The Man Who Rarely Said No

Warren Hellman was generous and good-humored, intense and infuriating. His sister, Nancy Bechtle, dubs him the “worst-dressed person who ever lived.” Yet even Hellman’s critics could not deny the positive impact he made on San Francisco, from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival to the once-maligned parking garage in Golden Gate Park.

By Catherine Bigelow

Joyful shouts of gratitude for the late philanthropist Warren Hellman echoed last month throughout Golden Gate Park during the 16th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

This free, three-day hootenanny was founded in 2001 by Hellman, a legendary financier and fervent self-taught banjo picker, as a gift to San Francisco. Yet he downplayed his generosity, often joking that he underwrote the entire festival as a gift to himself, showcasing the old-timey bluegrass tunes he adored.

“I look at this as something selfish,” he said in 2002. “I hate the idea of spending money on something that’s only for you. And I love the idea of spending money on something that a lot of people enjoy. Everyone here always thanks me. But next year, I think I’ll have a T-shirt made that reads, ‘No, thank you.’”

A rock star in the private equity industry, Hellman built a fortune throughout his storied career that included his appointment at age 26 as the youngest-ever partner at Lehman Brothers in New York. By 39, he was company president. In 1984, he returned to San Francisco where he co-founded Hellman & Friedman—one of the West Coast’s first, and most successful, private equity firms.

With his partner, Tully Friedman, he raised more than $25 billion in capital and, in 1985, leveraged the nation’s largest-ever private buyout of then-publicly held Levi Strauss, the family blue jean makers to which he was distantly related.

Hellman was a gifted athlete who excelled in master ski racing and served as U.S. Ski Team president. He was also a skilled equestrian—competing five times in the Tevis Cup, a grueling 100-mile horse race in the Sierra. In 2000, at age 66, Hellman placed 44th among 259 riders.

Yet to glimpse his wiry frame along his daily 16-mile, 4:30 a.m. run through the Presidio, none would peg him as a captain of industry. According to Forbes, Hellman never officially cracked its amed “Wealthiest” list because he gave away so much of his money.

Nor would Hellman’s unique sartorial style, best described as “Hillbilly Billionaire,” give a clue to his net worth.

“Warren was the most creative thinker but the worst-dressed person who ever lived,” recalls his sister, longtime civic leader Nancy Hellman Bechtle, with a laugh. “His pants didn’t match his jacket. His ties had stains like trail markers. Warren’s idea about how to dress was perverse. But he thought it was hysterical.”

Hellman hailed from New York City, where he was born in 1934. But his family had deep California roots. His great-grandfather, Isaias W. Hellman, was a Bavarian immigrant, who engineered the rise of Wells Fargo Bank, among other accomplishments.

His father, Marco Hellman, was a prominent investment banker. His mother, Ruth Koshland Hellman, descended from prosperous California wool merchants. The privileged family always lent its support to numerous institutions.

“Our parents were role models. But no one talked about philanthropy—that’s just what they did,” says Bechtle, who previously served as San Francisco Symphony president and helmed the Presidio Trust Board. “Warren loved to champion unpopular causes—he was like a Don Quixote that way.”

During World War II, the family moved to Vacaville, where Marco Hellman served as an Army major and wife Ruth flew military planes from aircraft factories to bases. After the war, the family settled in San Francisco.

Although a lifelong advocate of public education, Warren Hellman had a youthful penchant for challenging authority, which inspired Ruth to enroll her son at the San Rafael Military Academy. Years later, while being interviewed for a book about private equity masters, he admitted that his quick temper had earned him the nickname “Hurricane Hellman.”

“Warren could be obnoxious, but he was very smart and funny,” recalls his sister. “He always made me laugh, especially at the dinner table, which drove my father crazy. For years, until I learned to control my giggles, I wasn’t allowed dessert.”

Hellman later attended Lowell High School in San Francisco. He triple-majored (Economics, Political Science, History) at UC Berkeley (class of 1955) while lettering on the varsity water polo team. He served two years in the Army before earning his MBA at Harvard Business School. Then he promptly joined Lehman Brothers.

