Features

An A-List for the Ages

Written by the Gazette Staff | Illustrations by Raz Latif

When the Nob Hill Gazette’s editorial team gathered to discuss a concept for our 2022 A-List, it was only November, that fleeting feel-good month when boosters were kicking in and few of us even knew “omicron” was a Greek letter, much less the name of the most transmissible COVID variant yet.

While we could not sit them down for their portraits amid the surge, we did know that the people we had identified as the pillars of this year’s A-List more than stood firm: 10 impressive individuals making an impact across generations, from a teenager who underwent a heart transplant to a centenarian who may just hold the simple secret to world peace. In between, we found folks from industry and philanthropy, activism and the arts, sports and storytelling — each from a decade of life when they are hitting a notable stride.

The list itself, a tradition begun more than three decades ago, has lived through a few generations of its own and also seems to get a little wiser with age. Here, at the beginning of another pandemic year when much feels both unpredictable and like a virtual déjà vu, we are inspired by the 2022 A-listers on the pages that follow — and hope you will be, too.


Athena Tran – The Gifted Heart

When Athena Tran was in the fifth grade and just 11, she was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy at Stanford Children’s Health. “My heart wasn’t able to pump blood properly,” says the Mission San Jose High School senior, who is eagerly awaiting acceptance to college — a long road from those elementary school days when she tired easily, had trouble running and knew something was wrong.

Today, Tran is thriving. “I turn 18 in March. I just passed my four-year anniversary,” she says of that memorable day in December 2017 when she became one of 3,273 people in the U.S. to receive a heart transplant that year. “Exactly one month from getting into the hospital, I was given — or I was gifted — my heart.”

She was 13 when she underwent surgery. Since Tran’s diagnosis in 2015, a multidisciplinary team has cared for her. Lynsey Barkoff is one of the nurse practitioners at Stanford Children’s Health who have been closely involved in her care, which included Tran’s recovery from a stroke prior to her transplant, a complication that can result when a blood clot travels from the stiffening chambers of the heart to the brain.

“The thing that has always impressed me about Athena is her maturity, beyond her years I would say,” Barkoff observes. “She really has taken all the challenges and adversities she has faced in her life and turned them into something positive for herself, for her family, for others.”

During hospital stays before and after her transplant, Tran continued her schooling at the on-site Hospital School, run since 1924 by Stanford Children’s Health administrators in collaboration with the Palo Alto Unified School District. Each day, she worked on assignments from her middle school in Fremont. To this day, Tran advocates for education for patients — which provides consistency and empowerment inside a situation that might feel anything but to a kid. “[Being sick] shouldn’t be something that holds you back,” she says.

Barkoff concurs: “Our ultimate goal for transplant patients is for them to live as normal a life as possible. We want these kids to graduate high school and go to college and travel and experience all the normal milestones of teenagers and young adults.”

A few years ago, when Tran learned she was eligible for a gift from Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area, she forwent a special trip or celebrity meeting in order to support those who had supported her. “I’ve been so blessed throughout my entire life, and my transplant was the thing that tied up everything together,” she reflects. In June 2020, Tran announced that she had donated her $5,000 gift to the Hospital School and Betty Irene Moore Children’s Heart Center, sharing with her teachers over Zoom that “there wasn’t anything I wanted more than giving back to the people who helped me through the hardest time of my life.”

To see her on Zoom is to see an otherwise typical teen who attended school online during the pandemic. In typical Tran fashion, she also made the most of her downtime by helping to found Stars to Care, a nonprofit-affiliated advocacy organization now raising awareness around organ transplants. “We create infographics to help people learn more about transplants … and we’ve also fundraised with other organizations to help patients struggling financially,” she says. The work relates to what Tran hopes to pursue soon as a college student. “I want to study information management systems so I can work with nonprofits in the future.”

— Jennifer Massoni Pardini


Terri Burns – The Tech Trailblazer

In 2016, Terri Burns wrote an article on the independent media platform Model View Culture, spotlighting Black women who “have worked incredibly hard creating, innovating, challenging and moving the world of technology.” There were more than two dozen names, from former TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot to communication designer Kristy Tillman to angel investor and entrepreneur Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon. Four years later, Burns had become a who’s who in her own right: In October 2020, at age 26, she was named the youngest-ever investing partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures, Alphabet’s VC arm). She is also the first Black woman in that role at the firm.

