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A turning point in Henry Trione's life came as he sat for three hours on a park bench in San Francisco, contemplating his future after World War II.

It was 1946 and despite the jubilation of defeating Germany and Japan, there was gloom over the United States. Many thought the nation would slip back into the depression of the 1930s, and Trione, 26, the son of a Humboldt County baker, considered whether his Navy lieutenant's rank held the key to economic security.

Fifty-five miles north over the new but little-used Golden Gate Bridge lay Santa Rosa, a community of ranchers and merchants that had grown by the equivalent of several dozen families a year since the turn of the century.

Trione and the city he helped shape in the postwar boom, enriching both the man and the place, would soon be united by the decision he reached that day to leave active Navy duty for his real calling.

"I was oriented to private enterprise," Trione said at his hillside Santa Rosa home with a commanding view of the Oakmont subdivision and the Valley of the Moon below.

Casually dressed in an open-collared shirt and slacks, Trione, 91, points out the home's all-redwood interior and massive stone hearth made of cobblestone from adjacent Annadel State Park.

A short, stocky man with a patrician nose, Trione speaks softly but succinctly, sizing up questions and recalling details, except for some dates, in short answers.

Trione referred to his triple-bypass coronary artery surgery 15 years ago and a recent aortic-valve replacement. An avid polo player for 35 years, Trione now gets most of his exercise by walking.

An entrepreneur, philanthropist, horseman and great-grandfather, Trione is the last of the power brokers who transformed Santa Rosa from a town where ranchers drove cattle through the streets into a regional center of trade, finance, education and entertainment.

He was honored Tuesday at an event reflecting Trione's multifaceted achievements: celebrating the 50th anniversary of Empire College, which he founded, with a keynote speech by the head of Wells Fargo Bank, which Trione helped grow, held at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, which he helped create.

Trione, who made fortunes in finance, real estate, lumber and wine with a seemingly infallible business sense, has given back millions to major institutions and countless nonprofit organizations.

But modesty is a Trione trademark.

"I don't do anything," he said during a lengthy conversation.

You made things happen, an interviewer said.

"Somehow," Trione replied.

His manners are from "a bygone era when modesty and humility better served a man's interests," said Doug Bosco, a former Democratic congressman who calls Republican Trione a friend. "An era when people were gentlemen."

Shaping postwar Santa Rosa

Arriving in Sonoma County in 1948, Trione quickly joined a cadre of leaders — including bankers Jim Keegan and Charles Reinking, savings-and-loan executive J. Ralph Stone and lumber company owner Elie Destruel — who charted Santa Rosa's postwar course.

In the 1950s alone, Santa Rosa gained more than 13,000 new residents, more than it had in the previous 50 years.

The city grew by 73 percent in the '50s, twice the average rate of the 20th century's 10 decades, as prune and walnut orchards were churned into subdivisions and shopping centers by Trione and other leaders of that generation.

"It was inevitable that this place would develop and they were the people here to do it," said Bosco, now a Santa Rosa attorney. "They were visionaries in the sense they knew what they wanted and they didn't let anybody get in their way."

Growth was an unsullied word in Trione's heyday, widely considered the sign of a robust community.

Santa Rosa had adopted the slogan, "The City Designed for Living," in 1946, and the Chamber of Commerce's goal in the early 1950s, Trione recalled, was to "emulate San Jose."

But he was also instrumental in Santa Rosa's greatest act of open space preservation, the establishment of Annadel State Park on hilly land once targeted for development of 6,000 homes.

"What other city has 5,000 acres right on its border?" said Ken Blackman, Santa Rosa's city manager from 1970 to 2000, referring to Annadel, a haven for horse riders, cyclists and hikers. "Were it not for Henry, it would not be there at all."

Humboldt County childhood

Trione, born in 1920, grew up in Humboldt County, fishing in the Eel River and riding horses in the redwoods. He played trumpet and violin and ran track at Fortuna High School, attended Humboldt State University and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1941, just as the United States went to war.

Joining the Navy Supply Corps, Trione served in the Aleutian Islands and then at the Alameda Naval Air Station, where he met his first wife, Madelyne, a WAVE assigned to be his aide. They married in 1946 and moved to Santa Rosa two years later.

