UCSF Community Saddened by Loss of Quiet Champion Sanford Diller

By Susan Godstone

Peter Carroll, Helen Diller, Sanford Diller, and Mike Bishop pose with shovels and hard hats
Helen and Sanford Diller (center) at the 2006 dedication ceremony for the Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building, with Peter R. Carroll (far left), MD, MPH, and then-Chancellor J. Michael Bishop, MD (far right).

Sanford Diller, a self-made real estate magnate, philanthropist and dear friend and longtime champion of the University, died peacefully at his home in Woodside, Calif., on Feb. 2. He was 89.

Sanford Diller and his late wife, Helen, whose name graces UCSF’s cancer center, were among the University’s most generous champions with lifetime donations to UCSF from the Helen Diller Family Foundation of more than $1.15 billion.

Born at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco in 1928, Diller was the son of Jewish immigrants from Austria. No stranger to the UC system, he earned his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and his law degree from UC Hastings and the University of San Francisco. He met the love of his life, Helen Samuels, when they were both UC Berkeley undergraduates. The couple married in 1951, and their loving partnership continued for more than six decades until Helen passed away in 2015.

A Leader in West Coast Real Estate

After practicing law for several years, Diller switched careers and began investing in and developing commercial and residential real estate. In 1965, he founded the Prometheus Real Estate Group, which grew under his tutelage into one of the largest apartment development and investment companies on the West Coast, expanding to more than 15,000 units in the Bay Area, Seattle, and Portland, Ore. Diller attributed his success to hard work and discipline.

In work and in life, Sanford Diller always pushed for great design. He was one of the first real estate developers to move away from the utilitarian, box-like apartments that were prevalent at the time and toward more high quality, spacious dwellings. Other real estate investors looked to him for guidance, and he became a mentor to many in the apartment industry who would go on to run successful companies of their own.

The Dillers moved from San Francisco to the Peninsula to raise their three children – Brad, Ron, and Jaclyn. As the Dillers executed their bold philanthropic vision to improve the world for future generations, Sanford Diller preferred to stay out of the limelight while Helen became the public-facing figure for the family’s charitable endeavors. The Helen Diller Family Foundation was founded in 1999, and supported myriad  local, national and global needs. Their charitable interests reflected the values they espoused throughout their lives and included investments in health care, teen leadership, science, education and the arts.

A Commitment to Culture, Research and Education

As he did in his business ventures, Diller took a long-term view with his philanthropic efforts. He and Helen regarded UCSF as a place where research – and particularly cancer research – could positively impact people’s lives globally as well as locally. In 2003, the foundation provided major funding of UCSF’s nascent Mission Bay campus with a $35 million donation to support what is now the UCSF Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building as well as to prostate cancer research.

[Sanford and Helen Diller] were visionaries, who will be remembered for improving the lives of countless people with illness and helping build one of the world’s best cancer research and treatment institutions.

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS

President, UCSF Helen DIller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

“Support from Sanford and his wife, Helen, is the bedrock for so much of our success in the Cancer Center over the past decade,” said Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS, president of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and E. Dixon Heise Distinguished Professor in Oncology. “They were visionaries, who will be remembered for improving the lives of countless people with illness and helping build one of the world’s best cancer research and treatment institutions.”

In 2016, the Helen Diller Family Foundation made the largest-ever contribution to UCSF  — or to any UC campus — of $500 million to support endowments for recruiting and retaining UCSF faculty members; provide financing for underserved students; and reward high-risk, high return scientific research.

On Feb. 6, just days after Sanford Diller’s passing, the Helen Diller Foundation announced a second $500 million commitment to UCSF, this one to revitalize UCSF’s Parnassus campus by building a new, state-of-the-art hospital for the 21st century.

Sanford and Helen Diller’s lifelong commitment to improving the world for future generations has had a singular impact not only on UCSF but on other charitable and higher education institutions as well. The couple was particularly supportive of Jewish organizations around the Bay Area and globally. Their gifts included the establishment of an endowment for Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz and  the Jewish Studies program at UC Berkeley, among many others.

Diller is survived by his daughter, Jaclyn “Jackie” Safier, a Distinguished Director on the UCSF Board of Overseers and president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation; sons Ron Diller and Brad Diller, and seven grandchildren.

“Sanford was a very private individual,” said Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “He gave so generously to the University and asked simply that we work hard to make the world a better place. His and Helen’s remarkable legacy to UCSF resonates in the world-renowned programs they’ve initiated, the talented faculty members whose research they’ve advanced, and the patients whose care and treatment will be transformed because of their vision.”

In lieu of flowers, the Diller family requests that contributions can be made to one of the following organizations:


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