In announcing her elevation from a principal, GV general partner Dave Munichiello praised Burns’ “track record of going above and beyond. … Her investments reveal her interest in companies built by and for Gen Z.” For instance, she led early-stage consumer investments in HAGS, a social network for high schoolers whose first product was a virtual yearbook app (the business’s name is an acronym for the common yearbook inscription “Have a great summer”), as well as Locker Room, a sports-centric social audio app that Burns described on the GV blog as “more lively than a podcast, more accessible than talk radio and more specialized than other audio apps out there.”

Not long after Burns’ groundbreaking promotion, the Southern California native was profiled by her high school alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. “There were a number of people who took chances on me, who opened up doors for me,” she told The Exeter Bulletin. “On the other hand, I’ve put a ton of time and effort and dedication into my job and my story and the work that I do every single day. As much as I recognize some of the forces that were outside of my control, I also recognize those that were in my control, and I have a lot of pride for them.”

In 2019, Burns was named a Kauffman Fellow, part of Class 24 of the Palo Alto–based two-year program for innovation and investment leaders. In 2021, she was tabbed for Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list and also became the youngest member of the NYU Board of Trustees — just five years after graduating from the university. It was there, at the start of her sophomore year, that she got into computer science; her favorite college classes were Intro to Programming and Intro to Computer Science.

Upon earning a degree in computer science, Burns decamped to Silicon Valley. During her time as an associate product manager at Twitter, she became acquainted with a partner at GV and ultimately joined the firm in 2017.

In an NYU interview around the time of her election as a trustee last fall, Burns enthused about her work at GV: “I’ve always been driven by my curiosity. Getting to spend my days meeting talented entrepreneurs solving complex technical and business challenges is pretty much a dream come true.”

While she has been recognized for her achievements in tech and venture capital, is there a talent that she would like to acquire if she could? Singing. “That would be cool,” she shared. “I’m jealous of singers.”

— Anh-Minh Le


Ezra Klein – The American Journalist

In late September 2019, journalist and Southern California native Ezra Klein sat down with UC Berkeley psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik, PhD, during Dropbox’s Work in Progress conference to discuss “modern work,” largely the future of it. Klein was then editor at large for Vox, the explanatory general-interest news site he cofounded in 2014. The two discussed the invaluable merits of “exploratory time” for both creative flow and idea generation. They opined there was precious little of it. With the pandemic looming, for many, there would soon be all too much.

Klein, it would seem, has used his exploratory time exceptionally well. Last January, he joined the New York Times as a columnist and podcast host — bringing with him The Ezra Klein Show, which he launched at Vox in 2016. Over the past year, the wide-ranging interview-driven program, deemed a best podcast of 2021 by Time, has examined the effect of toxic stress on children with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the A.I. revolution with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, the potential and precaution around crypto with then– Andreessen Horowitz general partner Katie Haun and the magic of old-growth forests with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Richard Powers (Klein fondly recalled his time nestled among redwoods when he attended UCSC before graduating from UCLA).

In an April 2021 episode, Klein sat down again with Gopnick, this time to discuss what we can learn from a child’s “beginner’s mind.” Klein had a vested interest as the dad of a young son and now new baby with his wife and fellow journalist, The Atlantic staff writer Annie Lowrey, whom he calls in the acknowledgments of his January 2020 book “the most interesting person I have ever met.”

The best seller, Why We’re Polarized, examines decades of systemic forces at play in our deep political polarization. The paperback edition came out last June with Klein’s new afterword touching on recent events such as the global pandemic, election of Joe Biden and Capitol insurrection. “It was plenty of tragedy and tumult with which to test the framework of this book,” which set out to “offer a model that helps make sense of an era in American politics that can seem senseless,” Klein writes. (Spoiler alert: The center holds.)

Klein — who started a political blog at 18 — is now 37 and building upon some two decades of journalism, a period that has overlapped with seismic and everyday transformations in the creation and consumption of modern media. “In that time, I’ve been a blogger, a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, a long-form editor, an opinion columnist, a cable news host, a social media personality, a viral video star, a podcaster, and a media entrepreneur,” Klein summarizes in his book. Prior to his roles with Vox and the New York Times, he launched policy vertical Wonkblog for the Washington Post and spent nearly 15 years living in Washington, D.C., before moving back to California a few years ago, this time to the Bay Area.

