Amid the pomp and ceremony at the Presidio to mark the reopening this September of its historic Officers’ Club, there was plenty of polite praise for Nancy Hellman Bechtle. On the dais with her—and among those tossing compliments her way—were former secretary of state George P. Shultz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In perhaps the biggest applause line of her remarks, Pelosi (who helped finagle Bechtle’s presidential nomination to the Presidio Trust board back in 2008, despite opposition within the Bush administration) commended Bechtle and the seven-member board that she chairs for their willingness to protect the Presidio “from those who would love to turn it into something commercial.” Something like, say, an ostentatious, beaux arts–style museum filled with the collected treasures of a billionaire film director? Pelosi did not specify.
But for the soft-spoken, septuagenarian Bechtle, civic maven and sister of the late philanthropist Warren Hellman, it was a pat on the back to relish—especially given the Bechtle-led board’s stunning veto in February of Star Wars director George Lucas’s plans for a lavish cultural museum in the park. That unanimous rejection (joined by a rebuff of two other projects deemed inappropriate for the site) came despite overwhelming support for the museum from the local political establishment—a group that included Mayor Ed Lee, Governor Jerry Brown, tech players Ron Conway and Marc Benioff, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Jim Leach, and, most glaringly, Bechtle’s patrons in the legislative branch, Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein.
While Pelosi’s efforts on behalf of Lucas were confined mostly to public statements, Feinstein—with whom Bechtle has been close for 40 years—made her pitch for the museum both forcefully and personally. During at least two phone conversations with Bechtle, the state’s senior senator leaned on her friend to push approval of the museum at the spot Lucas coveted next to Crissy Field, where a Sports Basement outlet now occupies the post’s former commissary. Feinstein bluntly questioned the need for the trust to consult further with three other agencies, including the National Park Service. And after the museum’s rejection, the senator—who has no official oversight over the Presidio board—lashed out publicly, suggesting that Lucas had been mistreated. In an uncharacteristic jab at the board (six of whose members were appointed by President Barack Obama, including Bechtle, who was reappointed by him in 2012), she called for a “thorough review and overhaul” of the trust’s procedures. In response to an inquiry for this article, she kept up the assault: “I believe the Presidio Trust made mistakes throughout the process that ultimately drove Lucas away, and I hope lessons have been learned.”
“All I can say is, it hurts,” says Bechtle of the rebukes from Feinstein and others. “These are people who are personal friends of mine. I could never figure out how they could be so strong in trying to push this through.”
Bechtle’s steeliness amid the cacophony of powerful voices shouldn’t have surprised anyone. A midlife graduate of Stanford (she dropped out as a young woman to marry her first husband, then returned for a diploma 25 years later, in 1984), she was the chief financial officer and director at J.R. Bechtle & Company, her second husband’s executive recruitment firm, for nearly two decades. As president and CEO of the San Francisco Symphony from 1987 to 2001, she helped revitalize its finances, more than doubling its budget, and presided over the selection of Michael Tilson Thomas as music director. She has long served as chairwoman and director of the Sugar Bowl Corporation, a ski resort company, and has a seat on the Charles Schwab Corporation board.
Also no surprise is Bechtle’s passionate protection of a park that she thinks of almost as her own backyard. “This place has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she tells me, looking out over the parade grounds from a second-floor office in former barracks. As a child, she was once issued a citation by military police for riding her horse there, and she got her first traffic ticket for sliding through a Presidio stop sign as a teen. She fondly recalls the nightly bugle sounds of taps as the flag was lowered on the main post. Her current residence is just over the Presidio’s walls, close enough that she sometimes walks to board meetings.
When Pelosi approached her in 2008 about presiding over the trust, Bechtle leaped at the opportunity. “It was like coming home,” she says. But the appointment didn’t come easily, despite Bechtle’s friendship with First Lady Laura Bush, with whom she’d done some fundraising while serving as citizen chair of the National Park Foundation. It took a phone call from the late Gap cofounder Don Fisher to White House operative Karl Rove to soften the resistance.
The memory of Washington battles won would serve Bechtle well in her later dustup with Lucas. After the director lined up the kind of political support that one might expect for such a high-stakes project, he proceeded to make the fight overtly personal with respect to Bechtle: He called her out in a New York Times interview for allegedly failing to understand the museum’s concept, and he famously (some might say foolishly) declared of the board in whose hands the $700 million proposal rested, “They hate us.”
“We were under a lot of pressure, for sure,” says Bechtle, “particularly from the politicians and the tech community.” But she refused to respond in kind. Even now, she won’t speak ill of Lucas: “He said some terrible things about me, but I don’t have to say terrible things about him because I respect him.”
Some of Bechtle’s fellow stewards call the rejection of Lucas a watershed event in the history of the Presidio. “I have to praise her,” says ex–trust board member Amy Meyer, who has worked (and at times disagreed) with Bechtle on Presidio development issues. “She faced a very difficult situation. It took a lot of guts, and she did it with grace and should be proud.”
Bechtle’s restraint may have been bolstered by the fact that she and the Presidio didn’t really need Lucas. In the run-up to the decision, several donors who have collectively given more than $75 million to the Presidio and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—including the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation—let it be known that they opposed Lucas’s plans. Haas, Jr. Fund officials went so far as to say in a letter that the choice could impact “future investments being considered.”
Four months before the decision, the Bechtel, Jr. Foundation pledged $25 million, the largest cash gift in national parks history, to help fund the so-called Tunnel Top Parklands: the bluff and berm that will cover the tunnels rerouting Doyle Drive—redubbed Presidio Parkway—underground between Crissy Field and the Presidio’s main post. If the donation was in any way related to the Lucas veto, no one at the trust is saying. In any case, such a huge gift on the verge of one of the trust’s most scrutinized decisions was not only a boon to the park, but also a fairly large feather in Bechtle’s cap.
For his part, Lucas, still smarting over the trust’s rejection, appeared to relish the opportunity to rebuff San Francisco in turn, dismissing a last-ditch plea by Lee and others to build his museum on the Embarcadero near Piers 30–32. But Lucas’s plan B—moving the museum to Chicago—has gotten off to a bumpy start. A group of Chicago Bears fans are upset that the museum—renamed the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and to be built on a couple of choice Lake Michigan parking lots—will spoil prime spots for game-day tailgaters. The Chicagoans have threatened to sue to prevent it from being built there.
When those developments are mentioned, Bechtle holds her fire. “Yes,” she says with typical understatement. “I know.”
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco