Any examination of the lives of Walter and Elise Haas will demonstrate their remarkable character. Devoted to their family and to their community, Mr. and Mrs. Haas were exemplary parents and extraordinary citizens. The lessons drawn from their lives are integral to the world view and work of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. Key aspects of Walter and Elise’s legacy are described below.
Individual responsibility for society as a whole
An enduring legacy of Walter and Elise Haas is their clear articulation of the responsibility each individual has for the well-being of others. Walter Haas states in his oral history* that “It has always been a principle in my family that we owe something to society.” Walter and Elise Haas understood their connections to and responsibilities for multiple constituencies. While strong supporters of the Jewish community, they also believed in the importance of serving the city, region, and country in which they lived. They have passed on to their descendents a deep connection and commitment to the broader community. As Walter Haas explained: “This country, this city, have been very good to us. Our children saw our example. I do not really know whether we ever talked to them particularly about this, but seeing our example, they started to take pride in community.”
Active involvement and leadership
Visionaries who left an indelible imprint on San Francisco and the surrounding area, Walter and Elise Haas gave not just of their financial resources, but also of themselves, providing personal leadership in many arenas. Highlights of their leadership include Mr. Haas’ role as President of the Jewish Welfare National Fund, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Commission, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Equally important was Elise Haas’ leadership on the Board of Directors of Mt. Zion Hospital and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
While cognizant of their responsibility to provide leadership, both Mr. and Mrs. Haas spoke movingly in their oral histories of the personal satisfaction they received from being active participants in numerous community issues and organizations. Walter, for instance, noted “I got much more out of it than I gave…[I] developed friendships and attitudes…that I found of value in my personal life.” In Elise Haas’ oral history, she notes as a point of pride “All together, our children have carried on the family tradition of involvement in civic and philanthropic affairs.”
Strengthening community institutions for the long-term
Walter and Elise Haas appreciated the need for community infrastructure (i.e., community organizations and institutions) in promoting the quality of life of the region’s residents. For example, in an introduction to Elise Haas’ oral history, Dr. Meyer Friedman talked about her role on the board of Mt. Zion Hospital and how she “dared to believe that a hospital was not a place of business, but was above all a prime symbol of a community’s spiritual concern and compassion for its fellow members.”
Both Walter and Elise Haas dedicated their efforts to ensuring that important services and programs could be sustained over generations. While focusing on the community needs of their own time, they helped create the means to address the needs of future generations. During their lifetimes, they were instrumental in establishing or strengthening many of the Bay Area’s most significant educational, religious, cultural, economic, and social institutions. It is difficult to imagine San Francisco without the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Jewish Community Federation, the United Way of the Bay Area, Stern Grove, and countless other community institutions that the region now takes for granted.
In establishing the Fund in 1952, Walter and Elise Haas sought to develop an enduring vehicle to carry out their life-long commitment to improving the region’s quality of life. The founders have left a legacy of caring, honest, and intelligent stewardship of resources to serve the needs of the community. Sixty-plus years later, some issues may have shifted and others grown more complex, but lessons drawn from the founders’ lives continue to have profound meaning and relevance for the Fund’s work.*The oral histories for both Walter and Elise Haas were prepared by the Bancroft Library of the University of California as part of its California Jewish Community Series.