The avid reader (he closes each interview by asking his guest to recommend three books) is a vital voice, able to connect industries and ideas at a startling clip. As with a favorite college seminar, twice a week he starts each podcast with a probing inquiry — many political and just as many not. “I don’t think of the show as, first and foremost, a political podcast. I think of it as a show about ideas,” Klein says in an August episode answering listener questions. “And the ideas that matter — by the way, including ideas that matter for politics — are much broader than just what is happening in Congress, or what frames itself as explicitly political.” He cites interviews with authors George Saunders and Sy Montgomery for connections among empathy, climate and how we treat animals.

With the opportunity now for Klein to prepare for guests beyond politics proper per se, he sees growth for the show as well as himself. “That is time I didn’t have before,” he shares. “But now that I have it, I want to use it.”

— Jennifer Massoni Pardini


Gabe Kapler – The New-School Skipper

At a pregame briefing with reporters late last season, San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler reviewed an issue that he wrestled with on the previous afternoon during one of the ball club’s scheduled off days. The subject was pizza. The site was North Beach. Thus the choice came down to Tony’s or Golden Boy.

Innocuous as this debate was, it reflected the Los Angeles native’s assimilation to San Francisco and the extent to which he could be just a regular guy. Most days, his responsibilities as the Giants’ manager forced him to confront weightier choices such as personnel decisions and strategic conundrums.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know our fan base, and I feel like San Francisco is home now,” Kapler tells the Gazette.

A former outfielder, starting in 1998 Kapler spent parts of 12 seasons with six major league teams. As a member of the Boston Red Sox, he won a World Series ring in 2004 while appearing in a career-high 136 games and batting .272. The following year, he played in 38 games with the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional League before returning to the Red Sox later that season. Kapler launched his big league managerial career in Philadelphia. After two years with the Phillies, he arrived in San Francisco — where, on the heels of the team’s franchise-record 107-win season, he was named the 2021 National League Manager of the Year.

Kapler is making an impact beyond Oracle Park, too. Influenced strongly by his parents, who were involved with the civil rights movement, he has created a foundation, Pipeline for Change, which is committed to providing resources and removing obstacles for BlPOC, women, nonbinary people and members of the LGBTQ+ community to participate in all aspects of collegiate and professional sports. He also has supported multiple programs initiated by the Giants, including efforts to help first responders and facilitate COVID vaccinations.

“He has done so much. About everything we’ve asked him to do,” says Shana Daum, the Giants’ executive vice president of communications, who served as the club’s community relations director until this year. “He’s such a community-minded individual.”

Outspoken about the importance of diversity in hiring, Kapler has constructed a coaching staff that’s anything but homogenous. It includes the first female coach, Alyssa Nakken, and Taira Uematsu, the first major league coach born and raised in Japan.

“It’s difficult to quantify or measure, but I’m proud that we have, if not the most diverse staff in baseball, (one that is) right there with any other,” Kapler says. “I continue to think that diversity will lead to better decision-making.”

Citing Kapler’s awareness of the community, Giants president Farhan Zaidi says, “We value that as much as anything.”

— Chris Haft


Tim Stannard – The Epicurean

Earning a Michelin star is no small feat. Bacchus Management Group — led by founding partner Tim Stannard along with partner and executive chef Mark Sullivan — has three restaurants with that distinction: the Village Pub in Woodside, their maiden effort that opened in 2001; San Francisco’s Spruce, which debuted six years later; and Selby’s, their 2.5-yearold most recent venture, on the border of Atherton and Redwood City.

Not bad for what Stannard calls an “accidental restaurant empire.” Today, Bacchus has seven dining establishments, and later this year, that number will hit double digits.

“There was only supposed to be one restaurant and a farm,” says Stannard.

A farm?

Shortly before the Village Pub launched, Stannard and Sullivan began farming 5.5 acres at nearby SMIP Ranch. “I’ve always been superfocused on sourcing ingredients,” says Stannard. “The better the ingredients that come through the back door of the kitchen, the better the dish we can put in front of the guests.”

