Hellman: Leader, philanthropist in true SF tradition

It can be said that Warren Hellman, who died of leukemia Sunday at the age of 77, was one of a kind.

He was a worthy heir to the San Francisco tradition of successful local businesspeople who understood it was part of their life purpose to leave behind lasting enhancements to The City. And San Franciscans can only hope there will be others like him following in his footsteps.

To the public, it would have seemed a startling revelation that Hellman passed away of a relatively slower-advancing disease such as leukemia. He was an active force in The City until the end.

He was front and center at October’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, playing his banjo onstage alongside some of his favorite big-name acoustic musicians.

Hellman had founded and funded the annual three-day festival since 2001, calling it a “selfish gift” because it provided him so much joy. He set up an endowment to ensure that the bluegrass summit continued after his death.

The very last civic cause Hellman took on was the role he played in negotiating the terms of Proposition C, the reform of San Francisco’s out-of-control public pension burden. No such reform attempt had ever succeeded before, and those who worked with Hellman on the voter measure — unions, business leaders and City Hall officials — credited him with being essential to the win. And he also contributed $100,000 of his own money to tell voters about the proposition.

Hellman was no stranger to San Francisco Examiner editorial board meetings. He would show up as part of a group advocating some program to benefit city residents — often the issue was to improve funding for the San Francisco Unified School District or for some enhancement of The City’s environment. Hellman generally had no official title with the advocacy group. But when he spoke, it became clear at once that he was instrumental to the organizing effort and had in-depth understanding of the issues needing resolution.

The good causes that Hellman helped bring to life for The City cover a spectacular range. Last year, the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley awarded him a lifetime achievement award for being a board member since 1987 and other contributions. Hellman was also a founding backer of the San Francisco Free Clinic in Haight-Ashbury.

He was a leader of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce as well as the Brookings Institution and the California Commission for Jobs and Economic Growth.

“What I always tell people is think locally, act locally,” was Hellman’s credo. He left a great heritage behind for The City and he will be greatly missed.

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