Honoring Legacy Supporter Charles Gresham

January 11, 2021

We want to take a moment to honor Charles Gresham of San Francisco who passed away recently but, thanks entirely to his commitment to conservation and philanthropy, continues to have a tremendous impact on MALT.

Living Lightly on the Land

Charles Gresham believed in living lightly on the land. He prided himself on never purchasing a new article of clothing, opting instead to repurpose and reuse that which had already been worn. He was known to walk rather than drive, and would often comb restaurants in his North Beach neighborhood for leftover meals. Many assumed the food was for him, not knowing that Charles distributed the meals to those in his neighborhood facing hunger.

Over his years living in North Beach, Charles became known as the neighborhood gardener. According to longtime friend Helen Milowe, Charles had a knack for finding city alleyways too small for cars or filled with trash — overlooked spaces perfect for a bed of flowers or young trees.

“He cultivated and turned these spots into beautiful gardens,” Helen said. “He would clean them up, lay down fertilizer and put down discarded trees and plants to thrive in their new home.”

Charles led a humble existence and embodied a deep, quiet altruism — concerned about the welfare of others and the planet without concern or want for public accolades.

Author of His Own Story

In stark contrast with his chosen way of life in San Francisco, Charles grew up in an affluent family. Charles’ aunt was married to a member of the du Pont family, owners of DuPont de Nemours, Inc., and she funded Charles’ education.

Despite his family wealth, Charles sought self-sufficiency, making it clear early on that he would be the author of his own story. After a year of study, he left college to pursue a life of art and gardening. He held odd jobs — herding sheep in New Mexico, parking cars at a Hollywood studio — that would earn him enough to dedicate himself to these passions. After landing in San Francisco in the 1960’s, Charles joined the Teamsters union and later worked at Butterfield’s auction house. He scrimped and saved to purchase a 500 square-foot home on Kearny Street where he lived until his passing at the age of 98.

Saving his earnings early and often, combined with savvy investments, would unlock Charles’ ability to make a transformative gift to MALT after his passing.

A Committed Conservationist

Charles lived a long and adventurous life, nearly half of which was spent with his beloved partner and fellow artist, Sidney Engelberg. When Sidney passed, Charles began supporting organizations focused on conservation, wildlife and open space. He never felt that the money he earned belonged to him; rather, that he was stewarding it to ensure it was passed along to causes connected to the natural environment.

The land, Charles said, was “a tonic” for his soul. Dedicated to the coexistence of a healthy natural environment and local agricultural system, Charles wanted to preserve the land against what he called “mindless estate development.” This dedication resulted in a $1.4 million gift to MALT and a lasting impact on the working landscape of West Marin.

We Thank You

MALT will forever be grateful to Charles for his generosity and his vision to support a thriving local community in a healthy natural environment.

His belief in MALT’s mission to permanently protect agricultural lands for agricultural use did not come without sacrifice. Charles lived entirely on a small pension from his union days and social security benefits while investing his savings in charitable gift annuities.

Ever the savvy investor, he appreciated the tool of the charitable gift annuity. As his investments earned interest, he drew great pleasure from re-gifting these earnings to his charities of choice, letting his investments work in concert with his philanthropic ambitions. Charles also named MALT as the beneficiary of a few of his commercial annuities and received the tax benefits associated with that strategy. Consequently, MALT has continued to reap the benefits of Charles’ investments after his passing.

His legacy and memory lives on.

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