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Jennings Osborne and the eye of the needle

His worldly possessions went under the hammer last week. The collection of a lifetime, scattered to the winds.

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Mitzi Osborne image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Mitzi Osborne, outside the real estate auction of her home.

"Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece."

— "Citizen Kane," 1941

Here is the one, hard truth of life, my friend: Out there, somewhere — no matter how much money you have, or how many people you know, or how big your house or car is — the moment of your death is always winging toward you, second by second, even now, as you read this. It's an idea that can either swallow you or set you free, depending on how you look at it. The downside is: It's coming, and no amount of clean living is going to stop it. The upside is: Until it gets here, there's always time.

There is, however, a way to beat the reaper. If you give enough of yourself, if you touch enough lives and make people remember more about the good things you did than the bad, you can live on, with little pieces of your soul passed from lips to ears and lips again.

Which brings us to the life of William Jennings Bryan Osborne Jr.

If you've lived in Central Arkansas for more than even a few years, you know the name Jennings Osborne: big man of big appetites; resident of the white house with the wall around it on Cantrell Road, that once glowed red as the nose of Rudolph every Christmas until the courts stepped in and made him turn out the lights; thrower of free barbecues and fireworks displays; redneck-made-good; enthusiastic caller of the Hogs; wheeler, dealer; a man whose name — along with that of his beloved daughter Allison "Breezy" Osborne and wife Mitzi — is cast at the feet of the brass eagle whose wings stretch at the entrance of the Clinton Presidential Center.

Osborne, once a millionaire 50 times over thanks to his Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center, which did some of the first human trials on drugs like Viagra and Motrin, passed away in a Little Rock hospital on July 27, 2011, from complications of heart surgery he'd had the previous April. He was 67 years old, but had lived enough by then to satisfy any three men.

By the time Osborne died, thanks to a deal to sell his testing company that went south and the pricy startup of a new operation called The Osborne Research Center, his estate was millions in debt. Numbers vary from source to source, but those close to him say the amount is in the realm of $3.5 million, plus the interest that has compounded every day since.

Those who knew and loved him said he'd given away millions by then, the money spent on funerals, clothes for burnt-out families he read about in the newspaper, donations, free barbecues at Razorback games and in tornado-flattened towns, the Christmas lights that eventually left Little Rock and went to Disney World in the mid-1990s, and more.

All the lights are dimmed now. Last week and into the weekend, the estate of Jennings Osborne auctioned over two thousand items — from his big white house on Cantrell, all the way down to framed photographs of people he never really knew — in order to satisfy his creditors.

Walking through it all, seeing the wondrous horde he collected in garages, barns, closets, and dresser drawers, one can't help but wonder: What did he really want when he was buying all those things?

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