Asking price for the vacated Bank of America building on Old Courthouse Square in 1956 was $350,000, retired financier and philanthropist Henry Trione recalled Tuesday.

Trione, then a fast-rising newcomer to the Santa Rosa business scene, offered $100,000, conditioned on a $90,000 loan from the bank.

The deal went down, and Trione gilded the tower, renamed it the Empire Building and started Empire College on the top three floors with 50 students in 1961.

"An acorn grows into an oak tree," Trione, 91, told a crowd of about 300 people at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts on Tuesday, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the college that now enrolls 700 students in its business and law schools.

Trione, who went on to shape the community by preserving Annadel State Park and establishing the Wells Fargo Center, has consistently called the college his proudest achievement.

John Stumpf, Wells Fargo Bank's CEO, paid tribute to Trione at Tuesday's event by naming him as one of "three great Americans" who shaped the North Bay: the other two being winemaker Robert Mondavi and cartoonist Charles Schulz, both from Stumpf's home state of Minnesota.

Trione, a Humboldt County native, merged his Santa Rosa mortgage company into Wells Fargo in a $10.6 million stock trade in 1968, making him the bank's third-largest shareholder until 1990.

"The footprints we walk in ... are Henry's footprints," said Stumpf, head of the nation's fourth-largest bank. "His heart was in the right place. He put customers first, he told the truth."

"So Henry, we owe you a huge debt of gratitude," Stumpf said.

Gaye LeBaron, a historian and Press Democrat columnist who shares Trione's Humboldt County roots, introduced Trione — who made fortunes in finance, real estate, timber and wine — as "a man who enjoys the luxury of giving away money he has earned."

Trione, whose family runs a winery, closed his brief remarks by inviting the crowd to stay for wine and food. "Please drink enough of it," he added. "The industry needs the business."