No matter what else you do, Nancy Hellman Bechtle ’55 has some advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. In the midst of dealing with some pretty big stuff, including a diagnosis of scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease, and serving as the Head of the Presidio Trust during a tumultuous period in its history, Nancy has done her best to live that motto.
She’s also done a lot to give back, helping to start the best scleroderma center in the country at Johns Hopkins University after a doctor there cured her. In 2004, she co-organized the inaugural “Hearts in SF” fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital, raising $3 million in its first year. A Burke’s girl through and through, Nancy is a lifelong learner, graduating with a degree in history from Stanford in 1984 — the 25th anniversary of when she would’ve originally graduated had she not, “as lots of girls did then,” dropped out to get married. In the midst of her deep-rooted civic work, Nancy still hikes the Presidio three or four times a week and enjoys a budding musical career that brings her to clubs around the city — as well as the stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, founded by her late brother Warren Hellman.
When you were a student at Burke’s, what did you dream you’d be doing at this point in your life?Ski-racing! I loved it then and I still love it now. “The Magic Triangle” is what we call Stinson Beach, San Francisco, and Sugar Bowl, and I feel fortunate to spend a lot of the winter season skiing.
What three words or phrases come to mind when you hear “Katherine Delmar Burke School”?No specific words or phrases come to mind at first, just a warm feeling. I have many special memories, and it’s incredible the way Burke’s has woven its way throughout my life. Many of my family members went to Burke’s, starting with two aunts before me, and I find it really special that I served as president of the Board of Trustees when my daughter went to school for kindergarten through eighth grade and that my son later served as president when his daughters went to Burke’s. I’ve still got that warm feeling, thinking about drum corps at the old Jackson Street campus—we’d practice and come in as everyone gathered in the courtyard, with a flag bearer. We’d say the Salute to the Flag (“Oh, folds of white and scarlet!”), not the Pledge of Allegiance, and recite Psalm 15, which I’m convinced that no one knows but Burke’s girls.
What is your favorite memory from Burke’s?Baby Day was really fun! Every year, on one random day that the seniors all knew but didn’t tell anyone, they would disappear into the bathrooms then put on baby clothes. We, as seniors, would have all brought candy, and then we would run through the corridors and throw candy into classrooms for the other students.
I loved Pansy Day, too, which we all called “Crying at Burke’s Day.” It was very different, much more poignant.
What is something you learned at Burke’s that you still carry with you today?I think Burke’s helped me learn about who I wanted to be. I really believe in single-gender education and I think that an advantage of an all-girls school is that it gives girls more opportunity to be whoever they want to be, to not be distracted by other things. We had the space to learn about ourselves, and I’m very grateful for that. How would you encourage Burke’s students and fellow alumnae to give back to Burke’s? Burke’s right now is a much better school than it was when I attended. It’s more challenging, more competitive, and more diverse. It’s also different though, because I started in seventh grade and went through high school. and giving back is a different thing when you leave eighth grade. That said, my daughter Jessica graduated eighth grade from Burke’s in the late ’70s, and she has five friends from Burke’s with whom she’s still very close; they have a girls’ weekend every year. And so I know that these Burke’s friendships are still life-long, even though the school ends with eighth grade. I think that alumnae and students should just think about giving back to Burke’s when thinking about how they give back to the community at large. “Think globally, act locally.”
What Burke’s experiences do you attribute to your personal or professional success?I was the Chair of the Festival as a senior, because back then, the students ran everything. I think that experience taught me life-long lessons about determination. I have done so many different things throughout my life, served on many boards including the SF Symphony and the Presidio Trust, and I think I also gained organizational skills for all of those many things, in the non-profit world and for-profit. Chairing the Festival was also a fun experience with planning events, which has been a part of my life since.
Burke's mission is to educate, encourage and empower girls. Our school combines academic excellence with an appreciation for childhood so that students thrive as learners, develop a strong sense of self, contribute to community, and fulfill their potential, now and throughout life.