“Howard and I are old friends and I knew that he had the skills and would be inclusive … he was one of the most dedicated sheriff volunteers we have ever had,” Schneider says. In the US, county sheriffs are elected to four-year terms and are responsible for law enforcement primarily outside city perimeters, tackling issues ranging from violent crime and drugs to traffic infringements. They also control county jails, run courthouses and serve court documents. The turf inside the urban centres belongs to the city police departments, whose chiefs are professionally appointed.
Not everyone was happy with Howard’s appointment, which required approval from the then Democrat-majority Macon County board. Unlike his father, Howard is a proud Republican. It took nearly two months and some deft backroom politicking, but on September 15, 2017, the son of the billionaire investor known as the Oracle of Omaha was officially installed in the sheriff’s office. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of energetic reform, instigating new projects and raising money, including using more than $US60 million of Buffett family money to build state-of-the-art medical facilities for drug addicts and a high-tech academy to train a new generation of police attuned to the specific problems of the community they serve.
Twelve years have passed since Buffett senior stunned the global financial community by pledging $US37 billion of his then $US44-billion fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He also shocked his three children by giving them $US1 billion each. Warren’s gift had a caveat: the money was theirs only if they could find ways to give it all away to make the world a better place. To celebrate his 82nd birthday in 2012, he upped the ante, and today his children Susie, 65, Howard, 64 and Peter, 60, have each received about $US2.5 billion, paid in annual instalments of about $US185 million, depending on the stock price of the family company, Berkshire Hathaway. I am confident you will use the money wisely, each in your own way, he wrote to them. Love, Dad.
Each of his children has their own philanthropic foundation. Peter’s focuses on ending violence, discrimination and the subordination of girls and women, while Susie is interested in public education, human services and social justice. Howard has, in many ways, been the boldest of the siblings, beginning his foray into philanthropy in South Africa, where he started by buying 2400 hectares of land to create a cheetah reserve, then broadened out to support vulnerable communities in some of the poorest countries in the world. In the 20 years since he established his own foundation, he’s visited 152 countries and given away $US1.4 billion. In the past 12 months alone, he spent $US171 million on strategic conflict mitigation and food security projects in some of Africa’s and central America’s poorest and most unstable nations.
I first met Howard on an Italian coastguard boat during a rescue of a wooden refugee boat somewhere between the coast of Libya and Sicily. It was 2008, well before the Arab Spring, and I was on assignment for The Sydney Morning Herald. Convinced he was a press agency photographer and that we’d been scooped, I furiously (and deliberately) stood in his frames to spoil them. In fact, he was taking photographs for a book on migration for National Geographic, which he ensured was sent to every member of the US Congress.
At lunch in Decatur a decade later, he chides me right back with a gale of laughter. “Don’t you remember? I was on the other boat taking photos for the book and all I could think was, ‘Who is that white woman on the deck spoiling my pictures?’ ” It wasn’t until the rescue crew hosted a dinner on the jetty a few days later that I learnt his identity. A natural raconteur blessed with palpable joie de vivre, he was great company even for the coastguards, whose English was minimal. Still, my most vivid memory is of watching agog as he happily plopped his host’s fragrant, artisanal Sicilian gelato into his Coke to make spiders.
We stayed in touch, chatted by email, shared events of interest. Then, a year or so later, I travelled to Africa to write about his foundation’s food security programs. For more than a week, we travelled in a convoy of jeeps bristling with men and machine guns, burrowing deep into rural, conflict-torn Congo and the mountains of Rwanda. Howard’s foundation had funded myriad projects in the region, including an ambitious trial of alternative fuels in a bid to save the rare mountain gorilla and protect villagers from the militia that controlled the charcoal trade.
By then, the foundation was funding projects to the tune of about $US65 million a year, much focused on his dogged quest to experiment with biological and sustainable ways of upping farm productivity by regenerating Africa’s depleted soils. Howard had also continued working on what are now eight photographic books documenting his travels, recording the fragility and resilience of humanity in distress.
