Nancy Bechtle, S.F. philanthropist and pillar of the city’s high society, dies at 83

Nancy Hellman Bechtle, a philanthropist and pillar of San Francisco society died Wednesday night at her Presidio Heights home. The cause of death was metastasized lung cancer, said her husband, Joachim Bechtle. She was 83.

Friendly and energetic, Bechtle stood out in any crowd, particularly at a gala for the performing arts, where she was usually in the center of a group seeking her frank opinion on civic matters.

“If you went with her to an (event), people would grab her as soon as she walked in the door,” said her husband. “She really was a go-to person. Politicians and people in business would go to her to bounce off ideas.”

Bechtle spent decades serving as a volunteer on boards of a variety of organizations, including the Presidio Trust, the San Francisco Opera, the National Parks Foundation, UCSF Foundation board, and the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

She also was a longtime member of the board of directors for the Charles Schwab Corporation, a paid position, and the board for Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl Resort.

But her longest tenure was with the San Francisco Symphony. She joined the Board of Governors in 1984, served as president from 1987 until 2001 and was still on the board at the time of her death.

“Nancy Bechtle was my ideal of what a symphony president should be — totally committed to the institution, tough but humane, and she loved the music we made,” said former San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Peter Pastreich.

“The more than 10 years we worked together included the acoustical renovation of Davies Symphony Hall, the hiring of (former Music Director) Michael Tilson Thomas, and the more than doubling of the symphony’s endowment.”

Bechtle was seemingly everywhere at once, evidenced in part by her near-omnipresence at San Francisco’s annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival founded by her late brother, financier and philanthropist Warren Hellman.

She fronted her own band, Nancy & the Lambchops, which headlined the Bandwagon Stage and recorded an original song “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” Her last performance was in 2019. She was already in treatment for her cancer at the time but postponed chemotherapy to be sure she could take the stage.

“Her passing will leave a hole in our lineup for all time,” said Sheri Sternberg, executive producer of the festival. Bechtle was so beloved by both audience and performers that she became the subject of the song “Sierra Girl,” recorded by the country-bluegrass band Poor Man’s Whiskey.

The title alludes to Bechtle’s expertise as a skier both on snow and on cold water at Lake Tahoe. She was the first woman named to the board of directors for Sugar Bowl Ski Resort where she’d grown up skiing and racing. The steepest and longest run on the mountain was later named Nancy’s Couloir in reference to a harrowing run at Jackson Hole, Wyo., that Bechtle may have been among the first female skiers to conquer.

She also was a medal presenter in the Nordic ski jumping competition at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley.

Nancy Hellman was born Dec. 14, 1939 in New York City and grew up in San Francisco. She was often confused as being part of the Bechtle family of San Francisco construction engineering fame. She wasn’t. Her roots went back farther than that. Her great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, built up three major banks, most lastingly Wells Fargo. His biography, written by a relative is titled “Towers of Gold.”

Bechtle and her older brother, Warren, were privileged but not pampered. Bechtle’s father, Mick Hellman, was an Army officer in World War II, and her mother’s wartime service is perhaps even more noteworthy. Ruth Koshland was a WASP — a Women Airforce Service Pilot — 200 of whom finally got their due last month when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

While they were both away during the war, Bechtle and her big brother lived at the family ranch in Vacaville, where she learned her way around horses and cattle.

“She knew how to drive a tractor before she knew how to drive a car,” said her daughter, Jessica Galloway.

After the war the family moved to San Francisco where Hellman graduated from Katherine Delmar Burke School in 1955 and entered Stanford University. She was on the ski team, and during her freshman year became the first Jewish woman to be invited to come out at the Debutante Cotillion ball at the Palace Hotel. She lasted only a few years at Stanford before leaving school to marry Henry Parish, whom she’d met through her brother.

They moved to Kentfield after her son, Michael, was born in 1959, and in 1963 moved to the house on Washington Street where she lived the rest of her life. Her daughter, Jessica, was born in 1964. She was divorced in 1968 and married Bechtle in 1975.

Her first musical love was opera, which she attended with her grandmother on Tuesday nights when patrons were expected to dress in formal attire. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music was the first board she joined, in 1973, followed by the board of the opera in 1982. She was also chair of the San Francisco committee to the U.S. Ski Team, from 1970 to 1977.

In 2010, at age 72, she was named chairwoman of the Presidio Trust Board of Directors, after first having been appointed to a seat by President George W. Bush and reappointed by President Barack Obama. For every meeting she made the half-hour walk from her home to the post.

“She had great common sense, and knew right from wrong,” said her son. “She would make a decision and stick to it, even if it was politically unpopular.”

She studied the issues and called them as she saw them. She was board chair when the Presidio Trust rejected filmmaker George Lucas’offer to build his Americana memorabilia museum there.

This decision provoked the ire of Lucas, who took his museum to Los Angeles, and the ire of just about every elected official in San Francisco, from Rep. Nancy Pelosi on down.

Anyone else might have resigned under the heat. Bechtle was the type to finish what she started, including her education at Stanford. Dropping out had been unlike her, and at age 47 she had gone back to complete her degree. She graduated in her cap and gown alongside a crowd of 22-year-olds. A graduation party was held for her at the Family Club in nearby Portola Valley. A long line of Hellmans had graduated from UC Berkeley. This was emphasized by her brother Warren, who arrived as Oski, the Cal mascot.

“She totally loved it,” said her husband. “Nancy had a great sense of humor and a happy laugh.”

Charles Schwab, who personally recruited her to the board of the Schwab Corporation, described Bechtle as “everything you want a friend and colleague to be: passionate, civic minded, willing to speak up with the tough perspectives, smart and with an enormous spirit of generosity. The city of San Francisco will miss her immensely.”

A public memorial will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Donations in her name may be made to the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, Box 0248, UCSF, San Francisco, CA 94143.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by son Michael Parish and his wife Anne, and their daughters Chelsea and Meredith; daughter Jessica Galloway and her husband Stephen Galloway and their children Oliver, Benjamin and Claire Galloway, also of San Francisco.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samwhitingsf

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