Girls find music from Buffett and his ukuleles

OMAHA, Nebraska Wed May 6, 2009 3:45am BST

Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett eats ice cream as he walks during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska in this May 2, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Files

Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett eats ice cream as he walks during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska in this May 2, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria/Files

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OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - When he's not attending to the businesses that helped him amass a $40 billion (26.6 billion pound) fortune, Warren Buffett maintains a decades-long love for the ukulele, and he wants to keep the music playing.

To help this along, the world's second-richest person has given ukuleles and a lesson on the instrument to girls at the North Omaha branch of Girls Inc.

Raelynn McCreary is one of the girls. The 10-year-old calls what Buffett did "just plain kindness. If you're a really busy person and you take time out of your schedule to go teach someone else how to do something, then that is what everyone should do."

Girls Inc's goal is to help girls become "strong, smart and bold," bolstering their confidence and self-sufficiency. The group works with girls ages 5 to 18, mainly from lower-income families. Most live with one parent or in foster care.

Buffett's daughter Susie is on the group's national board. Her dad handed out the instruments a little over a month ago, and several girls are now taking weekly lessons.

"He's a rich man, and he doesn't show it," says Natalia Partridge, also 10. "I thought he was going to be snobby and kind of mean, but he turned out to be really nice."

The gift came about in an unusual way. Two artists held a December concert in Brooklyn, New York, performing songs by The Beatles on the ukulele.

They took donations, billing the event, tongue-in-cheek, as a benefit for Buffett.

Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of Girls Inc of Omaha, said the haul was $344.23. That included lots of loose change, and a British 5-pound note.

Buffett, of course, did not need the money. But he took it, and trekked to Dietze Music in western Omaha to find the soprano ukuleles he wanted. There are larger sizes -- concert, tenor and baritone -- but these were for children.

After the store clerk quoted a price, Buffett demanded a discount because he was buying in bulk. "We shot him a deal," said Dan Sullivan, a manager at Dietze Music. "It was for a good cause."

In the end, Buffett walked out with 17 Hilo ukuleles, in the colour Transparent Red.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

Buffett spent about an hour with 13 girls at the group's building, trying to teach them the songs "Red River Valley" and "Happy Birthday." It had to be pointed out to some of the girls who Buffett was.

"After the fact, one girl came to the office and asked, 'Our ukulele teacher is the second-richest man in the world?'" Wilhelm recalled. "And I said that's true. And she said, 'The first-richest doesn't play?'"

In fact, the first richest, Bill Gates, does play. Buffett taught him.

At the red brick Girls Inc building in North Omaha, about 170 girls spend a few hours after school each weekday on such areas as reproductive health, careers, art, culture, fitness and nutrition. They also do homework.

And now, each Thursday, University of Nebraska at Omaha music student Mark Gutierrez shows up to teach ukulele. Lessons are in the Sewing Room, which has balls of yarn along one wall and oversized ukulele chords pasted to another.

"It's a good opportunity for me to go into something new," says 11-year-old Deja Gregory, who also plays the violin.

Susie Buffett's Sherwood Foundation is a major donor to Girls Inc, and her dad's ties have also paid off. In 2006, Buffett auctioned his car for $73,200. Two years later, a painting of him was sold for $100,000.

Denai Fraction, a 15-year-old learning the ukulele and who also plays clarinet, met Buffett in October at an annual fund-raiser where Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator and now Secretary of State, spoke.

"It shows a lot about his personality and his character and his morals," she says, referring to the gift. "He doesn't just think about the money."

Buffett plans to stop by to check the girls' progress in learning the ukulele. The girls will welcome him.

"It's kind of fun," says Cheyenne Wulff, who is 9. "You get to meet somebody that's almost famous."

(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Philip Barbara)

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