Santa Rosa power broker, philanthropist Henry Trione dies at 94

Henry F. Trione, a small-town baker’s son with a Midas touch who amassed a fortune while becoming Sonoma County’s leading postwar power broker, died Thursday morning at the age of 94.

See an interactive timeline of Trione's life and generosity

Few could have foreseen the wealth, influence and philanthropy that would follow the young Navy veteran who arrived in Santa Rosa in 1947 and began writing mortgages from a cubbyhole downtown. Trione would parlay that first company into a stake that at one time made him the largest individual stockholder in Wells Fargo, until he was eclipsed by Warren Buffett and Walter Annenberg.

Trione, a shrewd financier who attributed much of his success to good luck and good timing, went on to make successive fortunes that mirrored the evolution of the North Coast with his investments in timber, real estate, banking and wine.

A Catholic, Republican and rugged outdoorsman, Trione left an enduring mark on the landscape as well, most notably in putting together the deal that created Annadel State Park in eastern Santa Rosa. Through donations - often anonymous - and persuasion, he put the touch on others in his circle, deciding which causes warranted support.

“Henry was truly a Renaissance Californian who leaves an immeasurable legacy across Northern California and beyond,” said John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo. “From his work in the arts and education to his dedication to community service and the environment, Henry always led with his heart.”

Victor Trione of Santa Rosa described his father as “a community icon, elder statesman, consummate benefactor and, on a personal level, devoted father, mentor and best friend.”

“Henry lived his last few months with the same courage, mental toughness and positive spirit that carried him through his previous 94-plus years,” Victor Trione said.

Henry Trione was diagnosed with cancer in late November and declined medical treatment, his family said. He died at his Santa Rosa home.

In an era when the local social and economic establishment was dominated by a small group of businessmen and bankers, Trione was the prince. But his demeanor was unfailingly modest. Despite the polo ponies and world travels that came later, he never forgot growing up as the son of a baker in the Humboldt County town of Fortuna.

His net worth and significant contributions to charity are both difficult to assess, and he was never one to flaunt his achievements. He remained steadfastly tight-lipped when asked to describe the extent of his donations to charitable causes and community projects. “That’s not significant,” he said in a 1998 interview.

A short, stocky man with a patrician nose and penetrating dark eyes, Trione casually dismissed his motivation for giving away chunks of his fortune with a quip: “There are no luggage racks on a hearse.”

Trione also downplayed the business acumen that piled one successful venture upon another. “Wealth comes from the growth of the economy,” he said. “Good times make heroes out of very lucky people.”

His achievements have become part of the backdrop of Sonoma County, none greater than 5,000-acre Annadel State Park, which Trione spent more than $1 million to save from becoming a housing development in the 1970s.

“He’s a totally vibrant human being,” said Caryl Hart, county regional parks director. “An iconic figure who helped make Sonoma County what it is today.”

When the state put Annadel on a park closure list in 2012, Trione quickly put up $100,000 that helped keep it open for a year under county administration, said Hart, a former chairwoman of the state Parks and Recreation Commission. “He completely loved that park,” she said.

Mark Trione said his father’s commitment to preserving Annadel typified his ability “to put his personal interests aside for the sake of the community. He was very forward-thinking.”

Henry Trione was the sole survivor of a small fraternity of civic leaders, including savings and loan executive J. Ralph Stone, bankers Jim Keegan and Charles Reinking and lumber company owner Elie Destruel - men Trione referred to in later years as the “old bulls” - who charted Santa Rosa’s pro-growth postwar course in an era of minimal government restrictions well before the rise of the environmental movement.

They transformed Santa Rosa from a town where ranchers drove cattle through the streets into a regional hub for trade, finance, education and entertainment.

“Some people might say Henry was a major catalyst for the transition,” said Gaye LeBaron, a Press Democrat columnist who shared Trione’s rural Humboldt County roots.

“Henry was in a class by himself,” said Ken Blackman, Santa Rosa’s city manager for 30 years until his retirement in 2000. “Henry stands alone as someone who always wanted to give back to the community.”

Plaques and certificates attesting to his good deeds are so numerous that many rest on the floor of his spacious living room, but they don’t cover the many times Trione made personal loans to businessmen in distress, even when he knew the prospect of repayment was slim.

“I often asked myself as I got older, are we going to have people like this in the future, or was he part of an age that may not be repeated?” Blackman mused.

Born in 1920, less than two years after the end of World War I, Trione grew up in Humboldt County, fishing in the Eel River and riding horseback in the redwoods. His father, an Italian immigrant, owned a bakery in Fortuna, and Trione sold hot dogs at the Humboldt County Fair for spending money during the Great Depression.