He moved there with his wife, the late British ballet dancer Chris Hellman, whom he met in 1953 aboard the Queen Elizabeth while traveling to Europe and swiftly fell in love.

The Bluegrass festival paid tribute to Mrs. Hellman, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in February of this year, with an exhibition on her legacy as a loving mother and stellar board chairwoman of the San Francisco Ballet.

The couple had four children, all of whom now live in the Bay Area: Frances Hellman, Dean of UC Berkeley’s mathematical and physical sciences division; Dr. Tricia Gibbs, founder of the SF Free Clinic; Dr. Judith Hellman, a UCSF Professor in the Anesthesia and Perioperative Care department, and Mick Hellman, who worked with his father prior to founding his own private investment management firm, HMI Capital.

“Our parents had complementary and very powerful roles in our lives. Our mother was an awesome mom, so loving, artistic and nurturing. My father was a ball of energy; a perpetual motion machine in business and athletics which set the bar very high for us kids,” says Mick Hellman. “A story he liked to tell us was that he once brought home a report card with a ‘B’ and his father got mad because Warren was skilled enough to earn an ‘A.’ That was his philosophy with us: Even if you weren’t the best at everything, he expected us to bring all our effort to any task.”

His father infused that spirit in his inaugural bluegrass festival (still produced by Dawn Holliday and Sheri Sternberg) that unspooled on just one stage over the course of a single day. Yet Hellman still attracted the likes of Bluegrass icons Emmylou Harris and the late Hazel Dickens. For the past 16 years, the crowd continues to swell by hundreds of thousands as the lineup expands in diversity—from Elvis Costello to this year’s onstage booty shake by Big Freedia.

Hellman focused his philanthropic endeavors on education (Jewish Vocational Services; UC Berkeley’s Hellman Fellows Program) and the arts (the ODC dance company; SF Symphony; assisting the relocation of Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley), as well as civic causes.

Joining forces in 2002 with Senator Dianne Feinstein and the late Gap founder Don Fisher, the trio backed SFSOS, an advocacy group tackling such issues as homelessness, school bond measures and the city’s deteriorating business climate.

He also served as trustee to numerous organizations, including the UC Berkeley Foundation, the Haas School of Business, the San Francisco Foundation, the Jewish Community Federation and Mills College, where as board chairman Hellman earned a moniker that inspired the name of his family band: The Go to Hell Man Clan.

The all-women liberal arts school was struggling financially. So in 1990, Hellman determined it was time the institution allowed men. The student body responded with a 16-day protest and a banner reading, “Warren, Go to Hell-Man.”

Hellman got the memo. Days later he returned the gesture, announcing his final decision by silently unrolling a banner emblazoned, “Mills. For Women. Again.”

A moderate Republican in a heavily Democratic city, Hellman excelled at consensus—a useful skill when he sought to reform San Francisco’s aging pension system.

“I think my father would be on the warpath today with what the Republican Party is doing to this country,” Mick Hellman says. “In the pension fight, my dad had no problem ringing up labor leaders or sitting down, listening to the opposition. He never exhibited classic ‘capitalist vs. worker’ dynamics. But then again, his favorite Bluegrass was the old protest songs.”

Even still, as Nancy Bechtle jokes, many of her brother’s white-collar colleagues thought the battle had turned Hellman into a socialist.

“Warren could always get liberals and conservatives on the same page,” she says. “And he ended up saving the city a lot of money.”

Hellman briefly toyed with the idea of a mayoral run. And he even considered purchasing the old San Francisco Chronicle in the late nineties amid an industry-wide death rattle.

Instead, he invested $5 million into an online nonprofit startup, The Bay Citizen, that launched in 2010 as a journalistic watchdog to counter the reporting slack created by a slew of pink slips issued by traditional print outlets. It has since merged with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.

“Dad saw himself as a San Franciscan and believed sunshine is the best disinfectant,” explains Mick. “Without the benefit of journalistic scrutiny, local politics and government become corrupt and are run for the benefit of the few instead of the many.”

Days before Hellman’s death in 2011 from complications due to leukemia, city leaders and Recreation and Parks commissioners unanimously approved renaming the festival’s park site from Speedway Meadow to Hellman Hollow, where a plaque embedded in a rock commemorates that honor.

