Hugely influential political figures died in the last week: Czech playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel, North Korea’s “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il, and writer Christopher Hitchens, who shaped perceptions of war and religion. But it was the death of investment banker Warren Hellman that has most affected me and the rest of San Francisco.
It wasn’t just because I knew and greatly respected the man, but it was how I came to know Warren and the unique role that he played in this polarized city. Up until 2007, I saw Hellman as just another wealthy Republican power broker pumping money into conservative campaigns that the Bay Guardian and progressives were constantly fighting.
Even before Occupy coined that new paradigm, I saw him as part of the one percent working to keep the 99 percent down, and I bitterly resented what the very rich were doing to San Francisco. But increasingly, Hellman began to break with his downtown allies, partnering with bicyclists, burners, and music lovers on various pursuits. So I decided to do an in-depth profile of this courageously independent man (see “Out of downtown,” 5/19/07) and that evolved into an ongoing relationship.
Like everyone else, I appreciate what Warren has done for San Francisco, particularly his creation of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the Bay Citizen, the San Francisco Foundation, and other important institutions. He felt an obligation to use his wealth for the common good.
But even more striking was his humble and cooperative approach. He believed luck matters more than ability in people’s socioeconomic status. So Warren brought goodwill and real curiosity to all his interactions — he wanted to learn from San Franciscans of all kinds, to let them shape him and this city. I can think of no better example to follow during this holiday season and the fraught political year that follows.