Remembering Richard C. Blum: ‘He left things better than he found them’

Richard Blum waves at the Greek Theatre wearing a black suit with a blue tie.

Richard Blum, a beloved UC Berkeley benefactor, died Feb. 27. As founder of Berkeley’s Blum Center, he is remembered as a visionary leader and philanthropist whose profound impact was felt from the nation’s capital to his beloved alma mater and beyond. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski)

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ issued the following statement on the passing of the university’s dear and trusted friend:

The University of California, Berkeley, mourns the loss of Richard C. Blum, ’58, M.B.A. ’59, a visionary leader and philanthropist whose profound impact was felt from the nation’s capital to the Himalayas to his beloved alma mater and beyond. He passed away at his home in San Francisco on Sunday, Feb. 27, at the age of 86.

“He was the type of man who really replaced his divot in life, who left things better than he found them,” said his wife of 42 years, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in a statement following his passing. “His enormous generosity is an inspiration for so many of us.”

A native of San Francisco, Dick graduated from Lowell High School before enrolling at UC Berkeley in 1953. During his years as a student, he spent time studying abroad in Vienna before completing his M.B.A. at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He soon began a long and successful career in the world of finance, becoming a partner at the investment brokerage Sutro & Co. before turning 30, and later founding Blum Capital Partners, the equity investment management firm for which he served as chief executive officer and chairman.

While Dick succeeded in business, he distinguished himself for his humanitarian efforts outside the office. For decades, he devoted much of his time to the people of the Himalayas, founding the American Himalayan Foundation and working tirelessly to improve the lives of thousands of people in the region. Through the foundation, he worked to end human trafficking, improve health care, enhance care for the elderly and children, and promote the region’s unique and vibrant culture. Along the way, Dick befriended His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was named an honorary consul of Nepal.

The Dalai Lama places a medal around Richard Blum's neck.

Blum befriended His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was named an honorary consul of Nepal. In 2009, the Dalai Lama visited UC Berkeley’s William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre when Blum won the Berkeley Medal, the university’s highest honor. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski)

He also served as co-chairman of the World Conference on Religion and Peace; was a founding member of National Geographic’s International Council of Advisors; was a trustee of the executive committee of the Carter Center; and sat on several boards including the World Wildlife Fund, the Wilderness Society, the Brookings Institution, the California Academy of Sciences and the Glide Foundation. He also served as an economic policy adviser to Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama.

But Berkeley always remained especially close to his heart, and we are the better for it. In 2007, he founded the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which supports interdisciplinary education and research to address the causes and consequences of poverty. The success of the center in educating and inspiring a new generation of global citizens led to the establishment of similar Blum centers at other UC campuses. “In his professional, philanthropic and policy leadership positions, Richard was dedicated to finding ways to combat poverty at home and abroad through education, research and technological innovation,” says Laura Tyson, chair of the Blum Center’s board of trustees. “He was visionary, inspirational and compassionate in this lifelong mission.”

Dick’s ties to the UC system ran deep, as did his willingness to articulate the courage of his convictions. Since 2002, he served as a member of the University of California Board of Regents and was chairman emeritus of the board. “Sometimes he was resented for his candor,” said former UC President Mark Yudof in Berkeley’s oral history of Dick’s life, “but, in the end, Richard Blum always did the right thing for the University of California.”

Richard Blum speaks into the ear of former president Bill Clinton.

Blum’s influence throughout the years was seen on a global scale. Here he speaks to former President Bill Clinton during a 2016 Clinton Global Initiative event held at UC Berkeley. The meeting brought together innovative student leaders to commit to action in education, climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation and public health. (Photo by Max Orenstein/Clinton Global Initiative)

In recognition of his tenacious advocacy, the university frequently honored Dick’s commitment to its excellence. In 1994, the Haas School of Business named him its alumnus of the year, and in 2009 the campus bestowed him with the Berkeley Medal, the university’s highest honor, for his commitment to the alleviation of poverty, both in San Francisco and abroad. “Richard … has passed on his passion to many UC Berkeley students,” said former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in presenting the award. “He exemplifies the many passions and ideals to which UC Berkeley aspires.” The award was presented to Dick at the Greek Theatre in the presence of the Dalai Lama, making the event even more meaningful. 

Dick’s principled leadership and generosity at Berkeley helped to sustain the excellence for which our university has become internationally renowned — and made him an inspiration to all of us. We shall deeply miss his enduring friendship, his unwavering integrity and his principled efforts to create a better, healthier future for humanity.

He is survived by his wife, Sen. Feinstein; his brother Robert; daughters Annette, Heidi and Eileen; stepdaughter Katherine and her husband Rick Mariano; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Friday, March 4, at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his honor to the American Himalayan Foundation.