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William H. Ahmanson

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Bill’s life trajectory from Harvard School (now known as Harvard-Westlake) to Occidental College to banking to heading up the The Ahmanson Foundation seems a natural path for a scion of one of Los Angeles’ most philanthropic families.  But if you follow his path, it is actually one that may have some surprises.

During breaks and vacations from Harvard School he worked at a Hungarian independent auto shop cleaning bathrooms, car parts and learning basic auto repair.  At Occidental, Bill’s major areas of study were theater arts, concentrating in set and lighting design, Political Science and a minor sculpture.  While in college, he applied to Home Savings of America, the bank founded by his uncle Howard, without letting a single Ahmanson know.  He got the job, a part-time teller.  After 17 years, mostly specializing in turning around troubled offices, Bill’s last position at Home was Chief Underwriter for Residential Lending, responsible for all high-risk loans funded in California.  After that, he worked in Union Bank’s wealth management division.  All of this experience he applies today.

Did we mention he worked for the Los Angeles Police Department?  Bill spent over a decade working patrol as a reserve officer, two to three shifts a month.  His father asked tongue-in-cheek, “Why do you want to direct traffic at the Hollywood Bowl?”  His father found out after Officer Ahmanson’s graduation from the Police Academy, a Reserve handles the same radio calls as a regular officer and Bill preferred areas like South Los Angeles and Rampart.  Bill explains, “We all have the responsibility to contribute to our communities and this was the best way I could at the time.  I miss that job every day.”

The Ahmanson Foundation’s purpose is to build community for the common good, increase quality of life in Southern California and enhance its cultural legacy.  When asked about its mission, his uncle’s vision and whether he felt he was taking the Foundation in a new direction, Bill answered, “I try to be true to what my uncle wanted, to honor those that came before me.  I look at doing different things but not ones that he would find objectionable. What’s important is to help the poor and better the community.”

To understand the Ahmansons’ commitment to help others is to understand their history.  Bill’s great-great-great-grandfather Johan, while visiting New York, wrote to his young son “Willie” in February 1882 expressing concern for “…many poor little boys and girls, not much bigger than you…carrying big burdens….” That message has been passed down the line.  Bill’s father, Robert Ahmanson, was recognized at the 2004 Cardinal’s Awards Dinner, making Bill the second Ahmanson to receive the award.  When asked what lessons his father passed on to him, Bill answers, “His values are my values: be fair, be honest, look out for others.”

In addition to the Foundation supporting the arts, medicine, programs related to homelessness and low-income populations, Bill is passionate about a relatively new project at the Foundation, the Ahmanson Veteran Scholarship Initiative that is to recruit, educate and retain student veterans by removing obstacles that stand in the way of college graduation.   “These men and women have given so much to our country.  This is a way to restart their education and assimilate back to civilian lives.”  For the past four years, the Foundation has given out grants to 24 private colleges and universities.  Over 230 veterans are currently receiving assistance.

Bill also enjoys leadership positions in many of the city’s most high-profile institutions such as LACMA, Center Theatre Group, Marlborough School, Petersen Automotive Museum and the Archdiocese Development of Los Angeles Board.   He has received many honors for his work including the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations’ Joseph D. Helton Jr. Award for Leadership; Walt Disney Man of the Year from Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, where he is currently a Big Brother; and The Rotary Foundation’s Paul Harris Fellow award.  When asked which award means the most to him, Bill answers that they all have touched him.  But he adds, that after tonight’s ceremony, the Cardinal’s Award will be one of the awards he is most proud of including the honors that Pope Benedict bestowed on him, the Knight Commander of St. Gregory the Great and the Benemerenti Award.

The Cardinal’s Award Dinner isn’t new to Bill and not just because his father was honored over a decade ago.  Serving as emcee for four consecutive years and as a guest many times, Bill has been moved by what it means to be a recipient.  “I have seen the quality of the people honored.  It is humbling and daunting.  It makes you want to keep up the work.”