Warren Hellman played a unique role in San Francisco and left a void that needs to be filled
At the memorial service, that attitude came through most strongly in the words — spoken with a country twang — of musician Ron Thomason, who became good friends with Hellman through their shared loves of bluegrass music and horseback riding, including the endurance rides in which they each competed.
"I know I'm amongst all good folks," Thomason told the packed synagogue. "The plain truth is Warren didn't tolerate the other kind."
That was true. No matter your perspective or station in life, Hellman wanted to know and appreciate you if had a good heart and curious mind. And if not, he would let you know — or cut you off, as he did with the political group he helped start, SFSOS, after its director Wade Randlett launched nasty attacks on progressive politicians and advocates.
Thomason joked about how ridiculous much of this country has become. "It's hard to believe that only half the people are dumber than average," he said. "But I don't think anyone ever saw Warren Hellman talk down to anybody."
He told the story of meeting Hellman backstage at Hardly Strictly. Thomason knew Hellman from equestrian events and didn't know that he was a wealthy banker or that he created and funded the festival. And Hellman didn't immediately offer that information, telling his friend that he was just backstage because he knew someone in management.
"He knew everyone in management, and he expected them to do right," Thomason said, later adding, "In his mind, there should not be any disenfranchised."
It was a perspective that was echoed by people from all parts of Hellman's life, from his family members to his business partners.
"He taught us to respect people from all walks of life," said Philip Hammarskjold, the CEO of Hellman & Friedman and Hellman's business partner of 17 years, describing how Hellman was as engaged with and curious about the firm's low-level support staff as he was its top executives, an attitude that infected those around him. "His culture is now our culture. His values are now our values."
"Money meant noting to Warren," said his sister, Nancy Bechtle. "But in business, money was the marker that you won and Warren always wanted to win."
He was a competitive athlete and an investment banker who wanted to give companies the resources they needed to succeed, rather than slicing and dicing them for personal gain. And he used the wealth he accrued in the process to make San Francisco a better place.
"He treated San Francisco as if it were part of his family, nurturing its health and education," said his granddaughter, Laurel Hellman.
Personally, he was an iconoclast with a lively sense of play.
"He never worried about the things that most parents worried about," said Frances Hellman, the eldest of Warren's four children. Rather than getting good grades and staying out of trouble, Hellman wanted his children to be happy, hard-working, respectful of people, and always curious about the world.
She told stories about taking Hellman to his first Burning Man in 2006 (along with Rabbi Sydney Mintz, who led the service), an event he loved and returned to the next two years, and watching his childlike pleasure at leaving his painted footprints on a sail that was headed around the world, or with just sitting on the playa, picking his banjo, watching all the colorful people go by.
"I love him and I miss him more than I can express," she said.
As Hellman told me in 2007, he just loved people and was genuinely curious about their perspectives.
"I'm so grateful for the friendship of Warren, to know this incredible man," singer Emmylou Harris — one of Hellman's favorite musicians — said before singing for a crowd of others who felt just the same way.
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