Warren Hellman, San Francisco’s beloved, banjo-picking billionaire, died Sunday night after a long battle with leukemia. He was 77.
A local legend, Hellman was best known as the founder and force behind the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, the weekend of free music — completely funded by the financier — that takes over Golden Gate Park each autumn and draws big-name acts ranging from Emmylou Harris to Broken Social Scene.
But Hellman’s legacy extends far deeper into the fabric of the city than the three days of joy he sponsored each September in the park. He spent his life giving to the causes he cared most deeply about.
Since building his fortune in finance, first as the youngest partner in the now-defunct Lehman Brothers investment bank’s history (at age 28) and later as co-founder of the private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, Hellman donated almost everything he had to his passion projects and political causes throughout San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the investor often joked that he had little interest in collecting expensive cars or art.
“What does move me is the philanthropic stuff,” he told Forbes magazine in 2006. “Giving really does move me.”
In addition to creating and maintaining one of the city’s most cherished festivals, Hellman funded the San Francisco Free Clinic, built an underground parking garage in Golden Gate Park to help keep the DeYoung Museum intact after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, spearheaded a major pension reform effort during the November elections and co-founded online local news website The Bay Citizen.
“Warren was San Francisco, and his passion for the city ran deep,” longtime friend Phil Bronstein, the former Chronicle editor, told The Bay Citizen. “His philanthropy and quiet leadership were unparalleled.”
And San Francisco recently had a chance to show its gratitude. Last Thursday, the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission unanimously voted to rename Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow, the nucleus of Hardly Strictly, to “Hellman Hollow.” “I can’t think of another citizen of San Francisco that has done more for the city or had the City as his highest priority on almost everything he has ever done,” Mark Buell, chairman of the commission, told the San Francisco Examiner.
A budding banjo player himself, Hellman performed at nearly every iteration of Hardly Strictly with his band, The Wronglers, writing songs about the various causes and issues that made him tick. Unconventional to the core, the lifelong Republican supported labor unions, was known for his rugged, frayed wardrobe and attended Burning Man the year he turned 70.
He even postponed chemotherapy treatments in order to appear onstage with The Wronglers during this year’s Hardly Strictly festival. Good-spirited until the very end, Hellman would more recently joke that he had changed his name to Luke Emia, according to The Bay Citizen.
And festival fans need not fret: Hardly Strictly will continue in Hellman’s wake for many years to come. The financier created an endowment fund for the explicit purpose of funding the event “after I croak.” “Yes, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival will go on!” his daughter, Patricia Hellman Gibbs, confirmed to the Chronicle on Sunday.
Public services will be held in Hellman’s honor on Wednesday at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. According to his family, a community celebration of his life will take place in the following weeks. The family has requested that instead of sending flowers, mourners pay their respects by making donations to the San Francisco Free Clinic, The Bay Citizen, and the San Francisco School Alliance.
Take a look at a video of Hellman playing with The Wronglers during 2009′s Hardly Strictly festival below, and click over to The Bay Citizen for more comprehensive coverage and celebration of his life.