Mrs. B, Cornhusker states best-known Jew, 104

OMAHA — Rose Blumkin, Nebraska's best-known and probably its wealthiest Jew, has died. She was 104.

The 4-foot, 10-inch tall immigrant, known to friends and strangers alike as "Mrs. B," came from Russia in 1916 with the equivalent of $66 in her pocket. Over the next eight decades, her financial smarts became legendary in the Cornhusker state.

She personally built a furniture empire worth well over $100 million. In the 1980s, she sold a majority share of the Nebraska Furniture Mart to fellow Omahan and investment wizard Warren Buffet.

Her survivors include her grandson and his wife, Howard and Anne Cohn, of Sausalito. "She was the embodiment of generosity and compassion," her grandson said.

Blumkin was, in fact, one of the most generous givers to Nebraska's Jewish community. She is best known for donating more than $1.5 million for a 119-bed Jewish nursing home.

"Mrs. B" was also a character.

When her legs began to fail her decades back, she began to ride a battery-powered three-wheel cart named "The Rose B." She joked that she sped around the furniture mart's floor "like a Russian Cossack."

She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on NBC's "Today" show.

More than 1,000 attended services for Blumkin, who died Aug. 9.

She was born in 1893 near Minsk. She was the daughter of a kindly but impractical rabbi. While her father studied and prayed, her mother supported the family by running a little grocery store during the day and baking bread and doing laundry at night.

Blumkin once said it was the image of her mother working so hard that inspired her to improve the family's situation.

"I can't stand the way you work," she told her mother. "When I grow up, you're not going to work so hard."

In 1913, Rose married a shoe salesman named Isadore Blumkin. To avoid military conscription, he left Russia for the United States three years later. She joined him in Iowa.

In 1919, the family moved to Omaha to be around more Jews. Her husband went into the second-hand clothing business. The family made do nicely on the $10 a week that he made at the store. In 1930, the Depression threatened to destroy the family's modest success.

"My husband came home and said, `We're all going to starve to death,'"Blumkin said. But she saved the day for the family by exercising her famous sales acumen.

"I shopped all the big shots for their prices to see how much competition I could give them," she said. "Then I printed 10,000 circulars offering to dress any man from head to toe for five dollars." The next day the Blumkins took in $800, and the business began to prosper again.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Blumkin decided she wanted something bigger. In 1937, she borrowed $500 from her brother, went to Chicago and ordered $12,000 worth of furniture which she had shipped to a 30-foot by 100-foot room.

When she did not sell the goods quickly enough to pay all her suppliers at the end of the month, she sold practically everything in her own home to meet her debts.

Thus, the Nebraska Furniture Mart was launched. In the style of marketing that became her trademark, she bought goods at 5 percent above wholesale and sold them at 10 percent above what she had paid.

The present furniture mart contains 250,000 square feet of selling space on two floors and is located near an 11-acre warehouse. The parking lot can hold more than 1,500 cars.

The Nebraska Furniture Mart is often described as the nation's largest furniture retailer under one roof. A decade ago, sales were at $132 million.

In addition to being chairwoman of the board, Blumkin concentrated her efforts in the day-to-day management of the store in the carpeting department.

In 1983, to avoid any chance of a family feud after the matriarch's death, the Blumkin family sold most of its stock in the Nebraska Furniture Mart to Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a diversified Omaha-based investment company headed by Buffet.

Upon learning of her death, Buffet recalled the day he shook hands with Blumkin in the $55 million deal. "We are partners. And in most ways, she's the senior partner. She's forgotten more than I'll ever know," he said.

Famous as a philanthropist as well as a merchandising dynamo, Blumkin responded generously to the needs of Omaha Jews and the community at large.

In 1981, she donated $1 million — the single largest philanthropic gift ever made to the Jewish Federation of Omaha — to help the Jewish community build a new nursing home. The community named the home for her. Six years later, Blumkin gave the nursing home an additional $500,000.

Blumkin once recalled why she got involved in the Jewish community. When she arrived in the United States, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society fed her a meal. "And I thought to myself then that I would do something nice back for the Jewish people who were so nice to me."