The Life-Changing Magic Of Giving With Dede Wilsey

Dede Wilsey at the Casanova black-tie dinner at the Legion of Honor in February
Dede Wilsey at the Casanova black-tie dinner at the Legion of Honor in February

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

“I have been told by friends that people think that I’m intimidating and I thought it was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” Dede Wilsey says. She’s sitting in an armchair in her Napa Valley home—the place where she is most happy—her 10-year old Maltese at her feet. Wilsey and I are 30 minutes into an hour-long conversation, and I couldn’t agree with her more. Although I was incredibly intimidated by the thought of interviewing San Francisco’s reigning queen of philanthropy, any fears melted away within seconds of meeting her. A naturally gracious hostess, Wilsey has an uncanny ability to make anyone feel comfortable. This isn’t the first reporter she’s entertained, and it’s probably not the last—but she is so candid I feel as if I’m chatting with one of my oldest girlfriends. There is an energetic, youthfulness to Wilsey and when she speaks, her tone is both excited and astute. Everything she says feels like it could be a secret—and it’s utterly captivating.

Wilsey and her older son Trevor Traina
Wilsey and her older son Trevor Traina

Photo Courtesy of Dede Wilsey

Another aspect of her charm? The fact that in the Bay Area no female is as graceful and giving as Wilsey. Contributing to the causes she believes in is her job and one that she takes very seriously. Although the exact amount she has donated over the years is not known, Wilsey helped bring in more than $200 million to rebuild the de Young Museum. She raised $3.2 million for the Immaculate Conception Academy, and she led fundraising that bankrolled $16.6 million for Grace Cathedral. She’s given generously to the UCSF medical facilities, San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera. In 2016 she contributed to more than 380 different charities. To Wilsey, this is all in a day’s work and not something she brags about. Instead, she moves the discussion to focus on her family.

Todd, Wilsey, her grandchildren, Delphina, Johnny, Ambassador Traina, granddaughter Daisy, and Todd’s wife Katie in Vienna
Todd, Wilsey, her grandchildren, Delphina, Johnny, Ambassador Traina, granddaughter Daisy, and Todd’s wife Katie in Vienna

Photo Courtesy of Dede Wilsey

“I was just visiting my one son who lives in Austria, now,” she mentions casually. Wilsey is referring to her elder son, Trevor Traina, who moved to Vienna earlier this year to become the United States Ambassador. Traina was nominated by President Trump and approved by the Senate, before he moved his wife, Alexis Swanson Traina, and two children, to Europe. Her son’s position is a full circle moment for Wilsey: from 1975 to 1977 her father, Wiley T. Buchanan Jr., served the same role under President Gerald Ford. “It was great because he’s now the ambassador and my father was ambassador to Austria, also. It is so much fun to have that deja vu,” Wilsey says. Traina is living in the exact house that Wilsey’s father resided in and much remains the same—including the exterior, gardens, and grand staircase. “Inside where the staircase is—I looked over there and I sort of expected my parents to come down the stairs. Then I have to pinch myself and think no, it’s somebody else. It is a peculiar feeling to think it’s not your father, it’s your son.”

Another candid family photo from Wilsey's recent adventure in Vienna
Another candid family photo from Wilsey’s recent adventure in Vienna

Photo Courtesy of Dede Wilsey

Times have changed since Buchanan was the ambassador and this is apparent in the security team that accompanies Traina and his family everywhere in Austria. He has two guards with him at all times. A car with machine gun-armed men follows his armored vehicle. “The difference is that the world is so much more complicated. My father didn’t have that kind of security. The car looks like something out of a movie,” Wilsey explains. “My ten-year-old grandson thinks it’s so cool. Trevor said to me, ‘Mom, you have to sit here. I have to sit here, and we can’t change places. It’s not random. I must sit here behind this guard.’ And I said, ‘Fine. I don’t care. Great.’” Traina’s security detail isn’t for every ambassador, only the Israeli Ambassador and the American Ambassador require the extra protection because of ISIS. “That’s scary. I mean you don’t want them to blow your child up,” Wilsey says seriously. But that doesn’t mean Wilsey, or any of her family, will hide. “It’s important for my children and my grandchildren to see what’s become of the world and work to make it better. Make peace for everybody. And make this a better place and respect the climate and respect people from all countries and understand that unless they work hard to make it better, we’re in real trouble,” she says sounding more like a politician than a grandmother.

Speaking at the 2017 Petchitecture
Speaking at the 2017 Petchitecture

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Wilsey’s pride, admiration, and love for her family are evident and strong. You get the sense that she would take a bullet for her son if need be. Her fierce commitment and intense loyalty can also be seen in her tireless philanthropic works. Wilsey’s legacy is the de Young Museum. After it was damaged by the 1989 earthquake, Wilsey single-handedly raised the necessary funds to build a new museum. “What were we going to do with the art if we didn’t [rebuild it]? Put it in the basement of the Legion? We needed a museum, and it had been there, it was just so damaged by the earthquake that it couldn’t stay open anymore. There were two choices: Be without one museum or rebuild it. That art needed a home, so I think it was pretty simple, we just had to rebuild it.” While it was 10 years of hard work, Wilsey counts the de Young as the achievement she is most proud of.

