more than 500 people at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock.
Osborne, 67, died Wednesday from a heart ailment. He became wealthy running a medical research company, had ties to state and national politicians and was known for supplying massive barbeque dinners for many public gatherings. But his Christmas lights — which grew from a modest display to 3.2 million lights that drew thousands of visitors a night — gained him the most attention.
The state's highest court eventually declared the display at his Little Rock home a nuisance and ordered Osborne to take the lights down. Undaunted, he strung them in Little Rock's downtown River Market District and dozens of other Arkansas cities. He went on to provide light displays for Disney World, Graceland and Plains, Ga.
Imaging Osborne's first conversation upon entering heaven, Clinton joked that he could picture him telling God: "This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, but it could do with a little more light at night."
Reading a statement from former President Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter said "one of (Osborne's) constant concerns was how to be as generous as possible, knowing that his continuing contributions to us and to his many other friends could never be repaid."
Huckabee, who was close friends with Osborne, remembered that he would often buy dinner for everyone in a restaurant on his way out the door. Osborne also was known for his public barbeques where those attending would get a 10-pound helping of pork and chicken.
"Heaven is the one place where Jennings can't overdo it," Huckabee said. "There's already food, there's already lights and everybody's already happy. He's going to fit in real well there, and I'm looking forward to seeing my buddy."
Reminders of Osborne's flashy style were scattered throughout his funeral service. Christmas songs played over the loudspeakers as mourners entered the church, and Christmas lights adorned tables featuring autographed pictures of him with celebrities and Disney mementoes.
Breezy Osborne-Wingfield brought a ventriloquist's dummy that resembled her father, who had dubbed it "Little J.O."
"I feel like Dad would have been tapping his toes and singing along," she said after an Elvis rendition of "How Great Thou Art" played.Comment on this story
The service, which was followed by a private burial, also drew Gov. Mike Beebe, former Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles and former Arkansas and current Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt.
Noting his friendships with and support of both Democrats and Republicans — Osborne gave money to both Huckabee and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaigns — Huckabee called Osborne a political person who managed to avoid partisanship.
"When I think about the fact that Jennings Osborne was able to have relationships with Clintons and Carters and Bushes and Huckabees and all these people from all over the political spectrum, I really think that the Lord probably should not have taken him home," Huckabee said. "But he should have sent him to Washington."
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo