Money and values

Warren Hellman played a unique role in San Francisco and left a void that needs to be filled

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"I don't think anyone every saw Warren Hellman talk down to anybody." -- musician Ron Thomason

steve@sfbg.com

Warren Hellman left a hole in the heart of San Francisco when he died on Dec. 18 at the age of 77. That's where he existed, right in the city's heart, keeping the lifeblood of money and values flowing when nobody else seemed up to that task. But as the outpouring of affection and appreciation that followed his death attests, he set an example for others to follow...and maybe they will.

Hellman was born into one of San Francisco's premier wealthy families, a status he maintained by becoming a rich and famous investment banker. His great-grandfather founded Well Fargo, as well as the Congregation Emanu-El, the spectacular temple where Hellman's memorial service was held Dec. 21, attended by a huge crowd ranging from Gov. Jerry Brown to young country music fans.

Hellman was more than just a philanthropist who funded key institutions such as the San Francisco Free Clinic, the Bay Citizen newsroom, and a variety of programs and bond measures benefiting local public schools. He was more than the go-to guy for mediating sticky political problems such as this year's pension reform struggle.

Hellman was the conscience of San Francisco, reminding his rich friends of their obligations to fair play and the common good. And he was the rhythm of the city, single-handedly creating and funding the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, perhaps the greatest free music festival in the country. And he was so much more.

"What do banjos, garages, Levis, 50- and 100-mile runs, ride and tie, investment banking, public policy, ballot measures, free medical clinics, and a zest for women," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at his service, causing the room to erupt in laughter at the misstated last item, "for winning — correction, a zest for winning — have in common? The answer, of course, is simple: Warren Hellman."

It was a gaffe that Hellman probably would have appreciated as much as anyone. Speaker after speaker attested to his marvelous, and often risqué, sense of humor. It was a theme that ran through the testimonials almost as strongly as two of his other key qualities: his competitiveness and his compassion.

For a charter member the 1 percent, Hellman had a deep appreciation for the average person of goodwill, and he found those people as often on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder as he did on the top. While most of his contemporaries in San Francisco's uber-wealthy class, such as Don Fisher and Walter Shorenstein, often used their money to wage class warfare on the 99 percent, Hellman used his wealth and influence to bridge the divide.

He generously gave to good causes and advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy to lessen the need for such charity. Hellman understood that we all help make San Francisco great, and that perspective animated his love of bluegrass music, which he called "the conscience of our country."

As he told me in 2007, "A big passion of mine is to try to help — and people have defined it too narrowly — the kinds of music that I think have a hell of a lot to do with the good parts of our society."

Hellman may have started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival because it was music he loved and played, but he turned it into such a major spectacle — booking some of the biggest acts from around the country, going as big as the city and space would allow — because he thought it was important to the soul of his city.

"I'm glad that we have first-rate opera, but it's equally important that we foster the kind of music, lyrics, etc., that support all this," Hellman told me. And by "all this," he was talking about the grand social bargain, the fact that we're all sharing this planet and we've got to understand and nurture one another.