Skip to content

Lew Butler described his relationship with the Koshland family in an interview, conducted in February, 2012:

When I returned to San Francisco in 1965 after directing the Peace Corps in Malaysia, I was uncertain about what to do next. My experience with the Peace Corps had taught me that I really did care about public service, but I wasn’t sure how I could make this into a career. My background was in corporate law so I didn’t really know where to turn for examples. I felt like a needed a model for how to be a good citizen so when a friend told me about a new program that was attempting to create a “third sector” (one in which businesses would create social benefit for their employees), I was intrigued. They were looking for a business to do a pilot program with and I immediately thought of Levi Strauss & Co. because I had recently been introduced to its CEO, Walter Haas Jr. Knowing that Levi Straus & Co. had a strong history of philanthropy, I thought they might be open to such a program. I met with Walter and he agreed to work with us and launch a pilot program at Levi’s Valencia Street factory in San Francisco. Since many of the seamstresses there were immigrants from Latin America, it was decided that the program could benefit the workers by offering them English classes. From time-to-time I would come and observe the classes and when doing so, noticed a very nice older man who took a genuine interest in the workers, talking to them about their families and giving them rides home. I assumed that he was the retired plant manager. I only knew him by his first name—“Dan.”

Months after first meeting Dan at the Valencia plant, I bumped into him as I was leaving the Hillsborough home of some friends. There I was going out the garden gate right as he was coming in. We were very surprised to see each other and finally exchanged last names. After learning that mine is “Butler,” Dan asked, “Any connection to Vincent Butler?” Well, that was the name of my father who had died in a plane crash when I was eight-years-old. Here I was thirty years later out of the blue meeting someone who said to me, “your father was a friend of mine.” It was quite a shock. Although at the time Dan told me that his name was “Koshland” I didn’t realize until some weeks later that he was the uncle of Walter Haas Jr. and therefore wasn’t the retired plant manager as I had imagined, but the former CEO of Levi Strauss & Co! Nor at the time of that accidental meeting in Hillsborough did I know that I was speaking with the person I would one day consider San Francisco’s greatest citizen.

Soon after discovering each other’s true identities, Dan invited me to lunch and that was the beginning of a great friendship. Over time, I slowly began to discover that Dan was this extraordinary citizen; the more I knew him, the more I learned about the good works he was doing. He believed that everyone should be treated with dignity, regardless of ethnicity, age, or wealth—he was very interested in the power of the individual and felt that people from all walks of life could create positive social change. I also came to learn that Dan was incredibly humble and secretive, often making donations but asking people to promise not to tell where the money had come from him. The more I got to know Dan, the more I admired him. At one point I discovered that Dan had made a contribution to a campaign I was running even though he thought it would fail and I asked him why he would do such a thing. When he replied, “Because I knew how much it meant to you,” tears came to my eyes and I knew that I had a friend beyond. I remember another time when he gave me some tough advice when no one else was willing to be honest with me—in that moment I knew I had someone in my life that I could go to about anything.

Dan was part of the Levi Strauss family and its great Jewish philanthropic tradition and as I got to know him better, I also came to understand how wonderful the rest of his family is—as they say, “it’s in the genes.” His nephews Walter Haas Jr. and Peter Haas Sr.—both of who would become dear friends of mine—did tremendous amounts of public service and like their uncle created foundations. Their children and grandchildren now carry on this tradition of service. Dan was also related by marriage to other incredible philanthropic families, including the Hellmans and the Fishers, both of which have given me and San Francisco so much. I also eventually inherited Dan’s grandson Robert “Bob” Friedman after Dan sent him to ask me for career advice. This meeting would turn into a fellowship whereby Bob and I worked together in Washington DC on public health policy. This led to other fellowship when my friend Paul Elwood sent me his son David to work with. When I founded California Tomorrow, we also had fellows there and the circle continued. From these fellowships I have come to believe that the greatest investment you can make is in young people; if you pick outstanding young people and give them an opportunity to do something, even if you screw up your program or your project ends up being a failure, you will still be successful because you will haven given someone else the chance to learn. And you might just end up learning much more from the young person that they from you!

After the “Friends of Lew” surprised me on my seventy-fifth birthday with my very own donor-advised fund at the San Francisco Foundation, I named it the Butler Koshland Fund in honor of my relationship with the Koshland family—which first began with Daniel Koshland Sr. and later was carried on by his grandson Bob Friedman. With the help and advice of friends, I then made the decision that work supported by the fund should continue this mentorship tradition I’d first learned from Dan and later passed to Bob. It seemed like an idea that would be simple, but powerful—find great people who are working to change the world and ask them to show a younger person how it’s done.