San Francisco philanthropist Warren Hellman brought music to the masses

“What I always tell people is think locally, act locally.”

Warren Hellman walked many paths in life — he was a savvy businessman, a philanthropist, an environmentalist and a political moderator. He worked with people who, if all in a room, may not have had much in common, but they all describe Hellman with the same words: A champion.

The San Francisco philanthropist died Sunday at the age of 77. He had leukemia.

Hellman, a former Wall Street executive and savvy businessman, will perhaps be best remembered for his fierce advocacy for schools, music and the environment — and his ultimate gift to The City, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

“I am profoundly saddened by our great loss this evening with the passing of Warren Hellman — truly one of the greatest San Franciscans in the history of our city,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement.

Among Hellman’s most well-known — and certainly his most lively — contributions to The City is the free bluegrass festival, held annually in Golden Gate Park since 2001 and paid for in full by Hellman.

“For someone who was so successful in life, he devoted so much time and energy to the public good,” Recreation and Park Department chief Phil Ginsburg said Sunday night.

Hellman was a musician who favored the banjo, but also knew how to strike harmonious chords in The City’s political arena.

He considered himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate, and pumped millions of dollars into propositions that supported programs and agencies he believed in, most recently November’s successful pension reform measure, Proposition C.

City leaders credit him with bringing together two sides of an issue on countless occasions, including a parcel tax intended to ensure quality teachers in public schools.

Supervisor Eric Mar, who first worked with Hellman as president of the school board, said Hellman’s efforts to bring business backing to public schools were integral to the parcel tax.

Hellman attended Lowell High School and was largely involved in school issues. His large heart and generous wallet have been recognized with numerous honors over the years.

Last year, the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley awarded Hellman, a board member since 1987, a lifetime achievement award for his monetary support of the university and business school, his business accomplishments and his philanthropic contributions to the Bay Area.

On Sunday, Haas Dean Rich Lyons remembered Hellman as a friend and an adviser.

“Warren was a man of great humility and an unbridled zest for life,” Lyons said in a statement.

Most recently, the Recreation and Park Commission renamed Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park in Hellman’s honor, after Supervisor Sean Elsbernd spearheaded the effort and gained unanimous backing from his colleagues on the board.

Elsbernd, who worked closely with Hellman on Prop. C, summarized a sentiment expressed by many as they reflected on Hellman’s influence.

“One of the greatest privileges of my career was getting to work with him,” Elsbernd said Sunday night. “He taught me and so many others what it was to be a San Franciscan.”

Work on Prop. C proved integral

By Max DeNike
SF Examiner Staff Writer

One of Warren Hellman’s final contributions to the city he so adored was helping craft a measure to reform San Francisco’s pension system — a battle that for years had failed.

In November, voters passed Proposition C with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

“What he did specifically to that was bring two sides of an issue together that for years were unable to work together,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who was among the group of city officials that placed Prop. C on the ballot, said Sunday of Hellman’s contributions in crafting Prop. C.

As part of San Franciscans United for Pension Reform — along with union groups and investor Ron Conway — Hellman helped fund the Prop. C campaign, giving $100,000. Hellman merged his group’s pension ideas with those proposed by Mayor Ed Lee to create Prop. C.

“We will never forget Warren’s … love for San Francisco and his enduring faith that, despite our differences, we can come together to make San Francisco a better place for everyone,” Lee said in a statement Sunday.

Nate Ballard, who was the campaign director for Yes on C, No on D, said Hellman was crucial to Prop. C passing.
“Warren Hellman … was not only a major financial backer, he was the heart and soul of the coalition,” Ballard said Sunday. “He held our ragtag team together with his strategic vision, his will to succeed and, most of all, his good humor.”

Melissa Griffin, special to The SF Examiner, contributed to this report.


Warren Hellman's life

Born: New York City, 1934
Died: San Francisco, 2011
Occupation: Co-founder and chairman of San Francisco-based Hellman & Friedman
Education: UC Berkeley, economics, 1955; Harvard Business School, 1959
Wife: Patricia Christina Hellman — ex-ballet dancer, singer, painter

  • Frances Hellman, professor and chair, UC Berkeley physics department
  • Patricia Hellman Gibbs, doctor and co-founder of S.F. Free Clinic
  • Marco “Mick” Hellman, successful investor and age group world cycling champion
  • Judith Hellman, doctor and associate professor at UCSF

Philanthropic ventures, leadership roles:

  • San Francisco Foundation
  • California Commission for Jobs and Economic Growth
  • Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors
  • The Brookings Institution
  • San Francisco Chamber of Commerce
  • The San Francisco Free Clinic
  • Voice of Dance

Favorite bands/artists:

  • Doc Watson
  • Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
  • The Kingston Trio
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Hazel Dickens


Social media blitz

Warren Hellman’s friends, family and fans shared their sorrow on Twitter.

“RIP Warren Hellman …Thank you for touching a Billion Lives, creating a Billion Smiles and your Legacy of Love for People.”
— MC Hammer

“Philanthropist, musician, music-lover, patron saint of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival & friend Warren Hellman died tonight. Many tears.”
— Stevie Coyle (musician, former frontman of The Waybacks)

“Goodbye dear cousin and banjo lover Warren Hellman RIP #hsb”
— Frances Dinkelspiel (Hellman’s cousin and an author)

“RIP Warren Hellman. Thanks for making good music available to all.”
— The Devil Makes Three (Santa Cruz band)

“Listening to “I’ll Fly Away” in memory of Warren Hellman, one of bluegrass’ biggest fans and best friends.”
— Zingg Music Lab

“Warren Hellman passed away tonight. Thank you for all the joy you brought to us.”
— Jenny Kerr (S.F. musician)

“The roots music community has lost a great friend. Rest in peace, Warren Hellman.”
— Samantha Parton (musician)

“this sucks. #RIPWarren. and Thank You xo”
— Kendel Carson (singer/musician/fiddler)

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