“When Warren died, we were afraid the festival would lose his energy. But Warren left behind a wake of energy that still hasn’t reached the shore,” notes musician Jimmy Dale Gilmore, a Hardly Strictly stalwart.

Backstage before his set last month, Gilmore recalled their warm friendship and his gratitude to Hellman for creating a festival many musicians say is their favorite.

“The love that Warren put into this, along with his wherewithal—there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world,” enthused Gilmore. “Warren was a great guy. An amazing person, so multifaceted. And he was intense.”

That intensity is located further east in Golden Gate Park, at 10th Avenue and Fulton Street, where the entrance to an unnamed monument stands as testament to Hellman’s grit, political finesse and determination for a greater civic good.

Tucked beneath the Music Concourse connecting the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences is an 800-space, $55 million parking garage, funded via private donations, that Hellman championed—even amid a ferocious, lengthy legal battle.

That battle unofficially began after the 1989 earthquake, which caused major damage to the de Young and Academy of Sciences. Following numerous failed bond measures to keep both institutions in the park, Hellman and Fine Arts Museums Board chairman Dede Wilsey each stepped up with multimillion-dollar commitments and led charges to raise private funds, with Wilsey rebuilding the de Young and Hellman tasking the garage.

In 1998, voters approved Proposition J, a park revitalization act allowing for construction of an underground garage overseen by the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority. The authority entered into a lease with a nonprofit organization launched by Hellman, the Music Concourse Community Partnership, to raise private funding.

Every stripe of constituent complained: Local architects derided the garage design. Joggers raged. Trees Not Cars sued. And, unsurprisingly, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition staunchly opposed the project.

“Warren was invaluable, he and Dede always bailed me out on city projects,” says former Mayor Willie Brown. “He was a civic-minded activist who didn’t ooze any bullshit [or] philosophical political belief. In spite of the incredible hurdles San Francisco elected types erected, Warren was about getting things done.”

Hellman parried with the coalition, explaining that the garage was the best hope for bicyclers to achieve their goal of full-weekend, partial closures to cars in the park. In 2005, the garage finally opened sans any sort of ceremony.

And not only did the Bicycle Coalition’s vision of car-free Saturdays come to fruition, but the coalition and its bikeways programs have been beneficiaries of largesse from the Hellman Foundation.

During Hellman’s life, he and his wife oversaw the Hellman Family Foundation. After his death, his children established the Hellman Foundation in 2011, merging their parents’ efforts in a new entity led by Tricia Gibbs, president of the Board of Directors.

When Mick Hellman cleaned out his late father’s correspondence file, and he was astounded by the volume of philanthropic requests made to his dad. “We worked together 14 years so I thought I had a handle on projects he supported,” he says. “But in that file were some 400 organizations he donated to, at all different levels. While he didn’t always say yes to requests, it seems he rarely said no.”

Since 2011, the Hellman Foundation has awarded some $58 million in grants to a variety of organizations, including the San Francisco Education Fund, Alameda Country Food Bank, UCSF Palliative Care and the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health.

Mick sees no irony in the fact that the Bicycle Coalition, the very group that gave his father so much grief over the garage, is also a grantee.

“There were always some people who were mad at my father. And he did zig and zag along his journey,” he explains. “But on that journey he was able to compromise. Not on his principles, but on solutions, methods and tactics.”

And the journey of Hellman lives on through his family’s philanthropy and passion for bluegrass. Almost every member of the clan has formed a band: Marco & The Polos (Hellman siblings), Nancy & The Lambchops (Nancy Bechtle with her nieces and nephew), The Brothers Gibb (sons of Tricia Gibbs), Well Known Strangers (Mick and his daughter, Olivia Hellman) and Avery Hellman, who performs professionally as Ismay. Before Warren died, he asked his children to carry on Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for a few years, and then decide for themselves if they were willing to carry it forward beyond that.

“To us, it’s all the religious and national holidays rolled into one,” enthuses Mick. “Especially in the times we’re living in now, it’s is a place where we can all get along and talk peaceably with one another through music.”

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