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In memory of Warren Hellman

Hellman dons his yellow beret as students cheer. Courtesy of F.W. Olin Library.

Twenty two years ago students expressed outrage when then-Mills College  Board Chair Warren Hellman announced the infamous decision to go co-ed. Today Mills mourns his death and remembers him as a generous, fun and eccentric man; an important part of the institution’s history.

Hellman, who served the College as Board Chair from 1982 to 1992, died Dec. 18 from leukemia complications. He was 77.

Perhaps Hellman is remembered by many at Mills as the bearer of bad news. On May 3, 1990, he announced the Board’s decision to admit men at the College’s undergraduate level.

“I think that Warren felt that the College was not on sound financial terms at that time,” Economics Professor Nancy Thornborrow said. Thornborrow, who has been at Mills since 1980, chaired the faculty committee that explored ways for Mills to resolve its financial issues while remaining a women’s college. “He really believed, I think, in his heart that we would be better off if we became a co-ed institution and in his mind make it more certain that Mills would go on forever and ever.”

For Women Always

For two weeks, though, student strikers passionately raised their voices against going co-ed, and the Board (and national media) heard them loud and clear. The decision was reversed. On May 18, 1990, Hellman silently unrolled a banner: “Mills. For Women. Again.”

“All the students were screaming and crying and carrying on,” Thornborrow said. “That’s a memorable moment. Here’s this captain of industry or whatever doing a 180-degree turn and saying, ‘You want to be a women’s college? Be a women’s college.’ I thought at the time, ‘You’ll never see him again. He’ll resign from the Board.’ But he didn’t right away.”

Former Mills president (1991-2011) Janet Holmgren had asked Hellman to remain as Board Chair during her first year as president so that she could learn from and work with him.

Hellman came up with an idea to inaugurate Holmgren and welcome her to Mills.

“He decided to give me his yellow beret,” Holmgren said.

Yellow had been the official strike color, and the student strikers gave Hellman the yellow beret after the Board changed its mind about making Mills a coed institution.

“He was so proud of that yellow beret, and he gave it to me. I still have it here on my desk,” Holmgren said, laughing. “He was proud of the fact that during that very infamous strike period, students really took him on personally, and he took on this question of what the mission of an institution meant.”

Thornborrow has a slightly different perspective. “I think Hellman recognized the strength of the alumnae and the students, their opposition, and their willingness to actually leave the institution,” she said. “I think he was a pragmatic person and decided, ‘This is not the time to be doing this, obviously.'”

Holmgren said Hellman absolutely believed in the mission of women’s education.

“He believed in women leading and women learning,” she said.

The Mills College Facebook page echoed this sentiment shortly after Hellman’s death last month.

“In the end, he knew the strikers were right,” read the page’s wall post, “and that Mills should remain for women always.”

The Hellmans at Mills

The Hellman family ties with Mills College reach back for generations, according to Vice President for Operations Renee Jadushlever.

Hellman’s mother, Ruth Koshland Hellman, served as chairman of the Joint Committee of the Mills Board of Trustees and the San Francisco Museum for summer concerts. Both his grandmother, Frances Jacobi Hellman, and grandfather, I.W. Hellman, Jr., served as Mills College trustees.

Ten Hellman family members have attended Mills. Six have served as trustees; current trustee Sabrina Hellman is Warren Hellman’s daughter in law.

Hellman’s philanthropy — discussed at length in The Bay Citizen’s “The Billionaire Who Loved Bluegrass” — also runs in the family.

“In 1954, his father, uncles and aunts established an endowed music fund honoring their mother,” Jadushlever wrote in an email. Two years prior, “in an early commitment to women’s athletics, his grandmother gave $15,000 for the construction of the Hellman swimming pool, used by students until it became what is now Adams Plaza.”

Holmgren recalled a story Hellman used to tell. When Hellman was at UC Berkeley in the 1950s, he and some friends came to Mills to use the Hellman Pool.

“And so he and his friends were caught trying to go  into the pool after dark,” Holmgren said. “The security folks asked him who he was and he said, ‘Well, I’m I.W.F. Hellman.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, right,'” Holmgren laughed. “But in fact his grandfather had given Mills the pool, and his grandmother had been a great donor to the music building. It ran in the family.”


Dr. Helen Walter never met Hellman, but she loves him for his contributions to The Hellman Summer Science and Math Fellow program, a four-week residential program which enables students to experience a rigorous academic transition to College in preparation for their science studies. Walter directs the program.

Every year, the Hellman scholars communicated with Warren Hellman about their research and accomplishments and sent him HELL WOMEN t-shirts, according to Jadushlever.

“In May 2007 I was given the Hellman budget and asked to make something to focus on the study of the sciences (a biology and a chemistry component) that was similar to our sister, and very successful, program SAW,” Walter wrote in reference to the Summer Academic Workshop. “Our faculty decided that themes would be important, so we made an environmental chemistry and a forensic biology course.  These themes are popularized by the media and would enable an interest we could build on to teach advanced science concepts. Most students do not realize that the Hellwomen learn about genetics in a way that they often don’t cover until their junior year.”

Walter explained that the program began as a way for first-year students interested in the sciences to transition from high school to college.

“The Hellman program started because we identified a need to change the way science majors first encountered science classes at Mills.” Dr. Walter said.

The first group of Hellwomen entered Mills in the summer of 2007 and graduated in 2011. One graduate from that group has gone on to a pre-surgical intern program at UC Davis and another is in an MD/PhD program at UC Irvine. The first nursing Hellwoman is set to graduate from Samuel Merritt University as part of Mills’ 2+2 nursing program and will move on to work for a VA hospital.

The influence Hellman had on this program will not be forgotten.

“Warren Hellman gave us the ability to create something unique and exciting – the Hellwomen!” Dr. Walter said, “We always loved hearing the tales of Mr. Hellman wearing his sweatshirt and proudly proclaiming himself an honorary Hellwoman. His legacy will remain in the lives of these students who continue to inspire me in everything that they accomplish.”

After the Hellman Program’s first summer, Dr. Walter said, members gave Hellman a HELL WOMEN jacket that they did not think he would wear because the program’s name was written on the back in flames. On the contrary, he wore it all the time and even on the ski slopes.

She said Hellman would boast, “Look at what my Mills women gave me.”