At the San Francisco Ballet opening night gala in 2017
At the San Francisco Ballet opening night gala in 2017

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Although her role as a member of the board has her at the museum several days of the week, she looks at the de Young with childlike wonder. It’s as if she’s seeing it for the first time. She recounts a recent party for museum directors that took place in the de Young’s tower on one of those rare San Francisco nights where there was no fog: “It was so beautiful. It was just magical.” And she relishes the process that comes with each new exhibit. “We have such diversity in our exhibitions, and it’s a learning experience every time we open an exhibition. You learn all about what that art is and that artist. It’s like having a mini-course every time we have a new exhibition. And I love the fact that it’s a constant learning experience and then you work with wonderful people.”

Wilsey and the former director of FAMSF Max Hollein at the 2018 Bouquets to Art Gala at the de Young museum
Wilsey and the former director of FAMSF Max Hollein at the 2018 Bouquets to Art Gala at the de Young

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Wilsey has just finished her latest project with the museums. She was a part of the search committee that found the new director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), the umbrella that oversees both the de Young and the Legion of Honor. Shortly after our conversation, FAMSF announced that the former director, Max Hollein, would be replaced by Thomas P. Campbell, who was the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from 2009 to 2017. “The museum is still being very well run. Everybody’s psyche is high, and now they’re very much looking forward to the new director,” Wilsey says. Another thing she loves about the museums? The fact that they are all-inclusive. “They embrace everybody. Everybody you can imagine. Old, young, every ethnic group. Because we put on exhibitions of every kind. Right now we have Muslim fashions, we just closed Truth and Beauty, which was Pre-Raphaelite Art. On Thursday we open the Al Thani jewel collection, which is magnificent.”

Wilsey and Todd at the 2018 San Francisco Fall Art & Antiques Show
Wilsey and Todd at the 2018 San Francisco Fall Art & Antiques Show

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Wilsey also sits on the boards of the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet—both causes that she champions and supports. These pursuits along with her frequent appearances on the charity social circuit are why some people refer to Wilsey as a socialite. However, she has never seen herself as one and doesn’t want to come across as frivolous. “The reason I don’t like to be called a socialite is I don’t really do anything social. I don’t go to lunch with people or ladies… Well, really any lunch. My lunch, if I’m home, it’s on a tray with my dog. I don’t go to social parties—most of the stuff I do is work.”

Former mayor Willie Brown and Wilsey at the Revelations Donor Reception at the de Young in June 2017
Former mayor Willie Brown and Wilsey at the Revelations Donor Reception at the de Young in June 2017

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Her critics might scoff at her way of thinking, but Wilsey, spoken like a real powerhouse, doesn’t give a damn. “I couldn’t care less. I’m doing a good job and most of the people who really don’t like me I’ve never met anyway. So, what’s the difference? I would say most of them couldn’t do what I’m doing. And wouldn’t care to do it. What I’m trying to do is make the city a better place. If they want to join, fine.”

Speaking at the World Cities Cultural Summit Gala Dinner on November 15
Speaking at the World Cities Cultural Summit Gala Dinner on November 15

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Wilsey’s been trying to make San Francisco a better place since she first came here over 40 years ago. She acknowledges that the city isn’t what it used to be saying that there are “too many people, too many cars” and that without question the biggest problem is the homelessness. In Europe, she came across many who said they no longer wanted to visit SF because it’s filthy. “It personally hurts my feelings to have people talk about a city that I love and say, ‘I don’t want to go there anymore,’” she says, and you can hear the distress in her voice. “But I can understand what they’re talking about when you have human feces and syringes and all these things. It’s unpleasant. Also, there’s no middle class in San Francisco. They were priced out. And no civilization has ever survived where you have only rich and poor. It doesn’t work. It concerns me greatly. There’s just a lack of camaraderie in this city anymore, and that’s really sad.”

At the 2018 opening of the ballet
At the 2018 opening of the ballet

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Speaking of camaraderie, is Wilsey seeing anyone special? 74 is the new 54 and Wilsey’s bubbly blonde beauty has not faded. “No. Unfortunately, I had a friend for 13 years, and he died last August. So I’m finally pulling myself together. It was very sad. I’ve had two husbands die and then that person. So I’d like to have a live one. Somebody alive would be really nice.” She would love to date someone confident who doesn’t find her intimidating (because remember, she’s not intimidating) and who is as passionate about philanthropy as she is. “Once you really understand that you can make a difference, I think that’s the bottom line of all philanthropy. You can do something that changes somebody’s life. And that is a marvelous position to be in. Really. I mean from my point of view.”

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