Stannard, 53, grew up spending time in professional kitchens — his mother was an HR executive with a restaurant group — and trained as a chef. But a year of toiling long hours made him rethink his career. He enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he focused on American studies and planned to pursue a PhD. During a year off between undergrad and graduate school, he accepted a restaurant management job at Bix in San Francisco, where he previously worked part-time, and he never went back to school.

In the mid-’90s Stannard joined PlumpJack Group as director of operations. When he was ready to hang his own shingle, he linked up with Sullivan, who had served as an executive chef with PlumpJack.

The Village Pub was recognized as a Best New Restaurant finalist by the James Beard Foundation, which has also named Stannard a semifinalist for outstanding restaurateur. Spruce was tapped for Best New Wine List by Food & Wine magazine and Best New Restaurant by Esquire magazine. In another industry triumph, both places have received Wine Spectator’s Grand Award (a testament to Andrew Green, the Village Pub’s opening sommelier and now a Bacchus partner, too).

When the sophisticated steakhouse Selby’s was in the works, Allison Rose was among those lining up to invest. “Tim has that ‘it’ factor,” says the founder of Rose Culinary, which has also backed San Francisco’s Birdsong, Che Fico, Liholiho Yacht Club and Nari. “He always thinks outside the box and his vision is always larger than life.”

Indeed, Selby’s exudes an Old Hollywood glamour that is singular in Silicon Valley. But Bacchus isn’t just about starry fine dining — though a common thread in its portfolio, Rose notes, is high quality and exceptional service. The group includes the casual Pizza Antica, with a trio of outposts. And there’s the Entrepreneur Village Bakery & Cafe in Woodside, conceived as a neighborhood spot — literally, since Stannard resides in the area.

Over the years, Bacchus also started a smallbatch coffee company, RoastCo; a proprietary wine and spirits program; and a confectionery outfit, Woodside Chocolate Company. In late summer 2022, the group will introduce its most ambitious project to date: three side-by-side-by-side venues on the ground floor of Mason on Mariposa, a new residential building in Potrero Hill. There will be a doughnut shop, burger joint and Italian restaurant with a beautiful bar.

Reflecting on the successful growth of his accidental empire, a guiding principle has been, “First who, then what,” says Stannard. “All of the restaurants we’ve done have intuitively started with finding the greatest people we could find to work with, and then figuring out what we all wanted to do together.”

— Anh-Minh Le


Deborah and Andy Rappaport – The Altruistic Art Duo

When they founded Minnesota Street Project in 2016, Deborah and Andy Rappaport set in motion a shift in the City’s art scene, providing a multi-warehouse epicenter for galleries and arts nonprofits — all of whom pay below-market rent — as well as a welcoming space for visitors to leisurely take in exhibitions and events without an admission fee.

And they’ve only just begun.

During the pandemic, despite myriad interruptions and a shift to appointment-only viewings at some of the galleries, the Rappaports forged ahead, creating the nonprofit Minnesota Street Project Foundation to encourage others to contribute to their vision. They also hired MSP’s first CEO, Madison Cario, and began lining up events for 2022, including the fourth and fifth installations of the California Black Voices Project, which came together through a series of MSP Foundation grants to Black artists and curators.

But the most anticipated milestone is scheduled for September: the grand opening of the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, for which the Rappaports provided seed funding. The goal, Deborah says, “is to show the art of the moment in a way that exposes the art and the artists to a broader audience and, in many cases, then becomes collected by collectors and other museums.”

Holding on to a collection of art for the long term goes against the notion of “contemporary” and is incredibly expensive for an institution, she notes. With ICA SF’s non-collecting model, Deborah adds, “those funds can be used for salaries to pay decent wages to the people who work there, for exhibits, for artists — and more risk-taking.”

The idea for the museum, albeit not fully fleshed out, was initially brought to the Rappaports by Alison Gass, who was at the time the executive director of ICA San Jose. “She came to us, and we had the good sense to see a good idea with a good person,” Deborah recalls.

Gass now holds the title of ICA SF’s Krieger Family Director and says she’s excited for the museum, located not far from MSP, to join the growing arts corridor. “Without a doubt, since opening the Minnesota Street Project a little over five years ago, the Rappaports have transformed the Dogpatch district into the thriving arts hub it is today,” she says.

