Helen Diller's parents were of modest means, but they instilled in her a responsibility to help those less fortunate.
The Woodside resident has given an unprecedented $35 million to UC San Francisco to establish a world-class cancer research facility.
UCSF will unveil the Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building on its Mission Bay campus on Tuesday. It will house scientists investigating causes of the treacherous disease.
Diller’s endowment funded approximately one quarter of the $135 million building costs, and made up nearly half the total private donations. Her gift was the largest donation the university had ever received as of 2003, the year it was made.
Normally one to shy away from the spotlight, Helen Diller is married to Sanford Diller, chairman of San Mateo's Prometheus Real Estate Group Inc., one of the Bay Area's leading developers of high-end buildings and apartments.
For the past 20 years, she's made philanthropy a full-time job, heading foundations and eventually establishing her own in 1997. When the couple, married for 58 years, were considering worthy causes for the Helen Diller Family Foundation's hefty support, cancer research was the obvious choice, she said.
The San Francisco native and longtime San Mateo County resident's goal is to embody the Hebrew expression Tikkun Olam, which means to repair or heal the world.
"I was usually president of an organization, I'd go straight to the top," Diller said, surrounded by one-of-a-kind art pieces in the living room of her stunning Woodside home.
Diller spent her childhood helping stock shelves in her father's variety store on Polk Street in San Francisco. It's still a privilege to have a custom-made Dale Chihuly chandelier hanging in her entryway, she said.
Diller's mother came from Lodz, Poland, where her parents met, and she was taught Jewish values from a young age. She is now a member of Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City.
Diller attended UC Berkeley, joined the Alpha Epsilon Phi Jewish sorority and attended dances at the old Jewish Community Center building in San Francisco. It was there that she met her husband.
Eventually, the couple moved to the Willow Glen area of San Jose, where they paid a mere $14,950 for their first home.
"It was all I ever thought I needed," she said. "It had a cherry tree out front that I loved."
They moved north to Los Gatos, Los Altos, and finally Woodside with their three children.
In the beginning of her philanthropic endeavors, Diller was president of the San Jose Hadassah and on the board of Temple Emanu-El.
In 1989, the Dillers dedicated two wings of the Hebrew University in Israel to their parents, and after that she became the Northwestern President of the American Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. During that time, she befriended Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America.
On the 70th anniversary of the Hebrew University, Diller was awarded the prestigious Scopus Award for leadership, vision and generosity. Since then, most of her charity works have been done through her family foundation.
Diller would just as soon reminisce over the chopped liver and schmaltz at her in-laws' old Jewish restaurant in San Francisco, as she would gush over the team of people behind the cancer research building as though they were her own grandchildren.
The five-floor facility with a dramatic atrium and travertine exterior finished with stone from a quarry in Tivoli Terme, Italy, was designed by well-known architect Raphael Vinoly. The building is part of a greater $1.1 billion UCSF Mission Bay campus master plan.
Diller said she wants to make the world a better place for her grandchildren and leave this legacy for them.
"I wanted it to be one of the finest centers not only in the United States but in the world," she said.