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John Harding, Warren Buffett’s second employee, was a steady hand

September 16, 2018

John Harding, Warren Buffett’s No. 2 hire, was on hand when Buffett closed his original partnerships, prompting his dozens of investment partners to wonder what to do next.

At Buffett’s suggestion, many of the partners shifted their money to low-risk bonds or to an investment fund then called Ruane, Cunniff & Stires. Many of them eventually invested in Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the company Buffett runs today.

As Buffett’s administrative manager, Harding — who died Sept. 6 at age 97 — helped the partners make the switch, bringing his experience in banking, his accounting skills and his law degree into play.

“John Harding was my friend for more than 50 years,” Buffett said this week. “He gave wonderful help to my partners both before and after the partnership closed at the end of 1969. Everyone he dealt with knew he always had their best interest as his only consideration.”

Although Harding was born in Omaha to a family with ancestral ties to the area going back to the 1850s, Harding had lived in Seattle since 1975 and died at home there from complications related to cancer, said his son David of Omaha.

Gladys Kaiser, whom Harding helped hire as Buffett’s first secretary, said Harding taught her what needed to be done as Buffett’s business grew and became more complex.

“John was wonderful,” Kaiser said. “He taught me so much. You had to have a few smarts to work for Warren. I really missed John when he left. I don’t think enough good things can be said about John Harding.”

The first detailed story about Buffett’s investment business ran in The World-Herald in 1966 accompanied by a picture of Buffett with Harding and Bill Scott, whom Buffett had hired as an investment analyst. Of Harding, Scott said this week, “He was a wonderful man.”

Harding’s maternal great-grandfather, Vincent Burkley, had come to Omaha in 1856. His father, J.M. Harding, was a World-Herald executive and later the first president of the Omaha Public Power District, which was formed in 1946.

John followed his father as president of the Omaha Symphony and the Omaha Campfire Council during his time in Omaha. The family donated land for the Campfire program and that land eventually became part of Platte River State Park, David Harding said.

John McMillan Harding was born in Omaha and attended Creighton Prep and the Hill School before graduating from Yale College in 1943. He served as a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1946 and earned a degree from Yale Law School in 1948.

He had met his future wife, Juliet Delafield Fiske, at a Yale-Brown football game in 1946. They married in 1948 and decided to start a family on the West Coast, settling in Seattle where he worked first as a lawyer and later as a trust officer at Seattle Trust & Savings Bank.

In 1959, Harding returned to Omaha with his wife and their six children , joining the trust department of First National Bank.

It was a cousin, Al Burkley, who arranged a lunch to introduce Harding to Buffett, who was moving his partnership business from his home to an office at Kiewit Plaza and wanted help from someone with a legal and financial background.

Harding went to work for Buffett in April 1965, arriving as the office was still being finished.

“He was very cautious,” David Harding said, so moving from a well-established bank to Buffett’s financial startup was “kind of surprising. It wasn’t very long before he decided he believed in Warren Buffett, and that served him well,” and he remained a Berkshire shareholder.

“Dad always appreciated Buffett’s strong moral sense, that he was determined to behave ethically in his business,” David Harding said. “I think that’s something that was true of my dad, too.”

For a time Harding worked in Omaha for Ruane, Cunniff. In 1975 the Harding family, now with seven children, returned to Seattle, where he taught tax law at Seattle University until 1993. The university’s Albers School of Business named its accounting service award in his honor.

The Hardings visited relatives in Omaha occasionally, and he would drop in at the Berkshire office, sometimes going to lunch with the staff.

Harding was active in the Catholic Church all his life, hoping to “find ways to be of use and of help to others who have not been nearly so fortunate as I have been.”

Shortly after arriving in Seattle he started the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to help low-income people fill out accurate tax returns. The service, still active today, was based at a Baptist church, and Harding played a primary role in helping thousands of people over 32 years.

Before computer accounting became the norm, he developed a tax return program on a small computer and updated it annually.

Harding loved music, especially jazz, and had seen Duke Ellington perform many times. He was a fan of Nebraska football and Seattle’s professional teams and often made waffles for the family on Sunday mornings.

His remains will be buried in northeastern Maine, where the family spent many summers. Besides his wife, survivors include children John Jr., Chris and Mike of Seattle; Juliet of Washburn, Wisconsin; David of Omaha; Steve of Newark, Delaware; and Tom of Altadena, California; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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