The Flywheel

This Week's Program: June 12, 2009

Frances Dinkelspiel


The ritual of "out with the old and in with the new" can take on a particularly punitive quality here at the Richmond Rotary, as the past president is shown the door and the new one is shown... well, how he can expect to be treated in 12 months.

You don't want to miss the proceedings.

Last week's MEETING: June 5th, 2009

Welcome, Invocation, Thought for the Day

President Mark Howe rang the bell and called the meeting to order. Jim Young led the pledge of allegiance. Mark asked for a moment of silence in honor of D-Day in Europe, which took place 65 years ago on June 6. Mark also made note that Elof Granberg, who participated in D-Day with a Canadian rifle outfit, regrettably couldn’t be at the meeting today to share some comments directly.

Rotarians with Guests

Henry Kelman had his daughter, Elizabeth, with him.


  • Not to be missed: next Friday, June 12, is the passing of the baton from outgoing President Mark Howe to incoming President Glenn Daggs.
  • Allen Baer reminded everyone to purchase their tickets from him or Rafael Madrigal for Richmond Rotary’s August 22 outing to the Oakland A’s baseball game against the Detroit Tigers.


In keeping with tradition, Mark Howe recognized each of the Richmond Rotary Board members who have served the Club during his Presidency. Each was presented with a bottle of Mondavi 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • Ted Abreu, who looks after the Rotary Interact Club at Salesian High School.
  • Allen Baer, President-select for June 2010, who helps out with poker nights and a lot of other activities.
  • David Brown, the inimitable Treasurer extraordinaire.
  • Sid Chauvin, who graciously declined the wine saying that he quit drinking years ago when the funnel was invented.
  • Glenn Daggs, incoming Club President.
  • Rafael Madrigal, who’s been particularly active bringing in new members.
  • These other Board members, who were not in attendance, were also given an appreciative round of applause: Jan Brown, Pam Jones, Lilian Koziol, and Jon Lawlis. After some group discussion, it was decided that their bottles of wine would not be opened and consumed but would instead be placed in safe-keeping for proper distribution later.
  • Mark also recognized the fine ongoing contributions of Jim Young as Program Chair and Erle Brown as Foundation Chair.

Happy and Sad Dollars

  • Josh Genser effusively offered happy dollars for the ultimate fisherman’s delight and proudly walked around with his iPod showing the photo of the 7-pound, 26-inch (are we sure it’s not just the camera angle?!) rainbow trout that he caught recently at his property up north.
  • Sid Chauvin was happy that his sister has now moved to Concord from Arizona, saving him not a small number of travel hours to visit her.
  • David Brown was happy to distribute copies of “Seniors & The Law: A Guide for Maturing Californians”, a publication of the Foundation of State Bar Associations. Old geezers not in attendance at the meeting should ask David for a copy. Thank you, David.
  • George Egan happily let go of some dollars in celebration of his upcoming getaway to Key Largo.
  • Judy Morgan had happy dollars for the successful Green Expo recently held in conjunction with the City of Richmond at the Ford Building Craneway Pavilion. Judy thanked the Club for their support and Jim Young for his post-Expo program event.

Raffle Results

Rich Alexander deftly drew the orange ball, the only one in the bag.

Norm’s Nonsense

Good Old Dad…

 - It’s been reported that there are more collect calls made on Fathers Day than any other day in the year.
 - My dad always believed in staying in shape. At age 70 he started walking five miles a day. He’s 97 now and we don’t know where the hell he is.


"Tower of Gold": a Legacy of Vision

Frances Dinkelspiel

Mark Howe and Jim Young introduced Frances Dinkelspiel, a local Berkeley resident and former newspaper reporter who set out on a genealogical quest and wrote the following book about her great-great-grandfather: “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California”.

Mark recounted one of Hellman’s connections with Richmond as he displayed a framed decades-old document found in the musty collections of the Point Richmond corner bank property that he renovated. The document is from the Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank of San Francisco, confirming that the Point Richmond facility became part of the banking system that Hellman help create.

It seems that Hellman, though sometimes in almost hidden roles, was California’s premier financier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and laid the groundwork for one of the world’s most dynamic economies (notwithstanding the slight pause going on right now).

Like a modern-day venture capitalist with a good eye for people and business opportunities, he was a promoter and major investor in at least eight industries that shaped California: banking, transportation, education, land development, water, electricity, oil, and wine.

Here are some interesting tidbits that came out of Frances’ presentation about the book, which was published last November.

  • Helman arrived in San Francisco in the late 1850’s from a small town in Bavaria. He soon went to Los Angeles, an underdeveloped area with a population of about 4000 and only a couple hundred Europeans.
  • Hellman was practically penniless, a 16-year-old German Jew among many who were fleeing oppression in Europe. Three decades later, he controlled much of the booming city of LA’s capital, land, and public works. He is attributed with stabilizing the financial panic of 1893 in Los Angeles by stacking $500,000 worth of gold coins on the counter of his Farmers and Merchants Bank in plain public view (hence the title of the book).
  • He then relocated to San Francisco in the 1890’s to acquire The Nevada Bank of San Francisco, which later merged with the express package delivery firm, Wells Fargo, to form the now famous institution. Headlines started referring to Hellman as the West’s richest man. He increasingly worked closely with many of the iconic business figures of the time and was clearly in the circle of prominent movers and shakers of society.
  • Hellman’s legacy is significant. Because of the abundance of shiny metal coming out of California’s hills and streams during the Gold Rush, there were those who believed banks were not necessary and should be actually made illegal. There were no regulations. So anybody could set up a so-called financial business, collect deposits, and then run off with the money. Arrangements were crude and often turned violent.
  • Hellman literally tamed the financial system of the Wild West. He became founder, president, or director of more than a dozen banks, including Wells Fargo, Nevada Bank of San Francisco, and the Farmers and Merchants Bank. Even Bank of America, which arose out of what was called the Bank of Italy, owes its creation to Isaias Hellman.
  • Richmond’s Winehaven also owes its creation to Hellman. After a personal investment of $1 million in 1901 for a majority stake in the wine business called the “California Wine Association” (CWA), Hellman (apparently not a drinker himself) made further investments and grew the business as it came to account for over two-thirds of California’s wine volume. After production and storage facilities were badly damaged in San Francisco’s great earthquake and fire, the CWA purchased 47 acres of land on what’s now called Point Molate and built Winehaven, one of the largest wine-making facilities in the world. Twelve years later in 1919, Prohibition was enacted and the CWA, with some 8 million gallons of wine still in Winehaven storage, struggled with small authorized sales to activities like church communions but finally went out of business.
  • Hellman represented the great wave of Jews who came to California during the Gold Rush and stayed to transform the frontier into a wealthy and powerful state. The experience of Jews in the West in the 19th century is very different than the history of Jews in other parts of the country. Since California was an unformed society, Jews faced minimal discrimination. They became merchants and politicians and leaders in their communities, a fascinating story that is not well-known.

I’ll bet the book is a great read. Frances shared several well-researched and engaging examples of both the large-scale contributions that Hellman made to California’s economic development and the close-in human dimensions of his story (including an assassination attempt on a San Francisco street that failed, which is fortunate for many, including Frances).

- Rotating Scribe, Tom Waller