As we drove between villages, he regaled us with rollicking tales of being bitten by a cheetah, arrested in Bosnia, having a face-to-face meeting with an African warlord, and having an AK-47 pushed into his chest. He also spoke candidly about his family, the siblings’ free-spirited and unorthodox mother, his legendary arch-conservative Republican congressman grandfather (his namesake), and the life lessons learnt from his Democrat-voting, much loved, if sometimes emotionally distant father. One day, explaining why alcohol doesn’t touch his lips – he drinks gallons of Coke, like his father – he described his maternal grandfather, a Church of Christ minister and staunch prohibitionist. It was he who put the young Howard on his knee and told him not to drink.
“I’d say, ‘Why not, Grandpa?’, and he’d reply, ‘Because every time you drink alcohol it kills brain cells and Howie, you don’t have any to waste.’ ” He delivered the story with a great peal of laughter, but at the time it struck me as a little cruel, making me wonder, too, what it was like to grow up – and live constantly – in the shadow of a global titan.
Ensconced in his sheriff’s red Ford Raptor truck on our first evening on patrol in Decatur, handgun on his belt, multiple radios blaring, on-board laptop open on a stand, Howard looks as happy as a kid surrounded by his favourite toys. Since he took on the sheriff’s job he’s made it a rule for himself to “really talk and listen” to the people he meets. “I could never have dreamed that you would find children who have not been fed properly in Decatur, living in filthy houses,” he says. “This has been a huge education for me, knowledge you can’t get unless you are out on the streets every day and you can walk into people’s homes and really see how they live.”
As we drive around town, he talks about meeting a child who started using cocaine at age eight; a girl whose baby was born with cocaine addiction; and a woman who told him she would kill for her next shot of heroin. “If people are willing to do that, the question for me is ‘Why’?” Howard says. “I have learnt a lot from drug addicts, from their history and experiences. Locking them up is not going to solve the problem, it is not going to get them off drugs. The problem we have in the US is that we don’t have enough places to put them in for treatment and a shortage of resources to properly help when they get out of treatment.”
Back in his sheriff’s office the following morning, a stream of visitors passes through, reflecting a diary that is regularly packed from 7am to 11pm. Paperwork is piled haphazardly on the desk, while two phones and an iPad are open and pinging incessantly. By the middle of 2019, Howard says, regardless of their ability to pay, Decatur’s citizens will have access to a brand-new drug detox and rehabilitation centre, spread over a nine-hectare campus complete with specially built transitional housing for the most vulnerable. A walking track and working orchard are on the plans, all of it funded by Howard’s foundation.
He insists he would never have embarked on this project were it not for his experience as sheriff, along with the advocacy of Tanya Andricks, chief executive of Decatur’s only free hospital and medical centre, who even talked him into incorporating a dental clinic in the new centre. “I finally got Howard there when I reminded him that smiling matters,” Andricks says. “I told him that when you are ashamed to smile, it is hard to heal, it is hard to seek employment, and it is hard to rebuild a sense of selfworth that has been shattered. He understood that straight away.”
That afternoon, I’m given a tour of a multimillion-dollar residential police academy under construction on the city outskirts, also funded by Howard’s foundation. The new facility will offer US police training curricula, using state-of-the-art equipment and innovative teaching techniques aimed at encouraging rookie police and corrections officers to think differently – and more empathetically – when contemplating the use of force to uphold the law. Tad Williams, the academy’s commander and a former Marine and Illinois state police colonel, believes Howard’s legacy will go beyond bricks and mortar. “I’ve been black-and-white all my career. Howard taught me the greys,” says Williams. “He taught us to help when people deserve help … we used to be ‘Crime, just lock ’em up’.”
