Warren Hellman played a unique role in San Francisco and left a void that needs to be filled
Warren Hellman left a hole in the heart of San Francisco when he died on Dec. 18 at the age of 77. That's where he existed, right in the city's heart, keeping the lifeblood of money and values flowing when nobody else seemed up to that task. But as the outpouring of affection and appreciation that followed his death attests, he set an example for others to follow...and maybe they will.
Hellman was born into one of San Francisco's premier wealthy families, a status he maintained by becoming a rich and famous investment banker. His great-grandfather founded Well Fargo, as well as the Congregation Emanu-El, the spectacular temple where Hellman's memorial service was held Dec. 21, attended by a huge crowd ranging from Gov. Jerry Brown to young country music fans.
Hellman was more than just a philanthropist who funded key institutions such as the San Francisco Free Clinic, the Bay Citizen newsroom, and a variety of programs and bond measures benefiting local public schools. He was more than the go-to guy for mediating sticky political problems such as this year's pension reform struggle.
Hellman was the conscience of San Francisco, reminding his rich friends of their obligations to fair play and the common good. And he was the rhythm of the city, single-handedly creating and funding the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, perhaps the greatest free music festival in the country. And he was so much more.
"What do banjos, garages, Levis, 50- and 100-mile runs, ride and tie, investment banking, public policy, ballot measures, free medical clinics, and a zest for women," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at his service, causing the room to erupt in laughter at the misstated last item, "for winning — correction, a zest for winning — have in common? The answer, of course, is simple: Warren Hellman."
It was a gaffe that Hellman probably would have appreciated as much as anyone. Speaker after speaker attested to his marvelous, and often risqué, sense of humor. It was a theme that ran through the testimonials almost as strongly as two of his other key qualities: his competitiveness and his compassion.
For a charter member the 1 percent, Hellman had a deep appreciation for the average person of goodwill, and he found those people as often on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder as he did on the top. While most of his contemporaries in San Francisco's uber-wealthy class, such as Don Fisher and Walter Shorenstein, often used their money to wage class warfare on the 99 percent, Hellman used his wealth and influence to bridge the divide.
He generously gave to good causes and advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy to lessen the need for such charity. Hellman understood that we all help make San Francisco great, and that perspective animated his love of bluegrass music, which he called "the conscience of our country."
As he told me in 2007, "A big passion of mine is to try to help — and people have defined it too narrowly — the kinds of music that I think have a hell of a lot to do with the good parts of our society."
Hellman may have started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival because it was music he loved and played, but he turned it into such a major spectacle — booking some of the biggest acts from around the country, going as big as the city and space would allow — because he thought it was important to the soul of his city.
"I'm glad that we have first-rate opera, but it's equally important that we foster the kind of music, lyrics, etc., that support all this," Hellman told me. And by "all this," he was talking about the grand social bargain, the fact that we're all sharing this planet and we've got to understand and nurture one another.
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.