A musical farewell for Warren Hellman, city's benefactor

Mike Koozmin/The SF ExaminerFriends and family gathered at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco to say goodbye to Warren Hellman

Amid bluegrass tunes both somber and joyful, more than 1,000 people gathered Wednesday to honor the life of San Francisco’s best-known philanthropist and civic champion, Warren Hellman.

Hellman died Sunday evening of complications from leukemia. He was 77.

Part businessman, part philanthropist and part banjo player, Hellman was no typical billionaire — and that was the theme of fond remembrance speeches made by friends and family. They were joined by scores of musicians, who paid tribute to the beloved benefactor of the annual three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, which has been free to the public since 2001.

Emmylou Harris — the country-music legend who traditionally closes the festival with her set — took center stage at Congregation Emanu-El and played two songs with members of Hellman’s band, The Wronglers.

Harris told the story of her first encounter with Hellman and the inaugural Golden Gate Park event, which was originally called Strictly Bluegrass. Harris said she wasn’t focusing on bluegrass at the time, instead playing with a New Orleans-style brass band. But Hellman wanted her to play, no matter what.

“Warren, instead of getting upset, just changed the name of the festival,” Harris said. “What a gentleman.”

Some of the Bay Area’s most powerful politicians also turned out to honor Hellman’s well-known civic achievements. Mayor Ed Lee joined several members of the Board of Supervisors, U.S. Rep.  Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the latter of whom made note of Hellman’s humility, despite his great wealth.

Hellman’s longtime business partner, Philip Hammarskjold, said the investment company he founded will always be “the firm that Warren built.” Hammarskjold said Hellman was never an advocate of wealth for wealth’s sake.

“This was certainly reflected in his own wardrobe,” Hammarskjold said, adding that despite an oft-frumpy outfit and countless bad ties, Hellman was preternatural deal-maker. “Somehow, Warren could pull it off.”

Hellman was honored in speeches by his four children and a dozen of his grandchildren, who sang the lighthearted bluegrass standard “Big Rock Candy Mountain” for the service. Alongside Hellman’s banjo and his 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.”

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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