Clutching a diamond engagement ring, Warren Buffett got down on one knee and asked for Alexa Tavasci's hand in marriage.
"Please take me. Please have me," the 81-year-old billionaire begged at an Omaha, Neb., restaurant as cameras snapped around him.
Ms. Tavasci, a 21-year-old junior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, accepted the fake proposal, which was her idea. Then she gave the diamond ring back to her friend, who was hovering nearby.
"All I heard around me was laughter," recalls Ms. Tavasci, an accounting student who prepared for the visit by reading Mr. Buffett's biography.
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When it comes to investing, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chief executive is a serious man. But put Mr. Buffett in front of a camera with a future generation of business leaders and the Oracle of Omaha turns into quite a funny guy.
Several times a year, Mr. Buffett invites business students from around the U.S. to Berkshire's headquarters in Omaha for a day's visit. He spends two hours answering their questions, and they tour local businesses owned by Berkshire, including the sprawling Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheims jewelry store.
Mr. Buffett takes them out to lunch for favorite foods like chicken parmesan and root beer floats. A few lucky students join him in his Cadillac for the ride.
Throughout the day, Mr. Buffett doles out lessons on life, telling the students to choose the right spouse and surround themselves with people who are better than they are.
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As for the principles that made him the world's most famous investor, he reminds students to "stay away from borrowed money and stay away from emotions of the crowd."
The ritual ends with a photo shoot. Each student gets to take two pictures with Mr. Buffett. The first one is a serious shot, the second is a funny pose of their choosing.
Mr. Buffett says he is happy to yuk it up. "These people have come a long way, and I'd do anything they want, though I draw the line at proposing to a man," he says.
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One Friday recently, Mr. Buffett spent more than an hour clowning around with business students from colleges in Arizona, Washington, Massachusetts and Canada.Standing under a disco ball in the banquet room of Piccolo Pete's, one of his favorite restaurants, Mr. Buffett shuffled like a boxer, replaced his spectacles with a pair of lime-green-rimmed plastic sunglasses and struck a disco pose right out of "Saturday Night Fever."
"He pretty much does anything you ask him to," says Antonio Espinosa, an M.B.A. student at the University of Notre Dame who asked Mr. Buffett to pretend he was throwing a punch.
Like Berkshire's annual meeting, which drew about 36,000 shareholders last year, the student sessions are extremely popular. More than 200 colleges are on a waiting list to spend time with Mr. Buffett, who requires that women represent at least one-third of the students from each school.
Just the thought of goofing around with Mr. Buffett can be nerve-racking to students who want to make a good impression, even those who can recite his investment principles or have read all 34 shareholder letters posted on Berkshire's website.
While waiting for his turn, Pat Ryan was disappointed to see a handful of other students ahead of him in line doing the same thing he planned: swapping eyeglasses with Mr. Buffett.
Mr. Ryan, a 29-year-old M.B.A. student at Notre Dame, had to think fast. At the last minute, he ditched his original plan and instead asked Mr. Buffett to grab the young man's tie and pretend to choke him.
Mr. Buffett didn't hesitate, laughing as he followed Mr. Ryan's instructions. "He went right for it, and you could tell he really enjoyed it," says Mr. Ryan.
Meeting Mr. Buffett made him realize that he needs to do something he is passionate about, like starting his own tech company, rather than seeking a job based on how well it pays.
Details about photo shoots are passed down to younger business students, giving them a chance to prepare for their one-on-one moment with Mr. Buffett.
Some approach it like a business-school case study, carefully weighing the pros and cons of different angles and poses. Props are popular, especially sunglasses.
Danielle Qi, a finance major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., began thinking about her funny picture over lunch.
She asked classmate Patricia Pan to help her tug on Mr. Buffett, one woman on each side, so it would look like they were fighting over him for a date. Ms. Qi says she "felt pretty silly."
When it was her turn, Ms. Pan wanted to try something new. She asked Mr. Buffett to mimic the famous pose from "Home Alone," by putting hands to his head and making a silent scream.
Mr. Buffett "wasn't sure what the movie reference was," Ms. Pan says, so she "demonstrated and he followed."
Alex Williams, a senior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., was telling Mr. Buffett how much he appreciated the visit when Mr. Buffett interjected: "I'll just put you in a headlock. How about that?"
Mr. Buffett's photo antics date back to at least 2005, when Verna Grayce Chao and her University of Chicago classmates posed with Mr. Buffett next to his car on their way to lunch.
He pulled out his wallet and pretended to hand it to the group.
"It was totally spontaneous," says Ms. Chao, now 35 years old and a director of marketing in Dell Inc.'s health-care and life-sciences business. She has the photo in an album at home.
If she had another photo op with Mr. Buffett now, Ms Chao might choose the traditional "bunny-ears" shot. "It would be the quintessential Christmas card," she says.
Ms. Tavasci, the Northern Arizona student asked by Mr. Buffett to marry him, says her "proposal" photo has generated lots of laughs from family members and friends, adding that "everyone wants to know if I said yes." A copy is tacked onto an employee bulletin board at the Bed Bath & Beyond store where she works.
Mr. Ryan emailed the pictures to his parents and friends on the bus ride home. "Only you would ask Warren Buffett to choke you," was his mother's comment.
Mr. Buffett has no qualms even though the photos often wind up on Facebook and Twitter minutes after they are shot.
"The idea is to make this fun and informative," he says. "If I can make them happy when it makes me look like a jerk on Facebook or something, or sends out shivers, it's fine."
- Warren Buffett