By Kat Anderson
December 22, 2011
It is difficult to imagine a person who has touched the lives of more San Franciscans than financier/philanthropist, Warren Hellman. Whether a mayor-turned-senator, an endurance runner, a person living with HIV, or a music lover kicking back in Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park, each person could say that his or her life was touched or enriched because of Warren Hellman.
Warren Hellman died Sunday of complications from leukemia. It was a bright, crisp December day – a day Hellman would have preferred to be outside running, hiking, riding a horse or strumming his banjo.
He was memorialized Wednesday at Congregation Emanu-el by as many as 1,500 friends and family members. In a service befitting royalty, tributes were provided by Senator Dianne Feinstein; Hellman’s best friend/philanthropist, Arthur Rock; Hellman & Friedman CEO, Phillip Hammarskjold; one of his favorite musicians, Ron Thomason; and his beloved sister, Nancy Bechtle.
Guests in attendance included Rep. Nancy Pelosi; Mayor Ed Lee; Supervisors Sean Elsbernd, Mark Farrell, Malia Cohen and Carmen Chu; labor leader Tim Paulson; Chamber of Commerce director, Jim Lazarus; Police Chief Greg Suhr; United Way CEO Anne Wilson; conductor Michael Tilson Thomas; City Attorney Dennis Herrera; District Attorney George Gascon; Giants president, Larry Baer; and a huge contingent of musicians from all over the country. Filmmaker George Lucas was spotted in the upper side balcony.
Speakers expressed their gratitude for the depth and breadth of Hellman’s philanthropy. Because of Hellman, our city has the San Francisco Free Clinic, an underground parking garage in Golden Gate Park, pension reform, the San Francisco Foundation, and Hellman’s free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival which is beyond compare. Concerned about dwindling local news coverage in the Internet age, he also helped found the Bay Citizen online journalism website.
In the past, Hellman has been dubbed the King of Equity, but recently a Hellman & Friedman employee befittingly nicknamed Hellman the “Prince of Humanity.”
The common threads of each tribute were Hellman’s colorful sense of humor (he loved bawdy jokes), his “unique” sense of style (i.e. he had none), his complete lack of pretension, his high level of expectations for the people within his orbit, his pervasive philanthropy, his unblemished integrity, and his deep, abiding love of music.
Ron Thomason shared an anecdote that after a day of riding, it was time to wash the horses down and put them in their stalls. Hellman, though he certainly had the financial means to call in “staff,” asked if Thomason would play the mandolin in return for which Hellman washed down both men’s horses. Thomason was deeply touched by the reverence that this great, yet simple man had for music.
Emmylou Harris, referred to as “descended from the sirens of the Odyssey,” spoke about Hellman and sang two songs. She recalled one of her early encounters with Hellman when he prevailed upon her to join his new project, the “Strictly Bluegrass Festival.” She politely explained that at that point in her career, she had moved from bluegrass to other genres, but Hellman was insistent that she perform in whatever way she pleased. When she arrived in San Francisco, she performed her current songs much to the pleasure of Hellman, who explained in his “gentleman style,” that he hoped she didn’t mind that he changed the name of the festival to “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.” Harris’ rendition of “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” brought the crowds’ tears.
Each of Hellman’s four children spoke, giving the sense that Hellman valued the non-traditional. He didn’t care what time the kids came home, or what their grades were, or where they went to school. He told them rather that they should make ambitious goals for themselves and to try hard to reach those goals. He urged his kids to be unique and always to be respectful of their parents and friends. He showed them that family was everything, and he was there with supportive words no matter what happened. He took an interest in the things that were important to his children. And, he always had a sense of humor. Once, when his kids were jailed for hijacking golf carts and doing donuts on the greens of a local golf course, he laughed when his terrified daughter, Frances, called him from the police station. He also agreed with the police chief that the kids should work at the golf course to make restitution, showing that while he saw the humor of the situation, he also honored that the acts came with consequences.
Hellman was also a fan of Monty Python, often quipping such lines as “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
Daughter Frances shared a poignant anecdote about Hellman accompanying her to Burning Man. Her favorite photograph is of Hellman standing in a phone booth in the middle of the Black Rock Desert with a sign that read, “Talk to God.” He was wearing his “Grateful Yid” T-shirt.
It was remarked that Hellman did not raise a religious family. It was not the family’s culture to attend services. However, as daughter Tricia Gibbs shared, he studied the Torah, lived the commandments, gave to his community and showed himself to be a “very religious Jew.”
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the day’s services was the absence of Hellman’s wife, “Chris.” She is suffering with Alzheimer’s-related dementia. But, daughter Judith Hellman, spoke in her mother’s behalf and related a story that Chris had shared at Hellman’s 60th birthday party. Chris and Warren were flying from Australia when their plane lost two engines. As Chris sat frozen in her seat, terrified by what could be, Warren took her hands and looked into her eyes. He told her that they had had wonderful lives, that they were blessed by their children, and that there were no regrets.
Hellman softly soothed his wife, “If this is it, so be it.”
In a closing that would have brought great delight to Hellman, his twelve grandchildren performed two songs as the “Go to hell, man” clan. The first was “I’ll Fly Away,” (which you may remember from the soundtrack of “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”). The clan also led a sing-a-long to “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Hellman’s beloved group, the Wronglers, opened and closed the services, performing next to his banjo and shiny performing jacket. The Wronglers performed “The Big Twang Theory,” which includes some of the last lyrics their bandleader wrote, shortly after being given grave news about his ailing health.
“One thing that’s for certain, it’s been a cosmic trip,” they sang. “Riding through the ether on this old-time music ship.”
The Wronglers will return to Hellman’s Hollow (formerly Speedway Meadow) for a public celebration of Hellman’s life, date and time to be determined. And, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival will go on. Next year’s dates are October 5, 6, & 7. (Visit http://www.strictlybluegrass.com/ for more information and to see an archive of Wednesday’s service as well as obituaries and statements by family and friends).
In the meantime, we are all left to reflect on the life of a man who used his great resources to touch the lives of everyday San Franciscans. Hellman once said he came to view money “like manure. If you spread it around, good things will grow — and if you pile it up, it just smells bad. I do believe that. I don’t have any passion for or interest in collecting stuff. I don’t have any interest in owning expensive art or Lamborghinis. It’s just another thing to maintain. It’s not a moral judgment; it just doesn’t move me at all. What does move me is philanthropic stuff. Giving really does move me. Part of it is selfish: It’s fun to be appreciated. But the other part of it is that good things really are growing.”
Not only did Hellman eschew the superficial, but he tried to make a difference with great sensitivity, respect and humor. He did not expect or ask for anything in return. And for all that, he is a hero in the truest sense of the word. So be it, Warren, so be it.