Ellen Meyer, a CEO and philanthropist, dies at 85

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When Ellen Meyer escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, she went from being the privileged daughter of a physician to a sheet-metal worker in a Sausalito naval shipyard.

Those who knew her say that she was never afraid of taking on new challenges, from becoming one of San Francisco's first female CEOs, to learning how to use a computer in her 70s.

Meyer died Sunday at her Berkeley home of cancer. She was 85.

"She was very forward thinking and non-judgmental," says her daughter, Sacha Kawaichi, a Berkeley artist.

Kawaichi says her mother was always proud of her work as a skilled laborer during the war.

"She was happy she could participate. Having just escaped Germany, helping the cause was very meaningful to her. She was always pleased with her strength and expertise."

Meyer's desire to help others was manifest throughout her life, as was her seemingly fearless approach to new endeavors.

She and her husband Fred Meyer saved their shipyard earnings and invested $1,600 in starting their own business. It became the nation's leading manufacturer of fireplace equipment, Fred Meyer of California.

When her husband died in 1970, Meyer took over the company.

That same year, she began her career as a philanthropist, anonymously donating $1,500 to help open Berkeley Oakland Support Services, now a multimillion dollar program helping homeless people become self-sufficient.

Meyer was also a major donor in the campaign to buy the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center's current building.

"She was very private about it [her donations to various charities]. She didn't want other people to know. She just did it because it was right," says Kawaichi.

Over the years, Meyer supported the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Israel Bonds, an organization that honored her with the Israel 35th Anniversary Award.

After her husband died, Meyer became active at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, where she was a board member and trustee until her death.

"Her wise counsel and sparkling humor enriched our board," says Judy Freeman, Beth El's executive director, who knew Meyer for 18 years. "She was a wonderful, caring, compassionate human being."

Ursula Sherman described her friend of 30 years as a small, elegant, woman who would "do things in her 70s that were beyond belief."

Sherman and Meyer had much in common: Both were refugees from Nuremberg, and both had fathers who were physicians. And as the two women found out when they first met in the Bay Area, Meyer's father was the gynecologist who delivered Sherman.

The two also shared a desire to serve the community, working together to help Berkeley's homeless.

But what Sherman most appreciated about Meyer was her ever-present ability to adjust to a changing world.

"She was one of the original `Rosie the Riveters,'" says Sherman, who notes how different life on the docks was for a woman from an upper-class family in Europe.

"And she amassed computer knowledge to keep up with her grandchildren. They were learning computers, so she said, `If they can do it, I should, too.'

"She showed me that someone could change in her later years. She changed from being very staid, to becoming a totally flexible, warm and loving person."

Meyer is survived by her daughter and son-in law, Sacha and Byron Kawaichi; grandchildren Benjamin and Rebecca Kawaichi; and son, Steven Meyer, among others.

She was buried in the Tel Shalom section of Rolling Hills Memorial Park in Richmond. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. Contributions can be made to Congregation Beth El, 2301 Vine St., Berkeley, CA 94708; the Nature Conservancy, 201 Mission St., S.F., CA 94105; or Berkeley Oakland Support Services, 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, CA 94704.