Trione's business forte lay in starting or buying businesses—- beginning with a hole-in-the-wall mortgage company in Santa Rosa — and selling them for millions more than he invested.

Sonoma Mortgage, started in a cubbyhole office in the Rosenberg Building in 1948, had 140 employees seven years later. Trione merged it into Wells Fargo Bank in a $10.6 million stock trade in 1968, making him the bank's third-largest shareholder until 1990. His Midas touch extended to investments in wine, lumber and a local savings and loan.

Vic Trione, the elder of Trione's two sons, said there was never any doubt about his father's career path as an entrepreneur.

"I think that was in his DNA," said Trione, 64, chairman of the board of Luther Burbank Savings and Loan. Vic and his brother Mark, 62, run the family holding company, Vimark Inc.

Despite his reputation as a consummate dealmaker, Henry Trione said he tended to sell his enterprises too soon, foregoing potentially greater profits.

"I was always very cautious," Trione said, attributing the instinct to his father's experience with the Great Depression.

Victor Trione, a World War I hero, had done well as a baker in Fortuna in the prosperous 1920s, selling the business and moving his family to Berkeley. His stock market holdings were wiped out in 1929, forcing him to return to the Fortuna bakery.

Unlike his father, Henry Trione rode a postwar growth wave that swept the western United States, as millions of returning war veterans bought homes and became parents of the largest baby boom in the nation's history.

Trione steadfastly attributes his success to good luck and good timing. The nation was on an upswing in the '50s and '60s, so a man simply jumped into real estate, construction or finance.

"I wouldn't call it genius at all," he said.

Mortgage-rate competition

But it wasn't all that simple, either.

There was relatively little money for financing new homes on the West Coast, Trione said, describing the postwar financial landscape. In Santa Rosa, most home mortgage loans were made by individuals, rather than by institutions, and the going interest rate was 6 percent.

As a loan agent for Northwest Mutual Life Insurance, Trione offered mortgage loans at 4 percent, advertising in The Press Democrat with the largest numeral 4 the newspaper could print.

Trione initially wanted to return to Humboldt County, but the company said it was too far away. Santa Rosa, a promising town near San Francisco with an abundance of cheap land and lumber available for homebuilding, resounded with opportunity.

"For the first time, with the Depression ended and (wartime) gasoline and tire rationing over, the impact of the Golden Gate Bridge was felt," co-authors Gaye LeBaron and Joann Mitchell wrote in "Santa Rosa: A Twentieth Century Town." "The Bay Area, filled to excess, overflowed into Sonoma County."

Many of the new arrivals were aviators who had trained by the thousands during the war at Army and Navy airfields near Santa Rosa.

The fliers had relished the area, dating local girls and flying over their homes to impress them, recalled Bob Stone, son of J. Ralph Stone, who ran Santa Rosa Savings and Loan.

"They thought, hey, this is heaven," said Stone, 75, who grew up in the 1950s and '60s.

It was an "Ozzie and Harriet" era, in which Stone's mother knew where her sons had been before they got home from a day's activity. The telephone operator would call her and say: "Mrs. Stone, the boys are over on Ridgway playing with the kids."

Henry Trione, who had marched with the Fortuna High School band across the Golden Gate Bridge when it opened in 1937, brought the financial means to a town ready to roll.

Trione, Stone, Destruel, Keegan and the other financiers became "the new power brokers," displacing the merchants and farmers who had previously run the town, LeBaron and Mitchell wrote. "The new politics belonged to the men who were financing the building boom."

In the '50s and '60s, nothing stood in their way. There were no environmental impact reports, urban growth limits or cumbersome bureaucracies, said Blackman, who came to City Hall as a planner in 1965.

Developers dominated the City Council, and growth was seen as "a source of pride," he said.

Government, development, banking and finance were "all one and the same," said Bosco, who sat with the good old boys on the Sonoma County Fair Board before his own political career began in 1978.

Birth of a state park

What might be Trione's master stroke, the acquisition of Annadel State Park, thwarted a massive development plan for the 5,000-acre property surrounding Lake Ilsanjo.

