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Jennings Osborne, known for holiday lights, dies

Little Rock philanthropist Jennings Osborne, known for his holiday light displays, massive pork dinners and links to state and national politicians, died Wednesday. He was 67.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Little Rock philanthropist Jennings Osborne, known for his holiday light displays, massive pork dinners and links to state and national politicians, 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 Hospital in Little Rock.

Osborne, who became wealthy running a medical research company, entered the public eye in the early 1990s with elaborate Christmas light displays at his Little Rock home. The displays generated wide interest and snarled traffic on busy Cantrell Road.

Osborne's neighbors sued, with the case finally being decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Osborne had to take down his lights. He tried to have the case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming his religious rights were being trampled, but the high court wouldn't take up the case.

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 dinners to fans before Arkansas Razorbacks football games and sponsored fireworks shows in Little Rock.

"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," Osborne's daughter, Breezy Osborne, 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 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.

Osborne also cooked for former President George W. Bush during Bush's visits to Arkansas. His 11 cookers, each weighing 4,100 pounds, could cook 6,000 pounds of meat at a time.

"He got more joy in doing a barbecue for people and doing it for free," Bazzel said. "His deal was anything that could bring joy and create a memory. He was unique in that sense."

Osborne showed his support for Bush at his home with an illuminated flag display. But he had to retire the giant ornament because vandals kept cutting the wires.

Osborne is survived by his wife and daughter. Funeral arrangements were pending.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)



Statements on the passing of Jennings Osborne

Breezy Osborne:

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. Sadly my father's big heart finally gave out. But knowing my "Dadoo", there will be fireworks at the gates of Heaven. We want to thank everyone from Arkansas and across the country for all their well wishes and prayers. It meant so much to my dad, me and my mom.


President Clinton:

I am deeply saddened by the news of my friend Jennings Osborne's passing. Jennings had a big heart and gave so much to so many people throughout his extraordinary life. 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. He even took time to personally serve the hungry his signature BBQ, feeding thousands of Arkansans throughout the years. Like those he lifted up, I consider myself fortunate to have known such a uniquely compassionate man. My family and I are grateful for his friendship and our thoughts and prayers are with Mitzi and Breezy.


Governor Mike Beebe:

With the passing of Jennings Osborne, Arkansas has lost one of our highest-profile philanthropists. 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.


DeAnna Korte, Riverfest Executive Director:

Riverfest would like to extend our deepest condolences to the Osborne Family. Jennings Osborne was a wonderful, generous man who brought joy to thousands with his kind deeds.

For nearly 20 years Jennings and his family provided the fireworks for Riverfest's 250,000 festival goers. He and his family were a part of our Riverfest family. One of our favorite memories of Jennings was watching his face light up as people all around him clapped and shouted their appreciation when the fireworks were done.

He will be sorely missed


Secretary of State Mark Martin:

Our thoughts and prayers are with Jennings Osborne's family Mitzi and Breezy. He was a great Arkansan, a great friend to the State Capitol, and a great philanthropist. Mr. Osborne in the past had sponsored the State Capitol's Christmas lighting extravaganza. He will be missed by many.


Senator Mark Pryor:

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Osborne family. Jennings was an overwhelmingly generous person who brought joy to the hearts of thousands. He may be remembered most by his spectacular Christmas light display, but those who knew him will remember him as a modest and humble friend. Arkansas and the Razorback nation has lost a dear friend.


Former Governor Mike Huckabee:

My good friend and fishing buddy Jennings Osborne was known for his extravagance in Christmas lights, free barbecue plates the size of a Buick that he joyfully gave away to people who had been devastated by tornadoes or tragedies, and his fireworks displays. He advocated that people should commit "random acts of kindness," but they weren't empty words for Jennings and his family. Many things he did publicly so that anyone regardless of who they were could enjoy, such as the fireworks, food, and festive lights, but what most people don't know is that he practiced what he preached and did most of his charitable deeds privately and anonymously. His subdued demeanor belied his sharp, intelligent, and sometimes outrageous sense of humor. He was a joy to be with because when he said something, it was worth listening to and usually worth laughing about. Above all, he loved his family. His devotion to Mitzi and his beloved daughter Breezy was unmistakable and unmatched. He was truly one of the most selfless people I've ever known. He loved all kinds of people except had little patience for people who were mean, cynical, or who thought themselves superior to others. I often said that Jennings was like a little boy who never had candy who one day bought the candy store and found his greatest joy in giving candy to kids who were like he once was and couldn't afford it. His generosity to others was never about calling attention to himself. It was about wanting to make people know they are loved. It was one of the ways he expressed God's love. He had the biggest heart in the world. He used it mostly for others. It finally gave out. Anyone who really knew him will remember him as an humble and caring man who loved God, loved his family, loved his work, loved life, and loved to see joy in others. I already miss him.


Congressman Tim Griffin:

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Osborne family upon the death of Jennings. He was a kind and giving man who showed his generosity to thousands of Arkansans whether at Razorback football games, on the 4th of July, or during the Christmas season. He will long be remembered for the joy, laughter and love he brought to the community through his philanthropic efforts. He was a one-of-a-kind who will be greatly missed.

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