Grant-Making Crusader Tim Hanlon Is a True Angel in America

Tim Hanlon, President of the Wells Fargo Foundation and recipient of this year’s National AIDS Memorial Grove Lifetime of Commitment Award, has helped to provide more than $17.8 million to HIV/AIDS-related causes. It would, however, be impossible to put a dollar value on his lifelong personal commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS.

Like the Bay Times and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which both began in 1978, Hanlon’s San Francisco experience took root in the late 70s. Fresh out of the University of Detroit, the young English major was drawn to our city. By 1980, Hanlon had moved here, buoyed mostly by his dreams. “I had no job and no place to stay,” he recalls. He eventually got a job as a typist in the human resources department at Wells Fargo, and fell in love with then partner, Scott Cleaver. All seemed to be on the upswing, until HIV took hold.

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Cleaver’s health deteriorated rapidly. “I would work all day and then go home and stay up with him half the night,” Hanlon says. “We didn’t know what to expect. I was scared out of my mind.” Hanlon spoke to the head of his department at Wells Fargo about the situation. The company’s initial reaction was driven by curiosity, from which a level of understanding and empathy grew. Hanlon was advised to contact The Shanti Project, where he met many other men facing similar challenges. Cleaver died, but Hanlon’s dedication to battling HIV/AIDS through philanthropy came to life.

As he rose up the ranks at Wells Fargo, he would speak personally with colleagues and potential funders. This was at a time, early in the epidemic, when most people were afraid of infected individuals and of even discussing HIV/AIDS. “Keeping secrets doesn’t work for me, though,” Hanlon explains. “Secrets stop personal progress. You have to be honest with yourself and others.”

That honesty, mixed with passion, talent and sheer willpower, turned Hanlon into a grant-making crusader for organizations dedicated to HIV/AIDS-related efforts. One such project is the National AIDS Memorial Grove. “It could have been a big marble monument or the wing of some large building,” he says. “Instead, the Grove is outdoors with grass, flowers, trees, fog and rain. It’s alive.”

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As for the award bestowed upon him by the Grove, Hanlon is characteristically humble. “If there is anything special in what I’ve done, it’s that I’ve stayed with it for so many years,” he says, quickly adding that he hopes women will also be credited for their work in battling HIV/AIDS. “A model of care was put into place in San Francisco, largely by lesbians,” he shares. “Lesbians at Shanti and other organizations did so much work for what was then viewed mostly as a gay male disease.”

Hanlon could easily rest on his achievements, but the years have not dampened his drive. “The infection rate of younger people and people of color continues to grow,” he says. “We now think of HIV/AIDS as being manageable, and I hear some people ask, ‘So why bother?’ But that scares the hell out of me. This is a virus that knows how to adapt, change and morph. We need to keep paying attention to it. We need to remain committed.”