Issue date: July 01, 1998

People: Louise M. Davies remembered for her generosity; longtime Woodside resident was benefactor of the symphony People: Louise M. Davies remembered for her generosity; longtime Woodside resident was benefactor of the symphony (July 01, 1998)


Louise M. Davies, who died June 22 at age 98, will be remembered by thousands as the benefactor who gave $5 million to build the San Francisco Symphony's permanent concert hall that opened as Davies Symphony Hall in 1980.

Those who knew her remember her not only as a generous person who gave millions of dollars to education, music and medicine, but as a friendly, often outspoken, down-to-earth woman, grounded in her Catholic faith. She never forgot her roots, the Plumas County ranch her grandfather owned near the town of Quincy. She was born there May 23, 1900; later, she moved to Oakland, where she lived with her mother and sisters and attended a convent school, eventually converting to Catholicism.

Mrs. Davies lived in Woodside for almost 60 years on the 12-acre property she and her husband, Ralph K. Davies, bought in 1935 and where they later built their home. She died while having breakfast at The Sequoias, the Portola Valley retirement community she moved to about a year ago.

Services for Mrs. Davies were held June 26 at St. Pius Catholic Church in Redwood City. About 500 friends and family members came to the church's sanctuary where Monsignor Peter Armstrong officiated. A number of priests concelebrated the Mass of Resurrection. After the service, all who attended were invited to a gathering at the Davies estate. Burial was private.

Mrs. Davies and her generosity have become legend. Her guidelines for giving, she said in an interview, came from her husband: Limit yourself to what really interests you, just a few things.

She met her husband during a visit to a resort on the Russian River. Working for Standard Oil in San Francisco, he was in the very early stages of living out the "American dream" of becoming a self-made millionaire. She was working as a stenographer in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. She returned to Oakland; her husband proposed on the shore of Oakland's Lake Merritt by pulling a hairpin from her hair and twisting it around her finger as an engagement ring.

Mr. Davies rose through the ranks to become a vice-president of Standard Oil, but was bypassed for the presidency. After World War II when he was appointed deputy petroleum administrator for war by President Truman, he formed the American Independent Oil Company and acquired the Natomas Company and the American President Lines. Before he died in 1971, he earned a fortune that has virtually become a public trust as a result of his many endowments to charitable organizations.

Mrs. Davies followed her husband's advice for giving. Besides her gift that built the concert hall for the San Francisco Symphony, she later gave $3 million to set up an endowment to attract guest conductors. One of the first was Michael Tilson Thomas, who became the symphony's music director three years ago.

Mrs. Davies became interested in the symphony many years ago when Mrs. Frank Buck and Olga Meyer invited her to attend a performance.

She said in an interview that she had offered to fund the symphony hall, "because I had the money, and we certainly needed the hall."

Nancy Bechtle, president of the San Francisco Symphony board, said last week: "The crowning glory of her life was that hall, and every time she walked in, she was just thrilled to be there."

Over the years, she has made many bequests, including gifts to Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, Catholic Youth Organization, the Exploratorium, San Francisco Opera, the Conservatory of Music, College of Notre Dame, and Franklin Hospital, the site of the Ralph K. Davies Medical Center in San Francisco.

Mrs. Davies opened her Woodside home and garden for many organizations to use as a setting for their benefits. She hosted the first benefit for the Woodside Priory School, the Benedictine college preparatory school for boys, that was founded 40 years ago in Portola Valley. When the school went co-ed in 1991, a reception and fashion show to introduce the young women to the Priory was held at her estate.

A parishioner at St. Denis Church in Menlo Park, Mrs. Davies also attended Mass and fund-raising events at the Woodside Priory. Father Martin Mager of the Priory said he was impressed by her grand sense of humor and recalls the "outlandish and wonderfully crazy hats she loved to wear," especially one with an arrow going through it. He and others described her as "a real people person" who attracted people like a magnet.

Sister Helen Costello of Sacred Heart, a longtime friend, said she visited Mrs. Davies and prayed with her every week for the past three years at her home and later at the Sequoias. "She had no airs of any sort, a very down-to earth lovely woman," said Sister Costello.

She spoke fondly of Mrs. Davies' tradition of having three Christmas parties at her home on three successive days. One was for the nuns from Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Charity in Los Altos, another for the priests from St. Denis and other parishes, and the third for friends.

Mrs. Davies was among 32 remarkable women profiled in a book of essays, "Gifts of Age," by Charlotte Painter, with photos by Pamela Valois, published in 1985 by Chronicle Books. She received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda. An orchid was named in her honor, the Louise M. Davies "Lady Slipper."

Mrs. Davies is survived by her daughter, Maryon Davies Lewis of San Francisco; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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