Though Deborah acknowledges that the early days of MSP equaled “about six full-time jobs for both of us,” these days, she and her husband are spending more time with family — including FaceTime sessions with their grandkids who live out of state plus preparing for their youngest daughter’s wedding next month — and on their own art. Andy, a longtime venture capitalist and investor, is a multimedia artist who regularly works from his SoMa studio, and she designs jewelry from an office in their Cow Hollow home.

Since moving to the Bay Area from the East Coast in 1995, the couple, who recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, has built a stunning art collection, primarily sourced from Bay Area galleries. “It’s sort of hard to tell where his decisions stop and mine start, because we’ve been doing this together for a really long time,” shares Deborah. But she fondly remembers their very first purchase — before they were even married — at an auction at a Provincetown art museum on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “We were poor as church mice at the time,” she says. A black-and-white print of a man in profile wearing a bowler hat and monocle, titled The German Art Critic, caught their eye (it currently hangs in Andy’s office at MSP). “We both just fell in love with and ended up purchasing it for about our monthly grocery budget at the time, about $75. It’s been art before food ever since.”

— Jennifer Blot


Danny Glover – The Advocate Actor

Danny Glover may have a hard time keeping track of every cause he’s supported over the years — but fortunately, others, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, have been paying close attention.

This year, Glover will be given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy’s Board of Governors, commemorating his long history of advocacy and his ongoing work as a UNICEF ambassador, a role he’s embraced since 2004. Though the awards ceremony, along with a special screening of Glover’s 1990 classic To Sleep with Anger, was postponed from January to a future date, accolades have been flowing for months, perhaps summed up best by Academy president David Rubin: “Danny Glover’s decades-long advocacy for justice and human rights reflects his dedication to recognizing our shared humanity on and off the screen.”

Closer to home, Glover’s a fervent spokesperson for a city that is always striving to do better. The San Francisco native has spoken out against — and up for — countless causes and struggles over the years.

In November, he joined a rally to support transforming the Fillmore Heritage Center into a local nonprofit. The center and entire neighborhood is near to his heart. “In 1966, when I was 20 years old, we had an ‘idea’ of ourselves in reference to the community we came from and the Fillmore was central to African American families,” Glover shares with the Gazette. “We lived nearby; our church was in the Fillmore, the old Stanford Hospital was there.”

You don’t have to go far to find someone who grew up with Glover in the Haight or knew him back in the day — from Willie Brown, whose wife, Blanche, taught Glover guitar when he was a teenager, to publicist Lee Houskeeper, who first met the actor in the 1980s when Houskeeper put on a red-carpet charity event at a SoMa film studio. When the studio’s janitor promised he would ask his childhood pal to join the festivities, he delivered: Glover showed up unannounced and charmed the crowd.

Houskeeper remains a fan, noting, “Danny Glover is a San Franciscan through and through, and has always been willing to lend his voice in support of causes ranging from standing with the well-known Black artist Dewey Crumpler’s outspoken opposition of the removal of the controversial George Washington High School mural by Victor Arnautoff, to joining civil rights attorney John Burris and the NAACP when they called for a boycott of the Giants over political donations to racist candidates by their principal owner Charles B. Johnson.”

While we’re waiting for the actor’s next on-screen project — “I’d like to see him do one more Lethal Weapon,” quips Brown in a recent interview with the Gazette — it’s a good time to cue up To Sleep with Anger, which was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2017 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Glover’s starring role in the film shows the breadth of his scope as an actor, shining in a performance that is both nuanced and unnerving.

And if you happen to see Glover on the street, be sure to say hello. He takes his unofficial SF ambassador post seriously. “To this day I live just 12 blocks from where I grew up,” he says. “The City is, and always will be, my home.”

— Jennifer Blot


Esther Wojcicki – The Head of the Class

For many, the ideal retirement lifestyle might entail extended vacations, rediscovering long-neglected hobbies or simply relaxing 24/7.

But Esther Wojcicki, who turns 82 in May, isn’t like most people.

“I am busy all the time, every day,” she says during our interview — which took place on a Saturday, the morning after she returned from a trip to New York to celebrate her selection to Forbes’ “50 Over 50” list. “What’s happened is, my vocation became my avocation.”

After earning a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in the 1960s, she was dismayed by the limited newsroom opportunities available to women. So she decided to teach for a few years before she and husband Stanley, a physics professor at Stanford, started a family. Once their three daughters — Susan, Janet and Anne — were past grade school, Wojcicki resumed her career in education.