Trione, and most likely Trione alone, held the power to put together what The Press Democrat described in 1972 as a "tortuously complicated financial package" of some $5 million to acquire the land. He had help from his hunting buddy Joe Long of Long's Drugs, chairman of the state parks foundation, and William Penn Mott Jr., state parks director.

The lesser known part of the deal is that Trione obtained an option to buy Annadel from Wayne Valley, the San Leandro builder who had proposed a 6,000-lot development called Santa Rosa Lakes on the Annadel property.

In 1960, Trione had joined Valley as a founding investor in the Oakland Raiders, picked up three Super Bowl rings before selling his interest when the late Al Davis took the football team to Los Angeles in 1982.

Trione said he personally put $300,000 to $400,000 into the Annadel deal, and purchased a 400-acre portion of the property that he developed into a polo field and the Wild Oak subdivision.

In response to suspicions about Trione's interest in the deal, Mott told a Santa Rosa Rotary Club meeting in 1972 that Trione's motives were altruistic and that in 25 years Annadel would "be what Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco."

New life for former church

In 1981, when the former Christian Life Center on the northern edge of Santa Rosa along Highway 101 went broke, Trione put together the coalition — Stone, Ed Gauer, Hugh and Nell Codding, banker Robert Kerr and Ruth and Evert Person, the Press Democrat's publisher — that bought the facility for $4.5 million cash in a bankruptcy court bidding war.

Today it is the Wells Fargo Center for the Performing Arts, the county's premier entertainment venue.

In 1973, the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce named Trione businessman of the decade. In 1988, he was designated by The Press Democrat as the "most powerful person in Sonoma County."

In that story, a businessman said: "In many ways he's deified, almost like the pope, in a way. If the pope calls, you'd come."

Trione's heyday was also a time of conviviality, when men stopped for a drink after work at the old Topaz Room on Old Courthouse Square or the Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club off Hall Road. There was a social scene, chronicled by the newspaper, with the men always wearing jackets and ties — and women conspicuously absent from the corridors of power.

In office most days

Trione is retired, but still goes to the Vimark office on D Street for a few hours on most days. The man who has given countless dollars to dozens of local organization spends time there on philanthropy and managing his assets.

He uses email sparingly, but no social media. "What's Facebook?" he asked.

Henry and his second wife, Eileen, longtime friends who married in 2006, spend three months every winter at their home in Palm Desert, socializing with other Santa Rosans in the Coachella Valley's balmy weather. Madelyne died of cancer in 2002.

Trione himself nearly died in 1990, when his 1,200-pound horse slipped off a trail and rolled over him during a ride on a ranch near Yorkville in Mendocino County. At 69, he wound up at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital with head wounds that required 90 stitches, a broken neck and 12 broken ribs.

Advised of his injuries, Trione's humor emerged: "A broken neck, huh?" he said. "That's probably not gonna help my golf game."

In the 1980s, Trione put his family name on a chardonnay wine produced by Geyser Peak Winery, which he bought for $20 million in 1982 and then sold to conglomerate Fortune Brands for $100 million in 1998.

Ten years later, the family, which owns 750 acres of vineyards in the Alexander and Russian River valleys, returned to winemaking, opening Trione Vineyards & Winery down the road from Geyser Peak, east of Highway 101.

Many of the awards and citations he's received over six decades of leadership and philanthropy are stacked at floor level against the walls of his home. Trione won't even hint at how much money he's given away, and Vic is equally tight-lipped: "I won't go there either," he said.

Philanthropy more complicated

Other wealthy men of his generation have left their names on major facilities: Hugh Codding on Coddingtown, Benny Friedman on the Friedman Event Center, Evert Person on the Evert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University, Jess Jackson on Sonoma Country Day School's Jackson Theater and Don Green on SSU's Green Music Center.

Philanthropy, like development, has become more complicated, Blackman said, noting the public debate over the size of the swimming pool at the Finley Center, funded by Person and named after his wife's family.

"Strong-willed people don't take kindly to that," Blackman said.

Influential people from the wine and high-tech industries continue to make an impact, but are not as much a part of the community as the old guard, Bosco said. "They don't eat breakfast at Mac's," he said, referring to the popular Fourth Street delicatessen.

Trione's name is nowhere on a landmark building, as is almost customary for major donors.

"No, I don't want that," Trione said. "I'm not interested in that."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.