Leo B. Helzel
November 1, 1917 - March 21, 2019
Leo Barth Helzel passed away at the age of 101 at his home in Oakland on March 21, 2019. Leo was a remarkable and unique individual—accountant, attorney, entrepreneur, professor, author, philanthropist, friend, and family man. He possessed an unparalleled zest for life and an optimistic spirit. His favorite expression was fantastic, a term he would happily use to sum up his life.
Author of "A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline," Leo transformed into reality the many goals he had for himself while helping others do the same. He had a gift for matching opportunities with talents and helped countless individuals advance their careers and improve their lives. Leo had a vast circle of friends of all ages and was a mentor to generations of business students and others.
Leo was born in New York City on November 1, 1917 to Philip and Hannah Helzel; he had two older siblings, Sylvia and Max. His parents immigrated from Podhajce, a shtetl that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I. Leo graduated from Townsend Harris, an honors tuition-free preparatory school for the City College of New York. Leo kindled his relationships with lifelong friends as well as his passion for sports there—his yearbook describes him as manager of the baseball and basketball teams. His college years were demanding; in addition to attending ROTC and night classes at City College, where he graduated in 1938, he worked fulltime at his uncle's accounting firm, Gerber & Landau.
Eager for vacation and adventure, Leo drove to California with a friend after graduation. Through serendipity, he found a job as an accountant at Riley & Hall in Los Angeles. After the tax season in 1941, he accepted a stint in Washington D.C. with the Quartermaster Corps and was selected to work with the junior senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, on the Defense Investigating Committee. Leo wrote: "I was absolutely amazed at Truman's retention ability, his ability to analyze a situation, and to bring everything forward." Called up to serve in World War II, Leo accepted a Navy commission as a full lieutenant and was in Pan America's first training program for navigators; soon after, he served as a navigation flight instructor. Following a year flying in the Caribbean, South America, South Atlantic, and Africa, he was assigned to the Pacific as a navigator for the US Naval Air Transport Services. He flew extensively in the Pacific, mostly "flying boats," from Hawaii to Johnston Atoll and the Marshall Islands, and as the war progressed to New Caledonia, Saipan, and Manila. His home base was the Alameda Naval Air Station and he was immediately attracted to the beauty and community of what would become his beloved East Bay.
Leo's wartime experiences sparked his courage to take risks, a trait he exhibited throughout his adult life. In 1946, Leo founded a CPA practice in Oakland, a predecessor to RINA Accounting Corporation. That year he also met Florence Borsuk on a blind date at the Alameda Naval Air Station and they were married just four months later. Leo and Florence settled in Oakland, where they had two children, Larry and Deborah. Aspiring to become a lawyer, Leo took night classes at Golden Gate University while also teaching tax and accounting there. He later opened a law practice in Oakland, which became Helzel, Leighton, Brunn, & Deal. His entrepreneurial instincts inspired his involvement in many businesses over the years, including cofounding and serving as Chairman of Dymo Industries for nine years.
A believer in lifelong education, Leo earned his MBA at the Haas School of Business in 1968 and his LLM from the Boalt Hall School of Law in 1970. He served on the boards of the California College of the Arts, Boalt Hall School of Law, and the Haas School of Business where he was the first chairman. He taught courses in international business & finance, entrepreneurship, and "top-down law" at Haas, and was honored as an adjunct professor emeritus in recognition of his almost forty years of service. In 1986 Leo and Florence established the Helzel Chair in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Haas.
Leo's avocational interests were many and diverse. He and Florence traveled the world together and collected art along the way; they especially loved their annual European hiking trips. He was an avid tennis player, enjoyed the San Francisco Symphony and frequent museum visits, took pleasure in his and Florence's weekly hikes in Redwood Regional Park, adored his second home and friends in Palm Springs, and appreciated just about anything related to UC Berkeley. The family foundation that Leo and Florence established has helped to grow and support numerous educational and cultural institutions throughout the Bay Area and beyond.
In recent years, Leo delighted in spending time with his four-generation family and counted his many blessings. "We are so lucky" was one of his favorite refrains.
Leo is survived by his loving family—his wife of 72 years, Florence; his two children and their spouses, Larry Helzel (Rebekah) and Deborah Kirshman (David); grandchildren Rachel Concannon (Jason) and Daniel Kirshman (Jennifer); great-grandchildren Riley and Jacob Concannon and Sienna and Skylar Kirshman; great-nephew Zachary Pine, and several other family members with whom he maintained close relationships. The family is deeply grateful to Leo's devoted caregivers, Betty Irving and Tasi Gurung. A private family service has been held.
Contributions in Leo's memory may be made to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life, UC Berkeley, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94720-6300; givetocal.berkeley.edu/magnes