In 1984, she joined the staff at Palo Alto High School, where she headed the journalism program. It became a crown jewel of the campus, with a multimillion-dollar, 23,000-square-foot Media Arts Center completed in 2014. “I let the kids experiment and be in charge,” says Wojcicki of her approach to teaching. “I trusted them and I respected them.” When she retired in June 2020 — a pandemic-induced decision — the program had upwards of 800 students and 10 media offerings, from print publications to video productions.

Thanks to the volume of young people she has mentored over the years — more than 10,000 by her estimate — Wojcicki has been dubbed the “Godmother of Silicon Valley.” She’s garnered numerous accolades (including California Teacher of the Year in 2002), as have her students (who have been recognized by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and National Scholastic Press Association).

Wojcicki’s influence has extended outside the classroom, too. She is an adviser to Creative Commons and GoogleEdu, and is on the boards of CommonLit and DECODE. In 2015, she authored Moonshots in Education, which explores integrating digital learning into curriculums. Her 2019 best seller How to Raise Successful People promotes an acronym that she applies to education and parenting alike: TRICK stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. (Today, Susan is the CEO of YouTube, Janet is a professor of pediatrics at UCSF and Anne is the founder-CEO of 23andMe.)

Around the time that Wojcicki retired, one of her former students, Ari Memar, reached out about a new venture. “The idea was born out of my personal experience, having benefited from a student-directed classroom where I saw firsthand the power of peer instruction and project-based learning,” says Memar, who graduated from Paly in 2007.

Last spring, they launched Tract — an online learning platform for kids, by kids. Videos designed for students in grades 4 through 8 are created by high school and college students, then vetted by a team of educational experts. According to Memar, Tract has hundreds of creators worldwide who have posted more than 1,000 classes (a top creator can earn $1,000+ a month), and thousands of students have completed over 10,000 projects. The subjects are myriad, from history and science to artificial intelligence and machine learning, all relating to Common Core in some way.

In addition to Tract, Wojcicki is developing innovative programs with UC Berkeley, including a partnership with the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology that reaches students in 15 countries and a forthcoming online initiative with the journalism school. “My goal is to give kids more self-confidence and an opportunity to try out the ideas that they are thinking about,” says Wojcicki. “I’m passionate about changing education and empowering kids because they’re the future.”

— Anh-Minh Le


Bernard Osher – The Community Maestro

In 2010, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and storied investor Warren Buffett devised the Giving Pledge to inspire their billionaire brethren to donate — within their lifetimes or at their demise — half their fortunes or more to philanthropic causes. And while San Francisco’s Bernard Osher signed the pledge in 2015, he didn’t need such a campaign to prompt him: For decades, the 94-year-old has committed his life and hard-earned riches to the greater good of humanity.

The civic leader established the Bernard Osher Foundation 45 years ago, providing scholarships and programs focused on higher education, the arts, Jewish heritage and integrative health. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Network provides university-level, noncredit courses designed for people “50 and better” and includes 125 universities and colleges across the United States.

Osher still works most days at his foundation’s One Market Plaza office. But his success allows him and his wife, Stockholm native Barbro — whom he wed in 1980 and is the honorary consul general of Sweden in California — to pursue another shared passion: classical music, performed by professionals in the San Francisco Symphony orchestra or student musicians at the 104-year-old San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Fondly known by pals as “Barney,” Osher has served on numerous boards, with a special devotion to the San Francisco Opera and the SFCM. In the case of the latter, he and Barbro have provided funding for instruments and scholarships for the specific study of chamber music; SFCM was the nation’s first conservatory to offer that degree.

Last fall the SFCM celebrated the opening of the 12-story Ute and William K. Bowes, Jr. Center for Performing Arts. In addition to dorms and classrooms, its state-of-the-art performance facilities include the Barbro Osher Recital Hall, a testament to the Oshers’ generosity in supporting their dear friend, the late “Bill” Bowes.

“Long before the Giving Pledge, Barney blazed a trail, at the highest level, channeling his success to uplift numerous communities,” says San Francisco Conservatory of Music President David Stull. “At his core, Barney, with great humility, views his philanthropy as an opportunity to inspire others. Through half a century of giving, his belief in the power of education and art to change lives has never wavered.”

