Warren Hellman "Stunned and Thrilled" City Named Meadow After Him

Joyce Goldschmid
The namesake for "Hellman Hollow"
The wheels of government tend to turn slowly. So the rapidity with which the notion of renaming Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow after Warren Hellman became a reality -- two weeks from conception to Board of Supervisors-approved, effective-immediately ordinance -- indicated things were not well for the banjo-playing billionaire and philanthropist.

In fact, Warren Hellman and Hellman Hollow only coexisted for three days before the man lost his battle with leukemia. He was 77.

He was, however, cognizant enough at the end to know the city had renamed portions of the park in his honor -- and was "stunned and thrilled -- overwhelmed."

That's how Supervisor Sean Elsbernd recalls it. The westside supe, along with Recreation and Parks boss Phil Ginsburg, decided they wanted to do something for Hellman before the bell tolled. "Rather than do it posthumously, we wanted to do it in a way he would be aware of the gratitude the city had for him."

Hellman returned Elsbernd's messages from his hospital room on Dec. 6, the day the supe introduced the quick-acting measure that would rename Speedway Meadow. Elsbernd is loath to divulge too much of that conversation, other than to say Hellman greatly appreciated the gesture.

Hellman's annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and civic boosterism made him that most contradictory of articles -- a billionaire populist. His family founded Wells Fargo, he served as president of Lehman Brothers, and bought and sold massive companies such as Levi's, Doubleclick, and Young & Rubicam. Some folks invested in Nasdaq. Hellman owned it.

And yet, the legacy that may well stick the longest relates to Hellman's local philanthropy and unabashed love of San Francisco.

After all, it's hard to dislike a man who plays the banjo.

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