I recall one conversation involving Bill, his son Walter, and me at his home following a review of our upcoming meeting of his foundation’s board. Bill could not shop for a Christmas present for his second wife, Rosemary, owing to an operation from which he was then recovering. He asked Walter to shop for the gift he wanted, a pair of binoculars for Rosie’s bird-watching.
He gave Walter a hundred dollars for the purchase. Walter, who knew a great deal about binoculars and optics, suggested that his father might prefer one of the better German or Japanese binoculars that would cost not a hundred dollars but six to eight hundred dollars.
Bill was having none of this, and the matter was “discussed” for some twenty minutes. Finally, in exasperation, Bill said, “Walter, here is two hundred dollars. It is more than enough for a decent pair of binoculars. Please go buy it.”
All this after just settling on proposals to spend some $15 million of Bill’s money at our next board meeting.
He also loved and valued his friends, one of whom, Professor Herant Katchadourian of Stanford University, recalled the following story at Bill’s memorial: “I used to take Bill on long rides, usually to his beloved ranch, and we sometimes stopped at some hole in the wall for a bite to eat. When it came time to pay, I would say, ‘Please let me take care of it; I don’t think you can afford this place.’ He usually let me get away with it with his distinctive twinkle in the eye. But on one occasion, he insisted that he was going to pay the bill himself, and then it turned out that he had no money! I told him, ‘What is going to happen to you without friends like me?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I guess I would be homeless.'”
Many lives were touched by Hewlett through the remarkable scope and scale of his philanthropies. Stanford (his alma mater) and UC Berkeley (his late wife Flora’s alma mater) enjoyed his special attention.
These interests extended around the world: to population issues and the status of women, their education, and economic opportunities in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America; to conflict resolution, particularly in eastern and southern Europe, the former republics of the Soviet Union, and the Middle East; to U.S.-Latin American relationships; to the needs of the nation’s liberal arts colleges and research universities; to the environment in the western United States; and to the improvement of K-12 education, the performing arts, and the many communities and neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area. He also had a vital interest in his adopted California, and in 1994 founded the Public Policy Institute of California, to be guided by the longtime president of his foundation, Roger Heyns, chancellor emeritus of the Berkeley campus of the University of California.
The range of his philanthropy reflected his lifelong interests in other cultures and societies, in strengthening and improving the quality of life for disadvantaged people living in the Bay Area, in the health of the environment (he was an accomplished botanist and a lifelong climber, hiker, fisherman, hunter, and photographer of California’s high and coastal mountains, its wildlands, meadows, forests, rivers, and coastline and of much of the intermountain West as well), in the well-being and vibrancy of the communities and region in which he lived and in which Hewlett-Packard was located, and in music, which he deeply loved.
These philanthropies were accomplished by his personal generosity from funds he set aside, and through the work of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, created in 1966 by Hewlett and his first wife. The foundation now ranks as one of the nation’s largest. “Never stifle a generous impulse” was one of his favorite and best-known phrases; as was his custom, he practiced what he taught.
It was my honor to serve as president of his foundation from 1993 to 1999. Never once in those years did he ask me to make a grant or deny one, relying instead on the collective judgment of his independent trustees and the work of his professional staff within the foundation. And while he chaired the board for most of those years, I never once observed him seeking to impose his will or to otherwise stifle or limit discussion. To the contrary, it was he who asked the right questions and left the answering to others. He helped us grow by learning from our mistakes and from the encouragement and confidence we all experienced when things went right.
Bill was not fond of looking backward. Instead, he looked steadily forward, beyond most people’s more limited perspectives or the natural limits of their imaginations, searching for the nuances and subtleties of the problems encountered, discovering how, by redefining a problem, the solution was made clearer or even self-evident, challenging when complacency became confused with contentedness, and asking, always asking, if there was not a better way or a more fundamental question to ask. He was a great teacher in this sense, as well as a colleague; and he seemed to derive as much pleasure from the one as from the other.
Bill’s character, honesty, generosity, and quiet, self-effacing ways, to his great credit, have come to be as much respected as his company. These personal traits were the markers of one whose life should be a source of inspiration to the young and a cause of admiration and respect for the rest of us. At the Stanford Memorial Church, where the service memorializing his life was held on 20 January 2001, one of his grandchildren’s recollections on the printed program read in part:
In the end, his greatest gift to future generations was not the compass he could build with his hands, but his moral compass. Its cardinal points were knowledge, modesty, justice and hard work. His life was guided by what seem to me innate principles of rectitude. He never wavered at home or at work. He was true to himself and an example to us all. It is for this I am most grateful to him.
What an example he was to us all; and so he shall remain.
Note: This essay by David Pierpont Gardner was delivered on the occasion of Bill Hewlett’s memorial service. At the time, David was president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and president emeritus, University of California and University of Utah. This is reprinted with permission from the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 147 , June 2003.