msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 6/26/2006 8:25:32 PM ET 2006-06-27T00:25:32

Warren Buffett's agreement Monday to give away the vast bulk of a fortune currently valued at $44 billion assures he will go down in history as one of the nation's greatest philanthropists.

Yet many Americans know little about the background of the savvy investor known as the "Oracle of Omaha," whose fortune — valued at $44 billion for now — is surpassed only by that of his good friend Bill Gates, the chairman and co-founder of Microsoft.

(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal News.)

Buffett, 75, was born in Omaha, Neb., to stockbroker Howard Buffett, who went on to serve several terms in Congress, and his wife, Leila. The younger Buffett showed an interest in investing in an early age, reportedly buying his first shares of stock at age 11.

After his application to Harvard Business School was rejected, Buffett attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and later Columbia Business School, where he studied under legendary "value" investor Benjamin Graham, who taught the importance of finding undervalued companies that have solid long-term prospects.

Buffett eventually went to work for Graham before returning to Omaha in 1956 and forming his first investment partnership, which delivered outsize gains for the family members and friends who entrusted their money to him.

In 1962, he began investing in Berkshire Hathaway, a textile company that eventually became a holding company for a vast, diversified array of operating companies that produce everything from Fruit of the Loom underwear to See's Candies.

A single share of Berkshire Hathaway is now valued at more than $90,000, making it the most expensive stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were worth about $30,000 each 10 years ago.

Although the stock has never split, Berkshire Hathaway did create a more affordable "B" class of shares in the 1990s, but even those shares sell for more than $3,000 each.

Despite his vast wealth, Buffett still lives in the Omaha house he bought in 1958 for $31,000, although he also owns a house in Laguna Beach, Calif.

His folksy, straightforward style -- and consistent outperformance of market averages -- have earned him legions of fans, thousands of whom descend on Omaha annually for Berkshire's annual shareholders meeting, sometimes known as the "Woodstock of Capitalism." There Buffett offers investment advice and exhorts the crowd to buy life insurance and jewelry from companies affiliated with Berkshire.

At this year's meeting, Buffett said he and other board members including his lieutenant Charlie Munger, Berkshire's vice chairman, had agreed on a successor for Buffett, although they did not identify the candidate by name. Buffett added that he has no immediate plans to retire as chief executive.

Buffett's annual letter to shareholders also is considered a classic of the genre and is eagerly awaited by acolytes who pore through it for tips on what to buy next. In one widely publicized decision that later appeared prescient, Buffett declined to buy technology stocks throughout the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, saying famously that he did not understand them.

Buffett and his wife, Susan, who died in 2004, had three children, who live comfortably but will get only a small sliver of their father's billions.

"I don't believe in creating dynastic wealth," Buffett said at a news conference Monday. "My children have all received money from me in my life — they will receive more on my death. They are in the privileged top 1 percent at least of the population — perhaps the top one-tenth of percent. ... (But) I do not believe in inheriting your position in society based on what womb you came from."

He said each of his children would have the equivalent of a $1 billion foundation to do their charitable work when he is finished giving away his fortune.

But the bulk of his assets will be distributed through the foundation based on the fortune of fellow multibillionaire Bill Gates, with whom he has forged a close friendship over the past decade or more.

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