Arrillaga was founding partner of Peery Arrillaga, a commercial real estate giant that in the 1960s converted the area's farms and orchards into more than 20 million square feet of commercial space, according to Arrillaga's family.
In recent decades, the famously reclusive Arrillaga also became one of the area's most prominent donors. His largesse included hundreds of millions in contributions to his alma mater, Stanford University, where many athletic and recreational facilities bear his name.
According to an obituary that his family posted Monday, he had built and donated to more than 200 projects and buildings, including the Frances Arrillaga Alumni Center, the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation Center and the Arrillaga Dining Hall.
In 2013, his donation of $151 million to Stanford was described by the university as its "largest single gift ever from a living individual."
He also spearheaded the effort to tear down and rebuild the university's football stadium, a project that he managed and funded. He "selected every single palm tree, worked out the best form for every structural element and created his own designs for the seating," according to the obituary published by his daughter, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen.
Arrillaga also funded the reconstruction of Maples Pavilion, the university's basketball complex. The family's obituary notes that he used to walk the campus and personally pick up every piece of trash he saw, as well as rearrange single stones in fountains across the campus.
Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne lauded Arrillaga, noting that his "extraordinary generosity has had a profound impact on our university for more than half a century."
"John's support has been life-changing for countless Stanford students," Tessier-Lavigne told Stanford News. "He has also transformed our physical campus — his deep philanthropic support matched only by the gift of his time and his expertise in architecture, construction and more."
Brad Lyman, vice president of the Ronald McDonald House Charities Bay Area's board of directors, recalled his friend's influence and ability to get things done.
"John is the person I called for advice along the way," said Lyman, who noted Arrillaga's instrumental role in the expansion of the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford from 47 to 123 guest rooms. "One day I was talking to John on the phone, and he abruptly said, 'I've got an idea — I'll call you back.' Twenty minutes later he called back and said, 'I got it.'
"I said, 'You got what?' His response was, 'I got you the land next door.'"
Arrillaga also was well-known for opposing red tape and for exercising firm control over his projects, which included selection of the design and contractors. At times, these qualities helped him complete his projects more quickly than would otherwise be possible. His family noted that Stanford Stadium was constructed in just 42 weeks and under budget.
At other times, his reclusive and controlling approach created friction with local governments, as when he tried to negotiate from behind the scenes the construction of office towers and a theater near the downtown Palo Alto train station — a project that blew up when it became public.
Similarly, his proposal to build a library in downtown Menlo Park fizzled after he and city leaders couldn't reach an agreement about the location of the new facility, with Arrillaga insisting on a downtown location and the city favoring a Belle Haven library.
Arrillaga ultimately withdrew the offer in 2018.
At the same time, Menlo Park was among the Peninsula cities that have benefited greatly from his largesse. He was the chief donor behind the construction of the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center, the Arrillaga Family Gymnasium and the Arrillaga Family Gymnastics Center in the Menlo Park Civic Center.
During a rare public appearance in 2010, during which he received Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce's Golden Acorn Award, Arrillaga mused on his love of sports and basketball — and his own use of the city's facilities.
"Menlo's been a great spot in my heart because I played (basketball) at the Burgess gym starting in 1960," Arrillaga told the audience at the Stanford Park Hotel. "I probably scored more points in that gym than any player in its history because I retired at almost age 60."
His family's obituary also credits him with donating dozens of buildings to police departments, libraries and recreation centers throughout Silicon Valley. He also built and donated campus buildings for Menlo School and Castilleja School, where his children attended high school, according to the obituary.
He retained the philanthropic spirit until the very end. Just weeks before he died, Arrillaga offered to donate more than $30 million to Palo Alto to help the city build a new public gym, with the understanding that he would pick the design and the contractor. The council was scheduled to discuss the project on Jan. 31.
Arrillaga was raised in a modest household. He was born in 1937 to professional soccer goalie Gabriel Arrillaga and Freda Arrillaga, a nurse, and grew up in Inglewood. His father later became a laborer in the Los Angeles produce market and his mother raised John and his four siblings, the late Gabriel Arrillaga, Alice Arrillaga Kalomas, William "Bill" Arrillaga and Mary Arrillaga Danna.
He held his first job at 9 years old, delivering newspapers, which was rapidly supplemented by his first dishwashing job in a local restaurant. His mother also took in neighbors' laundry to help ends meet, according to the family's obituary.
He graduated from Morningside High School in Inglewood, where he was student body president and a star athlete, his family stated.
Through an anonymous donor, Arrillaga was awarded a basketball scholarship at Stanford. To pay for his books and living expenses, he held six jobs, from washing dishes to delivering mail and working as a gardener and cook, in addition to his studies and athletics.
He graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in geography and was an All-American basketball player.
After Stanford, he traveled the world while playing basketball, which included a stint on Spain's national basketball team. He left professional basketball after realizing it would not afford him the family life that he wanted, his family noted in the obituary. After briefly selling insurance, he had saved enough money to purchase his first rundown commercial building and completed all of the work on it himself before earning enough in rent to purchase his second building.
He had two children, John Arrillaga Jr. and Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, with his first wife, Frances C. Arrillaga, a sixth-grade teacher, who also earned two master's degrees from Stanford. She died in 1995. He later married Gioia Fasi, a former attorney and graduate of the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Over the past four decades, Arrillaga dedicated at least half of his time to philanthropic efforts, "still working seven days a week at the age of 84, literally negotiating leases until the day prior to his passing," his family wrote in his obituary.
"He believed that successful philanthropy means combining financial resources with brainpower, skills and networks to amplify the number of lives he can touch and transform," the obituary states. "He believed that 'one should always give as much as one can, for the more one gives, the more life gives one in return.'"
Arrillaga died with his wife of 22 years, Gioia, and his two children, John Jr. and Laura, by his side. He is survived by Gioia Arrillaga; John Arrillaga Jr. and his wife, Justine, and their three sons; Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen and her husband, Marc Andreessen, and their son; his late brother Gabriel's wife, Kay Arrillaga, and their three sons; brother William Arrillaga and his wife, Linda, and their two sons; sister Alice Arrillaga Kalomas and her husband, Anthony "Tony" Kalomas, and their four children; and sister Mary Arrillaga Danna and her husband, Angelo Danna, and their son.
In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family asks that donations be made to the nonprofit organization that means the most to the donor in John Arrillaga's honor. For more information and to register for his celebration of life, email [email protected]
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