She’s a philanthropy powerhouse

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John Annarino

Helene Galen poses in front of one of her many art works, “Samantha” by Alex Katz. Her philanthropic work includes donations to the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children.
Photo by Bill Marchese

Two years after meeting Helene on a blind date, Louis Galen proposed in front of 3,000 people at a USC-Notre Dame football rally. On their wedding day, strategically scheduled after the conclusion of the 1975 football season, he presented her with a Trojan marching band helmet, which she wore at their reception. They danced their first dance as husband and wife to the wedding band’s rendition of “Fight On.”

Louis Galen never played sports for USC, but his love for the team started when he was a boy selling hot dogs at the Trojan football games. Never could he have imagined that one day as a leading figure in the savings and loan industry, and as a philanthropist, he would make possible the construction of USC’s 10,500-seat sports-and-entertainment arena and that it would be named the Galen Center. So began a series of gifts totaling $50 million that he and Helene would donate to the university.

Carrying on

After his death in 2007 Rancho Mirage resident Helene Galen continued her husband’s philanthropic work. One of her pet charities is the Palm Springs Art Museum. A committee or board member for more than 25 years, she has helped the museum become one of the most important museums in California. Her donation of $1 million to the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert led to that museum’s expansion. The building is named for her husband, The Galen. By underwriting free admission to the museum for the next five years, attendance has tripled.

“With all its wonderful exhibitions,” said Galen, “the new building is attracting a whole new audience from the east valley. And people are discovering that the surrounding four-acre Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden is in itself a work of art.”

Another of Galen’s charities is the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children at Eisenhower Medical Center.

“I’ve been involved from the beginning,” said Galen, “and have been proud to watch it grow. I’ve seen firsthand the help the center has given to thousands of children.”

Other charities that benefit from Galen’s philanthropy are Eisenhower Medical Center, McCallum Theatre, Jewish Federation of the Desert, Desert AIDS Project and the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“Living in the desert is an inspiration,” said Galen. “Most of my friends are givers. But I’ve found that people who don’t have the money to give, generously give of their time. At Eisenhower Hospital, volunteers come in every day and serve the public. We had 850 volunteers at the Palm Springs Film Festival.”

Brit conquers business

Galen was born in London. As a 15-year-old, she immigrated with her parents to the United States, and in 1958 in Los Angeles she successfully completed tests for American citizenship. “It was a great thrill,” said Galen. “I had a love affair with the USA ever since the Yanks came to England.”

Skipping college, the vivacious champagne blonde eventually found work at Frederick’s of Hollywood.

 “Those seven years at Frederick’s were my college education,” said Galen. “I started as secretary to the president, and became his assistant in running the company. I produced the bi-monthly catalogs. And I selected the models and the lingerie that helped make Frederick’s famous.”

Galen followed up her Frederick’s success as the manager of a chain of jewelry stores.

After her marriage to Galen, the couple began spending a great deal of time in Palm Springs. They moved to the desert from Los Angeles in 1978, taking permanent residence at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage.

Her marriage to Galen lasted 32 years, until his death in 2007, and together with their previous marriages produced five children, eleven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“When the social scene gets to be overwhelming,” said Galen, “my children, my grandchildren and my partner Jamie Kabler help keep me grounded.”

The house she lives in was the home of Barbara Sinatra when she was married to Zeppo Marx. Frank Sinatra lived just down the street.

The Galen home — with its stunning sculptures and magnificent paintings — rivals any museum.

“Quite a few of the art pieces are promised gifts to the Palm Springs Art Museum and have been exhibited there,” said Galen. “My husband and I loved to collect contemporary art and very often a piece would result from a trip abroad.”

Honoring her years as a major presence in the Coachella Valley philanthropic scene, the Palm Springs Fine Arts Fair presented Galen last year with its Arts Patron of the Year Award.

Thanks to her recent contributions, the theater at the new Rancho Mirage High School is called the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center. The center gives students the opportunity to take classes in acting, singing and dancing taught by faculty and working professionals from Broadway and Hollywood. The center also boasts an innovative online box office system.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to touch and to help the lives of so many people,” said Galen. “That makes me a very happy and a very lucky lady. Because I’ve found that in giving, you get so much back.”