Williams refers to the ongoing debate over the shooting of unarmed black men by police officers. “Police academies turn out kids who are often still living with Mom and Dad. Weeks later, they are finished training and out in communities, drawing guns,” he says. “Howard has given us the opportunity to teach kids from the ground up what it means to lead by example, to be disciplined – that if you take action out there on the streets, there will be a reaction.”
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, is one of America’s most esteemed thinkers in the field of law enforcement reform. He has worked with Howard over the past couple of years and says his contribution, particularly in funding the further education of senior American police, is little known but highly significant. Awarded an OBE in the UK for his own extensive work with British and US police, Wexler says Howard has paid for significant research studies and programs, including one which took leading officers from 25 American state police departments to the UK to see firsthand how unarmed police forces deal with knives and violent crime. “What he has done in Decatur … well, I have never known a situation where a sheriff, someone actually in law enforcement, who knows and truly understands it, is a philanthropist, too, and can see something that’s broken and just [try to] fix it,” he says.
“I think this job has changed him. When he came in as a new sheriff, he was kind of a tough guy. He has evolved, he has seen the impact of the drug epidemic and it has had an enormous impact on him. The most significant was his recognition of the medical need … that arrest does not cure addiction.”
Adds Howard’s operations lieutenant and Democrat candidate for the sheriff’s job, Tony “Chubby” Brown: “Obviously, it is incredible for us that he has the resources to bring in the very best people to help us evaluate how to do things better, serve our community better. But the thing we’re most grateful for is that we’ve seen we cannot just arrest our way out of this problem. We have had this warrior mentality in the US, but we are not at war. We need to be protectors; we need to do things to help individuals become more productive. Our mentality has changed.”
A creature of habit, Howard has lunch early when he’s working – 11.30am – and often at the same eatery, Bizou. Over a meal of mayo-slathered coleslaw, a four-cheese toastie and a gallon of Coke, I ask if he’s managed to win over all his officers – he oversees 53 deputies and 73 correctional officers – with this new humanitarian approach to law and order. “Not all of them are there yet. I’ve been surprised by some who are thinking differently, though. I had a deputy I thought was a real hard-arse come in and say, ‘Hey, let’s put this guy in treatment.’ “
The following night, I watch Howard and his young patrol partner as they’re called to a house where an armed military veteran in his 40s has barricaded himself in the basement, threatening suicide. For two hours, they stay with the man, their own guns drawn, as a trained negotiator is called in to talk him into putting down his own pistol. Once he’s surrendered his firearm, the man is cuffed and taken to hospital.
Exhausted, Howard follows the ambulance and waits to speak to the man alone in his hospital bed, quietly reassuring him he will not face charges and will receive psychological help. “So, what is the next step? Is it to screw his life up or try and help him?” Howard asks later, visibly shaken by the close call. “He had a job and would have lost it if we had charged him. What would that achieve? He felt he had failed his wife, failed his child, he couldn’t see a way out. Law enforcement officers can – and should – make decisions to help people.”
In an email a few weeks later, Howard tells me the man was sent to a specialist PTSD clinic in Arizona. “He has just returned home, told me it’s the first time he could sleep without having nightmares … he spent 18 months in combat in Iraq.”
Warren Buffett’s own life story is, of course, the stuff of legend. Born with canny intuition and a prodigious mathematical brain, he made his fortune picking undervalued stocks for investment and sticking by them. Buffett senior’s gentle eccentricities are well known: he still lives in the family home in Omaha, Nebraska – bought for $US31,500 in 1958 – loves hamburgers, drinks litres of Cherry Coke every day, and is notoriously thrifty. Howard says his dad’s philosophy has changed little since childhood, and it has clearly rubbed off. “I could have been born black or Hispanic in America. But I was not. It was a lesson I learnt as a child from my mom, too. She said that with privilege comes responsibility.” When Howard was five, the family opened its home to a young Sudanese refugee – one of the first to arrive in the US – who lived with them until she finished university.
