The Foundation was created by the will of Ernst van Löben Sels who
died in Oakland in 1965. Ernst van Löben Sels was born in Oakland in 1879, the
eldest child of Pieter Justus van Löben Sels, born in Holland, and Adele
Virginie de Frémery van Löben Sels, whose parents were born in Holland.
Ernst studied engineering at the University of California,
Berkeley, and at Cornell University. In 1909 Ernst married Sarah Eleanor Slate,
daughter of Frederick Slate, Professor of Physics at U.C. Berkeley, and Ella de
Wolfe Slate. Ernst and Eleanor had no children. In 1917 Ernst was commissioned
Captain in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Army Engineers, and served at St.
Mihiel and the Argonne Forest.
After the war Ernst worked at various engineering jobs until the
death of his father in 1927. He then spent eight or ten years in joint farming
ventures in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. He concluded that farming was not
for him and turned to investing.
Ernst devoted his full time to his investments and managed them
himself. Over time he specialized and became an astute and successful investor
in railroad stocks. He became Chairman of the Bangor and Aroostock Railroad and
served as Chairman of the Bangor Punta Alegre Sugar Corporation after the merger
of the Bangor Railroad and Punta Alegre.
Beginning early in his investment career, Ernst found great
satisfaction in personal philanthropy. He enabled many college students to
complete their educations by providing financial support. Ernst's interest in
philanthropy was shared by Eleanor who, for example, had a long interest in the
Berkeley Day Care Nursery, an early model for helping working mothers and their
Ernst and Eleanor were
very active in entertaining soldiers on leave in World War II, and they came to
know a number of young men with whom they kept in touch. One of these young men
was John M. Burnett who later became Ernst's personal attorney. Mr. Burnett
organized the Foundation and, after the death of Ernst, acted as the
Foundation's president for six years until his death in 1971.