He played trumpet in the marching band and violin in the orchestra at Fortuna High School, where he also set county records as a sprinter on the track team. He attended the University of San Francisco and Humboldt State College and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1941, taking his last exam on Dec. 8, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Trione went right from the campus to war, serving as supply officer for a PT boat squadron in the Aleutian Islands and later at Alameda. A turning point in his life came in 1946, as he sat for three hours on a park bench in San Francisco, contemplating his future at the age of 26.

There were fears at the time that the nation would slip back into the hard times of the 1930s and Trione considered the possibility that his Navy lieutenant’s commission would be the key to a stable future. His instincts said no.

“I was oriented to private enterprise,” Trione said in a 2011 interview, recalling his fateful decision to leave the service and pursue his real calling. After training in the home mortgage loan business, Trione intended to return to Humboldt County, but it offered scant economic prospects in 1947. He was diverted instead to Santa Rosa, then a city of 15,000.

“No one in their wildest imaginations could foresee in the late ’40s what would happen here,” he said in 1998.

But Trione must have had an inkling of the impending economic swell that would boost the city’s population more than tenfold to 170,000 today. The Golden Gate Bridge had opened a few years before the war, linking Sonoma County to the Bay Area. Land for new homes around Santa Rosa was cheap, with vast forests of redwood available to build them.

Trione’s first enterprise, Sonoma Mortgage Corp., started in a small office on the fourth floor of the Rosenberg Building with a rented desk, chair and typewriter. He offered 4 percent home loans when the going rate at banks was 6 percent.

The now-famous anecdote is that when Trione went to The Press Democrat to take out an advertisement for his interest rate, advertising manager Paul Johnson demanded cash in advance. Seven years later, Sonoma Mortgage had 140 employees, more than the newspaper at that time.

As new subdivisions and shopping centers sprouted in prune and apple orchards, Santa Rosa’s population swelled by more than 13,000 in the 1950s, growing more than it had in the previous half-century.

By the early 1960s, Trione was searching for a source of more capital, just as Wells Fargo Bank was intent on boosting its mortgage loan operation, Trione wrote in his self-published autobiography, “Footprints of the Baker Boy,” released last year. Their union was facilitated by Jim Keegan, manager of the bank’s Santa Rosa branch and Trione’s closest friend and fishing buddy.

The merger in 1968 involved a $10.6 million stock transfer, making Trione the bank’s largest individual stockholder, a distinction he held until Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Ambassador Walter Annenberg both made larger investments in the bank. Trione also became a senior vice president and then a Wells Fargo board member, a position he held until 1990, when he reached the compulsory retirement age.

“Henry was passionate and energetic and we owe him a debt of gratitude for his many contributions to Wells Fargo,” said Stumpf, the CEO.

In 1963, Trione became a part owner of Molalla Forest Products, which had a lumber mill in Cloverdale, 33,000 acres of timberland and a booming business in providing lumber for the 1,500-square-foot tract homes going up in Santa Rosa.

The company expanded its holdings considerably, until Trione and his partner, Jim Laier, merged Molalla into Masonite Corp. in 1970, following the Trione trademark of building a local business and selling it to a major player in the same industry.

At age 63, he started on that course again, buying Geyser Peak Winery from the Schlitz Brewing Co. for $20 million in 1983. Trione took control of the struggling company, invested heavily in improving the quality of the wines, and sold the winery and Geyser Peak brand to the conglomerate Fortune Brands for $100 million in 1998.

Trione’s sons, Victor and Mark, opened Trione Winery in Geyserville in 2008 and began producing red and white wines in the $20- to $70-a-bottle range. His granddaughter, Denise Trione Hicks, became marketing director, and while politely ignoring her granddad’s advice also rebuffed his query about how many free cases of wine would come with his official designation as a “consultant.”

“None,” she said, according to Trione’s autobiography. “You pay like the rest of us do.”

“So I pay,” Trione wrote.

His $50,000 investment in a fledgling pro football team in an untried league in 1960 netted Trione three Super Bowl rings, as the Oakland Raiders won a trio of world championships before the late Al Davis moved the team to Los Angeles in 1982, prompting Trione to sell his shares to Davis for $1.86 million. It was a “good profit,” he wrote, but “peanuts compared to what pro football franchises are worth now.”

But another payoff lay ahead.

As his personal fortunes swelled, Trione’s philanthropy began changing the landscape - or preserving it, in the case of the 5,000-acre property surrounding Lake Ilsanjo. Trione and his hunting buddy, Joe Long of Long’s Drugs, assembled the $5 million package that saved the picturesque property on Santa Rosa’s eastern flank, creating Annadel State Park.

The deal turned in large part on Trione’s ability to secure an option on the land from Wayne Valley, a San Leandro builder who had proposed a 5,000-lot development called Santa Rosa Lakes. Trione and Valley both had been founding investors in the Raiders.

