Gail Seneca, who sang gospel and managed banks, dies at 63

Courtesy of Micheline Côté
PEOPLE: “She was the embodiment of the Renaissance,” Mike Gale said of his former colleague on the MALT board, Gail Seneca. “lf she had been born in Florence during the 14th century, I am sure the Medici family would have welcomed and supported her talents.”  
09/29/2016

Gail Seneca—academic, financial adviser, author, philanthropist, gospel singer and mensch—passed away on Aug. 21 from complications arising from a knee surgery. She was 63 years old. 

Gail lived in Point Reyes Station since the early 1990s, sharing a blue house with her husband of 27 years, Hal Nathan, and their two Australian shepherds, a pair of African grey parrots, four cats and a bee farm. After retiring from a decorated career in investment banking, she often sported a streak of blue dye in her hair—a token of the exuberance that was praised during her memorial service on Sept. 22 at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. 

“Gail had the capacity to think outside the box,” said Micheline Côté, a friend for over 19 years. “Blue gives wings to people to be out of the norm, and it became her signature. It was her color.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on March 7, 1953, Gail worked in several careers. In 1979, after earning a doctorate from New York University in sociology, she began working at the school as a sociology professor. She then shifted into finance, serving as chief investment strategist for Chase Lincoln Bank and later as senior vice president of Wells Fargo’s asset-management division. In 1989, she founded her own investment firm, GMG/Seneca Capital Management, where she served as president until her retirement in 2007. 

But friends would call on her for contemporary fiction and classical music recommendations, and she’d often take them to hear the San Francisco Symphony. She loved to dance and she belonged to the Rhythm Society, which meets each solstice and equinox for a massive group dance celebration. 

Gail was also a noted explorer, celebrating her 60th birthday by embarking on the famed Camino walk that stretches across Spain. Ms. Côté said Gail was “replenished by traveling” and would visit India every two years. Hal created the Foundation for the People of Burma, now called Partners Asia, and the couple made dozens of trips to Burma to establish HIV clinics, orphanages and
monasteries. 

Jack Kornfield, a co-founder of Spirit Rock who serves on the board of Partners Asia, called Gail—a longtime Buddhist practitioner who helped raise funds to build the retreat hall at the center—a bodhisattva, a word signifying a person who is able to reach enlightenment but delays doing so until all beings are free from
suffering. 

“She dedicated her life to the wellbeing of others,” Mr. Kornfield said.

Gail also nurtured a love of writing since she was a young girl and developed her prose through the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Provincetown Fine Arts Workshop. Her short stories and memoir pieces appeared in multiple magazines and literary journals and, in 2014, she published a collection of short stories, “Geography Lessons.”

In a Berkeley-based writing group called Inquiring Mind, Gail was known for her sharp criticism and sincere praise. She instated a practice called “two pages,” in which members committed to producing two pages of writing each day for another group member. Various writers from the group recently composed essays in her honor, each of which recognized her talent for embodying diverse
characters.

“Gail’s own work pushed all kinds of boundaries,” Melody Ermachild Chavis wrote. “A white American woman can’t write in the voice of an African or Indian man or child, can she? Gail could do it wonderfully, creating deeply meaningful and fascinating stories because she had really been there and listened to the people she wrote about, and she wanted to tell about their lives through how she imagined their thoughts and feelings. She was a true fiction writer, able to cross over from her own reality and speak through the voices of people utterly different than her.”

For the past seven years, Gail served on the board of directors for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. A colleague on the board, Mike Gale, called her a “quiet and effective leader,” saying she never tried to lead by forcing what she knew onto others. “For what she brought, she’ll be impossible to replace,” he said. 

(In November, Mr. Gale will undergo knee surgery; he said Gail’s passing gave him pause. “It’s a reminder how routine something may seem, but still something can go wrong,” he said.)

A lover of gospel, Gail sang in the Lighthouse Singers Gospel Choir, where she also served as president. Director Rev. Ulis Redic took over the same year Gail joined and attributed the choir’s growth—“from six people standing around a piano to about 40,” he said—to her leadership. 

In 2015, Gail helped the choir gain nonprofit status, and this year she organized donations that allowed the choir to attend the Gospel Music Workshop of America Convention in Birmingham, Ala. in July. 

Sometime before she died, Gail made two requests for her future memorial service: she wanted a reading of one of her short stories and she wanted the Lighthouse Singers to perform the music she treasured. 

Inside a brimming retreat hall at Spirit Rock last Thursday, her wishes were honored. A friend read aloud a short story that detailed the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when, as a young girl, Gail wrestled with religion and mortality. Soon after, the gospel choir sang two standards, including “Jesus is Mine,” which Gail had sung with the ensemble in Alabama.