Warren Hellman, the 1 percent exception

Warren Hellman posed on the Guardian rooftop for this 2007 photo.
Charles Russo

San Francisco lost a piece of its soul when Warren Hellman died last night. In a deeply polarized city, where Occupy’s paradigm of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent resonates more than anywhere, Hellman showed how an extremely wealthy investment banker could champion the interests of all San Franciscans.

I first got to know Warren in 2007 when I did a series of in-depth interviews with him for a Guardian cover story. Before that, he had been a bit of a villain to progressives as he worked with his downtown friends, such as the late Gap founder Don Fisher, to fund political initiatives and groups that aggressively pushed a pro-business agenda, from the Committee on Jobs to the parking garage under Golden Gate Park.

Born into the family that founded Wells Fargo Bank, he became the youngest partner to join Lehman Brothers before founding one of San Francisco’s largest investment banking firms, Hellman was solidly in the 1 percent. But he was a curious man with a good heart, compassionate soul, nimble mind, and strong sense of integrity.

So when the progressives he previously battled over the parking garage pushed for more car-free hours in the park – something Hellmann and his allies had pledged to support if the garage was built – he joined them and battled with his former garage allies who had abandoned that pledge, eventually forcing a compromise when it seemed the car-free crowd was headed for defeat.

That was the reason I got to know him and the focus on my “Out of downtown” story, but it was only the beginning. I came to know about how he was spending his money to help the schools and the poor, about his generous/selfish gift of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and about his belief that George W. Bush and other neo-conservatives – those who so shamelessly and short-sightedly helped consolidate this country’s wealth in fewer and fewer hands – were sullying his Republican Party.

So we stayed in touch and had early morning breakfasts together every six months or so, talking about the issues of the day. We talked about Burning Man, an event he loved and one I was covering and writing a book about. He listened as I complained about my shrinking staff at the Guardian and how the contraction of journalism was bad for San Francisco, and we talked through some possible solutions.
It bothered Warren to see the San Francisco Chronicle being decimated by an out-of-town corporation, and he wanted to help. So he took that kernel of an idea, mulled it, and discussed it with a wide variety of people who had expertise on the topic, just as he would do with his myriad investment banking ideas.

And with that steady heat that he applied to this kernel, he popped it into The Bay Citizen, a non-profit professional newsroom that has already done a great service to San Francisco, and which owes its existence to Hellman, who subsidized it with millions of dollars of his own money and encouraged his rich friends to give millions more. That is among his many legacies, although he was probably most proud of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, probably the country's best free concert. Warren loved that music, and he told me it was mostly because it told the stories of common people so beautifully. "The kind of music is the conscience of our country," he told me. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors last week offered a bit of appreciation for Warren's gift, renaming the main venue of Speedway Meadows as Hellman's Hollow.

I’ll let the Bay Citizen and other media outlets write Warren’s full obituary. What I’m choosing to think about now is the man, and he is someone who I will truly miss. San Francisco just won’t be the same place without the example he set, but I hope it lives on in the hearts and minds of those in a position to help San Francisco find its heart and realize its potential.