Trione put more than $1 million into the Annadel deal, and worked with Long, the newly organized California State Parks Foundation and local citizens to complete the $5 million park acquisition in 1969. Victor and Mark purchased a 400-acre portion of the property, which was turned into the Wild Oak subdivision, along with a polo field.

An avid polo player for 35 years, Trione built his home - with an all-redwood interior and a commanding view of the Valley of the Moon - on the hillside above the club, adjacent to Annadel. A massive stone hearth was made of cobblestone from the park.

“He was connected to the park for life,” said Hart, who called the scenic acreage, a haven for hikers, cyclists and horseback riders, Trione’s legacy. Hart and Trione are both honorary state park rangers, an award that came with a broad-brimmed felt hat that became one of the philanthropist’s favorites.

Trione donated $50,000 in the 1970s to set up the move of the former post office from its A Street corner to a site on Seventh Street, where it became the Sonoma County Museum.

He assembled the group of donors, dubbed “Henry’s Angels,” who purchased the former Christian Life Center on the northern edge of Santa Rosa along Highway 101 for $4.5 million cash in a bankruptcy court bidding war in 1981. Today it is the Wells Fargo Center for the Performing Arts, a major entertainment venue.

The angels included Stone, retailer Benny Friedman, developer Hugh Codding and his wife, Nell, businessman Robert Kerr and Press Democrat publisher Evert Person and his wife, Ruth, all movers and shakers in their own right.

Trione consistently said his proudest achievement was founding Empire College, originally started in the former Bank of America building on Old Courthouse Square. When the bank moved out in 1961, Trione bought the building and immediately gilded the top of the clock tower.

Mary Thurman, who owned an employment agency, suggested that the city needed a new business school, so Trione established it and made Thurman the president. The college prospered, and a law school was added in 1973.

Roy Hurd, president and CEO of Empire College, said that Trione’s “vision of giving back to the community” is embedded in the programs of the college’s business and law schools, which have produced more than 10,000 graduates. Most of those graduates have gone to work in the county and have collectively earned an estimated $1 billion, Hurd said.

Trione supported dozens of nonprofit groups, including Social Advocates for Youth, United Way, the Boy Scouts, the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, Sonoma County Community Foundation, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, the 4-H Foundation and Ducks Unlimited. His donations supported Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University and a fund to buy musical instruments for Sonoma County schools.

He paid to transport the Fortuna High School band to the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987, recalling that he marched as a member of the same band during the span’s 1937 opening.

Trione is not alone among Sonoma County’s wealthy philanthropists, but he is distinct in one regard: His name is not on any of the facilities he financed. “He never sought recognition for anything,” Blackman said.

In a 1999 millennium observance by The Press Democrat, Trione was named one of the 50 people who shaped Sonoma County’s 20th century. The story said: “He is the spiritual leader of the county’s wealthy and well-connected, giving the blessing necessary for the upper crust to get behind a community project, charity or politician.”

Former Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh said he turned to Trione for help shortly after arriving in the scandal-plagued and financially crippled Catholic diocese in 2000. Trione “stepped right up” with money and advice, Walsh said, and urged others to contribute to a fundraising campaign that stabilized the diocese that covers more than 40 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border.

“He is an extraordinary individual,” said Walsh, now a parish priest at St. Anne’s Church in San Francisco, who visited an ailing Trione one month before his death.

A trail ride on a ranch near Yorkville in Mendocino County nearly killed the veteran equestrian at age 69, when Trione’s 1,200-pound horse slipped off a trail and rolled onto him in a creekbed. Trione wound up at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital with a broken neck, 12 broken ribs and a gash that required 90 stitches and left a permanent scar on his forehead.

Advised of his injuries, Trione’s characteristic humor emerged. “A broken neck, huh?” he said. “That’s probably not gonna help my golf game.”

Mark Trione said that from an early age he and his brother enjoyed a relationship with their father as if they were three brothers. “We called him Henry, not dad,” Mark said, recalling their experiences hunting, traveling and later playing polo together.

Their relationship was based on “love and respect,” Mark said, adding that “irreverence ruled the day. He was the biggest tease in the world.”

As adults, Mark said that he and Victor were schooled in business simply by watching their father in action. “It was like Business 101 from one of the best guys I’ve ever heard about,” Mark said.

Trione met his first wife, Madelyne, when she was a WAVE assigned to be his aide at a Navy base in Alameda at the end of World War II. They married in 1946, and Trione said a half-century later that Madelyne had “been with me every step of the way.”

She died in 2002.

Trione and his second wife, the former Eileen Ryan, married in 2006.

Survivors, in addition to his wife and sons, are his daughters-in-law Cathy and Karen Trione, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A public celebration of Trione’s life will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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