Looking back on his childhood, and despite his father’s legendary thriftiness, he lacked nothing. “To be able to get out of bed every day, focus on school, prepare for a test and not worry about being abused or being hungry, about what might happen to your sister: that is a huge advantage.”
Howard muses that he himself was not an easy child, restless, “moving all the time” and a bit of a handful as a teen. Finding a path in his 20s was vexed. He tried college, studying political science in three different colleges, but didn’t like it. Then he took on a series of jobs, working as a packing clerk, then for a construction company and ploughing cornfields in Nebraska. It wasn’t until he began driving a bulldozer and digging basements that he decided working the land would be his path. He learnt to farm by trial and error, establishing a pattern that would continue throughout his life. As a philanthropist, he’s been an unabashed autodidact: naturally intuitive and hands-on in choosing the projects he funds, even more so when pondering whether there’s a better way to get more bang for his billion or so bucks.
In Decatur, the 32-hectare farm he’s rented from his dad since 1993 is now part of 770 hectares of commercial soy and corn operations, with a turnover of $US1 million. “I am surprised, honestly, about how well things have worked out …” he tells me pensively in the car one night. “I mean, I’ve always been really focused on something when I need to be, but I tend to want to do a lot of things at once and I have a lot of ideas all at once … Yeah, my brain races. I am surprised it has all worked out okay.”
Yet Howard’s conservative steel is visible in his view on the US border with Mexico. He is adamant the US has no hope of properly addressing its domestic drug epidemic if it cannot improve border security, but describes US President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall as simplistic and unworkable. In his 2018 book, Our 50-State Border Crisis, Howard explains graphically the complex economic and political forces that drive the drug trade in Mexico; personal views informed by extensive observational work done on his foundation’s land holdings in Arizona and Texas border country. He is no fan of Trump’s threats and insults to Mexico, describing them as counterproductive: “Patrolling our borders effectively today needs a combination of law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and foreign adversary engagement skills … tactics beyond basic law enforcement.”
Decades of work leading and assessing the foundation’s programs in conflict-torn countries has cemented his belief that the absence of the rule of law lies at the heart of “pretty much everything”, from poverty and food insecurity to forced migration. His foundation, he says, has struggled to deliver programs in countries where local law enforcement could not be trusted to protect the people it was designed to help.
“People leave their homes and attempt to migrate because they feel unsafe, because they cannot protect their land and families, they cannot go to work without feeling threatened and local law enforcement and police cannot be trusted. We worry so much about terrorism overseas and yet in the US, the drug cartels, who contribute to the death of our own people every single day, continue to flourish in the absence of the rule of law [over the border],” he says. “These are issues that affect our own country, our own people, here, right now.”
Howard, who turned 64 in December, flagged in his foundation’s most recent annual report that this “front seat education” on the social and criminal issues facing communities across the US marks the opening of a new chapter in his philanthropic work. Leaving the sheriff’s position – he did so in November – feels “bittersweet” but will open up more time for the foundation’s work, as well as his farms. A return to his volunteer position as undersheriff will allow him to “stay engaged”.
“I might be the only guy around that accepted a demotion with a smile,” he writes in an email not long after finishing up. (On the other hand, his father has tapped him to be his successor and take over the non-executive directorship of Berkshire Hathaway when he dies.)
Still, he insists he has absolutely no intention of taking his Decatur health and law-and-order programs to other US states, laughing that his wife, Devon, knows him to be the most “optimistic pessimist she knows”.
“That is because I am not very optimistic in my work or in really achieving change or being successful. But at the same time, I will try anything – and a straight pessimist wouldn’t try at all,” he adds, laughing. Then, suddenly serious: “You see, I have never connected with something that affects our country and is this big. This is huge. When I see someone with a drug problem and they are successful in treatment and get their kids back, I see a result.
“I feel really good about doing this because it has a lot to do with home. My grandkids’ life might be different – somebody’s grandkids’ life is going to be different – because of the work we are doing.”