Osher was born in Biddeford, Maine, to Lithuanian-Russian immigrant parents, who instilled in their children the value of hard work and education. After graduating from Bowdoin College, he managed the family hardware and plumbing supply business before moving to New York to work at Oppenheimer & Co. In 1963, he landed in the Bay Area with his sister and brother-in-law, Marion and Herbert Sandler. They cofounded World Savings, a mom-and-pop outlet that became the second-largest such institution in the nation. In 2006, it was purchased by Wachovia Corp. for $25.5 billion.

Osher, who modestly declined an interview for this tribute, is also a Renaissance man of varied interests. According to a 2019 Jewish News profile, he took up surfing at age 84 and is an ardent fly fisherman. As a collector of American art from the mid-19th and 20th centuries, in 1970 he was inspired to purchase the City’s historic Butterfield & Butterfield auction house. Osher was approached in 1999 by eBay, then a burgeoning website akin to an online flea market. The sale price? $260 million in stock.

“The motivating reason Barney writes a check, even when not asked, is highly strategic: He believes an institution will deliver on a mission he sees as valuable to a community,” explains Stull. “Barney is a hallmark individual, among an extraordinary generation including Bill Bowes or composer Gordon Getty. Due to their positions, they believe high-level civic investment is a requirement for which they are accountable. The return on their investments has shaped the City in significant ways, allowing San Francisco to punch far above its weight class.”

— Catherine Bigelow


Rita Semel – The Service-Minded Centenarian

One morning last November, 400 people showed up at Congregation Emanu-El for the San Francisco Interfaith Council’s annual Thanksgiving prayer breakfast. Yet this time, the ritual was different. There was no food, and much of the gratitude centered on one person: SFIC founder Rita Semel, who turned 100 earlier in the month.

“I don’t really feel 100,” muses Semel. But a few months on, one can still sense the lasting glow of the gathering on Lake Street, which included Bishop Marc Andrus, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Mayor London Breed and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is a longtime supporter of Semel’s work. (The feeling is mutual: “Every time I go into the Presidio, I say, ‘Thank you, Nancy Pelosi,’” says Semel.)

Busybody. Questioner. These are words Semel uses to describe herself. Other people call her a unifier, to which she’ll only accept partial credit: “Nobody does anything alone. I don’t care what they say, you have to be able to work with other people in order to accomplish something. I’ve been fortunate in the fact that I’ve worked with some wonderful people.”

For the past two years, SFIC, which was founded more than three decades ago, has been helping the City’s 800 communities of faith find new and safe ways to hold services; meet with staff and boards; and stay connected to isolated congregants. All along, Semel was at the forefront, attending virtual meetings at Grace Cathedral and Congregation Emanu-El, where she serves on boards, and providing guidance during SFIC’s weekly Zoom meetings.

“She’s my right and my left hand,” acknowledges SFIC executive director Michael Pappas.

That cliché query “What’s your secret to longevity?” doesn’t garner an immediate answer from Semel, though she notes that her own mother lived to be 99 (“I guess maybe it’s in the genes”). As far as Semel’s lifestyle, she says, “I’m a terrible sleeper. I don’t do exercise, I never have. … I like a glass of wine with dinner.”

Semel subscribes to two daily papers, as well as The New Yorker, and recently tackled Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. But the New York native and former journalist seems genuinely surprised to hear that San Francisco’s reputation is sometimes negative in other parts of the country. “I think San Francisco is a wonderful city. It’s welcoming to so many different kinds of people,” says the Pacific Heights denizen. “And, yes, of course we’ve got our problems, but what other city doesn’t?”

Semel’s goal for San Francisco — and the world, for that matter — is much the same as it has always been: “I’d like to see a day when people accept everyone for who they are — and understand that we all have something to contribute — and we don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism, racism, Asian prejudice and the things that divide us,” she says.

Thanks to the Rita R. Semel Endowment Fund for Interfaith Work, established on its namesake’s 90th birthday, SFIC may be there for that day. At the Thanksgiving celebration, the fund swelled with donations, including a significant gift from Joan and Robert McGrath’s Celebrate Foundation.

“We far surpassed the $100,000 goal because people wanted to do something for Rita,” says Pappas. “The intent is to perpetuate Rita’s vision of interfaith harmony and service to our city.”

— Jennifer Blot

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