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From a Generation that Keeps on Giving

September 16, 2009
by Michael S. Malone
black and white photograph ofBill and Flora Hewlett, among others

The late Flora Hewlett reconnects to Cal 73 years after she graduated

The news in September that the Hewlett Foundation was awarding $113 million—the largest private gift in university history—to Berkeley may have surprised many who think of Stanford as the sole academic recipient of largesse from the founders of Hewlett-Packard.

In fact, the story behind the bequest—given as a matching grant over the next seven years to fund 100 endowed chairs for professors in all of Berkeley’s 14 schools and colleges—stretches back even before the founding of HP and the birth of Silicon Valley, to the life of a private, extra­ordinary woman.

Behind this story of thoughtful and committed philanthropy lies another, even more interesting tale.

The official name of the benefactor is the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Though Bill Hewlett has justly earned most of the attention, as one of the greatest of all high-tech entrepreneurs and a legendary engineer, it is to Flora, his less-famous wife, that much of the credit for this award should be given.

Flora Lamson Hewlett was born and raised in Berkeley, within sight of the Cal campus, and it was always assumed that she would attend the university. Each summer, the Lamsons vacationed at a camp in the Sierra Nevada—and among their regular neighbors there each year were the Hewletts, a distinguished San Francisco family headed by the dean of the Stanford Medical School. Flora was fast friends with one of the Hewlett girls, Louise. There is no indication that big brother Bill even noticed his sister’s friend, but Flora certainly noticed the young man with whom she shared a love of the outdoors.

The Hewlett family camping trips ended when the father died suddenly. Though Flora and Louise stayed in touch, the two families drifted apart.

Flora lived out her dream by being accepted to Cal. Remarkably, in an era when women undergraduates were still comparatively few, Flora enrolled in the all-male bastion of the biochemistry department. She would have been a dazzling sight in the chem lab just as a woman; but she was also a tall, striking blonde with a taste for elegant clothes, art, and literature.

Still, even the rigorous curriculum was hard-pressed to displace the outdoors for the young woman. After her graduation in 1935, Flora joined the Sierra Club and rekindled her passion for camping. It was at one of these outings that she ran into Louise Hewlett and they renewed their old friendship. Upon discovering that Flora was still unattached, Louise hatched an idea: She had been worrying about her big brother. He was alone and living on a cot in a garage (one day to become the most famous garage in the world) behind a house rented by his business partner, David Packard, and wife Lucile. Louise was resolved to find her brother a wife, and she had found her best prospect.

She called her brother and asked, “Do you remember Flora Lamson?”

“Sure,” said Bill, “Back when we were kids.”

“That’s right,” said Louise. “Well, she’s grown up now. And you need to ask her out.”

Bill did as he was told, agreeing to a single date. But the pair hit it off so well that everyone who saw them assumed they were preordained to be together. And they were, for almost 40 years, until Flora Hewlett’s death in 1977. Their marriage produced five children and, it is generally agreed, was a deeply happy relationship.

Bill Hewlett was a brilliant business executive, but because of serious dyslexia, he was also an inarticulate one. He was most happy talking about technical subjects. Flora understood that, and because of her education (her children thought her scientific mind was equal to their father’s) she could talk to her husband in the language he best understood.

Just as important, despite being a rather introverted person herself, Flora often ran interference for her husband in difficult public situations, her intuitive sense of what Bill wanted to say sometimes enabling her to speak for him. Bill Hewlett is justly celebrated for being, beneath a crusty exterior, one of the most empathetic and employee-oriented executives in business history—and there is little question that the happy home Flora created for Bill was a template for his creation of the legendary HP “family.”

Unlike her more public counterpart, Lucile Packard, Flora Hewlett mostly stayed out of the spotlight during the years when her husband became one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy men; she was content instead to remain a housewife and raise the children. But once the children were grown, Flo (as she was called) began to get involved in philanthropic work. She used her wealth to support institutions engaged in interests dear to her, becoming a major benefactor of the Graduate Theological Union and a trustee of the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Her biggest contribution, though, may have been the creation of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 1966. Founded two years after the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, it established the other of what would become two of the largest private foundations in the United States—and just as important, the model on which three generations of tech tycoons have modeled their own foundations. The total social impact of those billions of dollars is incalculable.

Flora Hewlett died of cancer on February 9, 1977. Committed to the end, she attended one of her trustees meetings just days before her death. Her children, appreciating her commitments and private passions more than anyone, created in her name the Flora Family Foundation, which continues to support the arts, education, international development, and the advancement of women, health, and the environment. Its symbol is Flo’s favorite flower, the blue gentian.

At the same time, the Hewlett Foundation, with its more than $8 billion endowment and $300 million in annual grants and gifts, remains one of the world’s most important philanthropic enterprises, playing a crucial role in such fields as the environment, international development—and, of course, education. Its gift to Cal is yet one more milestone in that ongoing story.

There is no question that part of the inspiration that led the Hewlett family to make such a historic contribution to Berkeley—what Walter Hewlett called “the crown jewel of public higher education”—was that elegant young woman who left her mark not only on the campus, but on the world.

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