There were few charitable causes that didn’t catch the eye — and heartstrings — of the late Yvonne Sangiacomo, who died in January. This ebullient San Francisco native, daughter of nightclub impresario Agostino (Bimbo) Giuntoli and wife of the wildly successful property developer and landlord, the late Angelo Sangiacomo lived a long, full life of love and philanthropy.
“Yvonne was an angel on earth! She received so many donation requests. But more often than not, she’d write a check,” notes PR pro and family friend Lori Puccinelli Stern. “Even if she wasn’t familiar with a charity, but believed the work was beneficial, her idea of ‘minimum’ often amounted to $5,000.”
That heartfelt philanthropic legacy, and spirit of a woman boldly accessorized in fire-engine red ensembles and eyeglasses, lives on in her seven children and the Yvonne and Angelo Sangiacomo Family Foundation, currently run by Yvonne’s daughter Mia Gaehwiler and son James Sangiacomo.
“Annually we give about $1 million to some 30 local charities,” says James. “I wish we were at the level of the $400 million Sobrato Foundation. But you can still achieve a lot of good with a million dollars.”
“From her beautiful smile to her extraordinary philanthropy, there was no one like Yvonne.”
— Hilary Newsom Callan
For decades that good has been showered upon such organizations as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Family House, Immaculate Conception Academy, Pomeroy Recreation & Rehabilitation Center, Holy Family Day Home, Mission Dolores Academy and Santa Clara University.
The foundation recently pledged a $3 million gift to a $25 million capital campaign to refurbish the historic St. Ignatius Church on the University of San Francisco campus. The effort is being led by a committee that includes James and wife Geri Sangiacomo and Gazette owners Janet and Clint Reilly.
In 2017, St. Ignatius College Preparatory launched its Fr. Sauer Academy — a full-scholarship middle school for talented students from low-income families — to which Yvonne pledged a $3 million gift in honor of her family priest, Fr. Tony Sauer, S.J.
Later that year, Yvonne was recognized by St. Ignatius when the school bestowed her its highest honor, the President’s Award, and presented her with a citation that calls her an “embodiment of love” and “guardian angel.”
A devout Catholic, Yvonne was drawn to religious causes, whether Jesuit, Carmelite, Dominican or Salesian. But she was equally generous to organizations supporting education, seniors and the Italian heritage, including the Museo Italo Americano, a board she once served on, now led by James.
“Their biggest fights during 59 years of marriage were about gala fundraisers: Angelo would get mad at mom because she was always raising her paddle during the live auction,” recalls daughter Maryanne Sangiacomo, with a laugh. “Dad worked really hard building his successful career. And mom happily spent his money, giving it away to those in need.”
Yvonne’s greatest devotion was the Little Sisters of the Poor, a begging order that cares for 85 elderly residents at St. Anne’s Home on Lake Street in the City.
In the ’80s Yvonne dreamed up a benefit for the Little Sisters: the Red Tie Gala, a must-attend soiree for San Francisco natives, who roamed every floor of Neiman Marcus, savoring cocktails, canapes and entertainment. Such was Yvonne’s dedication, she even trademarked the party’s moniker.
“Yvonne was a founding member of our auxiliary, and before every bazaar sale, she’d spend hours sorting out the donated clothing,” recalls Mother Theresa, St. Anne’s mother superior. “She was a woman totally given to supporting our residents with her generous hospitaller heart.”
Yvonne also inspired a younger generation of philanthropists, including Hilary Newsom Callan, president of the PlumpJack Group and its charitable foundation.
“From her beautiful smile to her extraordinary philanthropy, there was no one like Yvonne,” says Newsom Callan, who founded the PlumpJack Golf Tournament to benefit cancer research. “She taught me it wasn’t about the amount you could raise or donate; the important thing was being involved, caring and gathering friends together to support causes that moved you.”
While thousands of homebound San Francisco seniors may not know her name, Yvonne’s largest gift ever — $5 million to Meals on Wheels — will ensure their nutritional well-being.
“My dad had recently passed, when Meals on Wheels board president, [the late] Russ Flynn, met with mom about their new kitchen capital campaign,” recalls James Sangiacomo. “Russ told her the amount of his pledge. But mom was very competitive — so she wrote a larger check than Russ.”
The nonprofit’s new $41.5 million, 22,500-square-foot state-of-the-art kitchen and food production facility, housed in the Sangiacomo Flynn Building, opened just before Thanksgiving last November.
“In our old building, we scrambled to produce 7,000 to 8,000 meals a day. But thanks to the generosity of Yvonne and Russ, we now produce and serve 10,000 meals daily, a demand that’s increased during COVID,” notes Ashley McCumber, CEO of Meals on Wheels. “Our new building will allow us to scale up to 30,000 daily meals.”
But McCumber also treasured the human side of Yvonne, whose checkbook was as famous as her sweet tooth.
“On Valentine’s Day, she’d send us thousands of chocolates for our client meals,” says McCumber. “Her financial gifts are one thing. But Yvonne truly cared about people. She always said, ‘God blessed my family, so we have a responsibility to take care of those less fortunate.’”