Louis H. Heilbron, 99; headed first Cal State trustees board

Times Staff Writer

Louis H. Heilbron, an attorney who became the first chairman of the board of trustees of what is now called the California State University system, has died. He was 99.

Heilbron died Dec. 20 at his San Francisco home after a short illness, his family said.

When then-Gov. Pat Brown appointed him to lead the board, Heilbron was already presiding over the state Board of Education, which had loosely overseen the state colleges before California’s master plan for higher education became law in 1960.

The plan, which promised an education to anyone in the state who wanted one, also gave the emerging state colleges independence by granting the system its own board of trustees.


One early task was to rein in some of the powerful campus presidents of what were then called the California State Colleges, according to the California Higher Education Policy Center.

“Some of the larger and stronger colleges were sort of like duchies, accustomed to making their own arrangements in Sacramento,” Heilbron said when he was 83, referring to state colleges in San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose. “They didn’t particularly want to be part of a system. So we had to deal with that and ... take care of the smaller, weaker institutions.”

Less effective campus presidents were persuaded to resign, an academic senate was established so the faculty’s voice would be heard systemwide and new admission standards were set. The designing of campus buildings was opened to public architects “in the hope that campuses no longer would resemble state prisons,” according to the policy center.

While he was on the Cal State governing board, labor-negotiating skills Heilbron developed during World War II came in handy, especially when he was able to end a strike by teachers and students in the late 1960s, his family said.


Already a lawyer when he volunteered for the Army in 1944, Heilbron was sent to Austria to help supervise the rehabilitation of the country’s social security system and develop labor standards.

After the war, he returned to the San Francisco law firm now known as Heller Ehrman, which he first joined in 1934. He was the firm’s leading labor lawyer and went to the office daily, even after retiring 28 years ago, said Adam Cole, a partner in the firm and its historian.

Louis Henry Heilbron was born May 12, 1907, in Newark, N.J., and grew up in San Francisco. His mother was a concert pianist who gave up performing to raise two children and his father was a musician who went into the family meat business.

At UC Berkeley, Heilbron played varsity tennis and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1928. Three years later, he followed it with a law degree.


He married a fellow student, Delphine Rosenblatt, on Oct. 30, 1929, a day after the stock market crashed. She died in 1993.

During the Depression, Heilbron worked for the state Department of Public Welfare and within months was secretary of the Social Welfare Commission. At 25, he helped establish and run the California Relief Administration.

World War II prompted him to become a pioneering member of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, and he was an early moderator of its radio broadcast, “World Affairs Are Your Affairs,” which debuted in 1947.

“He was a rare combination of devotion to family and devotion to what he considered public duty,” said his son David, an attorney from Tiburon, Calif. “He was amusing, witty, very intelligent and a delight to be around.”


Life with their father was frictionless, said his other son, John, a science historian from Oxfordshire, England. “He was a gentle, good man who ran his family life the way he did his negotiations,” he said.

One particular story about Heilbron “captures Louis’ indefatigable energy and eternal optimism,” Cole said.

When Heilbron was in his late 90s, the former president of the World Affairs Council was asked to assume another key position, chairman of the Committee for the Future. He held that position until his death, five months short of his 100th birthday.

In addition to his sons, Heilbron is survived by a sister, Juliet Krasne; and three granddaughters.