Madeleine Haas Russell was an activist until the end

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Madeleine Haas Russell tried parasailing for the first time in her mid-70s. She traveled to Nepal, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands around the same time. An indefatigable traveler, she always placed herself right in the front of the group, next to the tour guide.

Russell, a well-known San Francisco political activist and philanthropist who died Friday of last week on her 84th birthday, lived life with gusto. A swimmer, gardener, angler and equestrian — there was little she wouldn't try.

"She was open to everything and wanted to learn about everything," said her son-in-law Bill Russell-Shapiro. "The last trip we took with her was to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. She was interested in both places."

A fourth-generation San Franciscan and the great-grandniece of Levi Strauss, Russell was involved in a host of activities, including politics, media, the arts and the Jewish community.

Up until her death, she served on the boards of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where she helped found the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace; Brandeis University; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Columbia Foundation; and the Asia Foundation.

Previous involvements included chairing the board of the Bay Area's public television station KQED and serving on the Jewish Community Federation's endowment committee.

"She was one of the key people in our community," said Phyllis Cook, director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund. "She believed in Jewish philanthropy in breadth. She believed in culture and arts, human services, Israel."

At San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, where she was a lifelong member, Russell donated a stained-glass window in the main sanctuary.

"She was a very assimilated Jew," said her daughter Alice Russell-Shapiro. "In spite of that, she was very Jewish. She cared deeply about the state of Israel and went there many times."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once visited Russell's home.

She wasn't the only dignitary to do so, however. "When I was 12, I got to meet Eleanor Roosevelt," Russell's daughter said. "She once had the king and queen of Afghanistan to her house."

A 1937 magna cum laude graduate of Smith College, Russell married Leon B. Russell in 1946. They later divorced. In 1962, Russell was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to head the State Department's Reception Center in San Francisco, a position she held for seven years.

Through the job, she served as a guide to State Department guests visiting the area, combining her love of hosting and politics. She spoke fluent French, as well as some German, Spanish, Italian and Russian.

Orphaned at age 12 upon the death of her widowed father Charles Haas, Russell loved tending to Pine Brook, the Atherton family home. She was known for giving gifts of fresh eggs and produce raised on the property.

"Pine Brook became a refuge," her daughter said. "It was all she really had left that was tangible of her parents."

Though reared in a Republican family, Russell devoted much energy to Democratic causes. She traveled as a state delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1976. She was co-chair of the host committee for the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

She also served on many Democratic councils and contributed her time and energy to dozens of national Democratic candidates. A fiercely independent thinker, according to those who knew her, Russell fought for the abolition of the death penalty and supported other human rights causes.

Some of her most significant work for human rights was done through the Columbia Foundation, which she founded with her brother in 1940.

One of the foundation's first grants went to the Japanese American Student Relocation Council, making it possible for students forced to relocate during World War II to continue their studies at U.S. universities. Another grant went to the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to help discourage the further use of nuclear weapons and energy. Funding also went to groups working for gay rights and fighting for the right to die with dignity.

"She made her mark as a citizen, humanitarian and philanthropist," First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement this week. "We all owe her a debt of gratitude for making our country a better place."

A public memorial was held yesterday at Congregation Emanu-El.

Russell is survived by her three children and their families: Alice and Bill Russell-Shapiro and their children Maddy and Will, of San Francisco; Christine H. Russell and Mark Schlesinger and their children Charlie and Ben, of San Francisco; and Charles P. Russell and Soujata Devaris and their son Alasdair, of London.

The family asks that donations be sent to a charity advancing one of Russell's many interests.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.