Leo Diran

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Fresno County grapegrower, died December 2006 at the age of 98. Diran never married and had worked his grape farm in Kingsburg until he was 90. A friend says Diran accumulated his wealth while living a simple life and investing in stocks.

Left each of the following institutions $2.7 million in his will.

The $11 million farmer

The Fresno Bee (California) October 5, 2007 Friday

The $11 million farmer

by Vanessa Colon and Anne Dudley El, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Oct. 5--A reserved Kingsburg grape grower who lived simply, never married and worked his farm until he was 90 has donated about $11 million to three Armenian-American nonprofit groups and the University of California at San Francisco.

Leo Diran died last December at age 98. Trustees of his estate delivered checks for $2.7 million to each of the recipients last month.

Among the beneficiaries is the California Armenian Home on East Kings Canyon Road in southeast Fresno, where Diran spent his last years. Officials at the home said they were unaware of Diran's wealth -- acquired mostly through investments -- until after his death. The gift is the largest single donation the home has ever received, they said.

"Sometimes we learn of the accomplishments of a person too late to acknowledge his contributions during his lifetime. We have all heard of stories of people who have chosen to leave generous donations to be distributed through their estate. The California Armenian Home is fortunate to be the recipient of the generosity of one such person," said Bob Garabedian, an Armenian Home board member.

The other recipients are the American Armenian Missionary Association in New Jersey, the Armenian General Benevolent Union in New York, and the University of California at San Francisco.

This is the second time in less than a month that a Valley resident emerged unexpectedly as a major donor. Last month, Fresno's Barbara Dodd Anderson donated $128.5 million to a Pennsylvania boarding school she attended as a girl.

Ron Bergman, Diran's friend and neighbor for 40 years, said Diran would be "rolling over in his grave" at the attention focused on his benevolence.

"He was a rather shy and reserved man, but he was very kind, very knowledgeable about his farming practices. He was a very well-liked man," Bergman said.

Larry Jorge of Selma, who is a trustee of Diran's estate, described Diran as quiet.

"He didn't like any flair. He kept to himself," Jorge said.

Few people knew of his wealth, Bergman said, as Diran lived simply in his family's home, built in the 1930s. He did not travel or spend much money on himself, Bergman said.

Diran, born in Boston, settled with his parents and siblings on a 40-acre farm in Kingsburg in 1912.

He attended Clay Elementary School through eighth grade and graduated from Kingsburg High School in 1926.

Diran was drafted into the U.S. Army at age 34, serving in Europe during World War II. Bergman said that he once asked Diran why he had not sought a "farm deferment" from the military.

"He said, 'No. I wanted to serve my country. I wanted the chance to see other parts of the world.' "

Diran came home to farm wine grapes and raisins until he was 90, Bergman said.

"You'd see him out pruning with the crew," Bergman said. "He did all his own tractor work."

Diran studied the latest farming techniques and was an "inventive man," Bergman said. He made his own pruning sheers and other tools. He was a meticulous farmer.

"The ranch was always in fine shape. You had to hunt for a weed on it," Bergman said.

He was not one to gather with other farmers for morning coffee in town, Bergman said.

"He didn't see a need to do that," Bergman said. "That was a bit foolish to spend time in a coffee shop."

Although Diran did not attend college, he valued education, which may explain his donation to University of California at San Francisco, Bergman said.

Bergman, on the Clay Elementary School board for nearly 30 years, often discussed education with Diran. When Diran heard about plans to build a bus garage at Clay, he contributed $50,000 toward the $60,000 project, Bergman said. Before the facility was built, the school's buses were parked outside.

While Diran was living, he wanted no recognition for his contribution to the garage, although the school is now planning to honor Diran with a plaque and picture, to be hung in the school office.

Bergman said he told Diran after the garage was completed in 2002: "Leo, I want to take you by and see it.' And he said, 'No, I don't want to see it. I know it's there.'

"He did not want to brag about it."

Diran accrued much of his fortune through investments in stocks, Bergman said. He subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and studied the market daily.

In Diran's later years, Bergman said, he came to realize his friend's immense wealth as they discussed the stock market.

"I certainly didn't question him on that," Bergman said.

With his eyesight failing and his health faltering, Diran moved from the family ranch to the California Armenian Home. Diran didn't have any children.

Garabedian said Diran donated the money to the California Armenian Home because he was happy with the service his sister Mary Diran received.

The California Armenian Home, once a small residential-care facility, has 120 beds in the nursing-care unit and 37 residential-care beds. The home plans to use the $2.7 million to build either an Alzheimer's facility for patients suffering from the brain disorder, a rehabilitation center or an independent living facility.

Dikran Youmshakian, field director of The American Armenian Missionary Association in New Jersey, said Diran was a member of the association. Several years before his death, Diran sold his farm and donated roughly $500,000 to establish an endowment.

The association will use the latest donation for religious, educational and social service projects in 22 countries, Youmshakian said. The group is affiliated with churches around the world, including Fresno's Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church and First Armenian Presbyterian Church.

Youmshakian visited Diran at the California Armenian Home when Diran was 90.

"He loved this organization. ... He said he was following in the footsteps of his father by remembering this organization in his will," Youmshakian said.

The donation to the Armenian General Benevolent Union is meant for an endowment for the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, Armenia, said Hrag Vartanian, a union spokesman. The group supports schools and provides scholarships for students of Armenian descent around the globe.

By Vanessa Colon and Anne Dudley Ellis

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  • Fresno County grapegrower leaves millions to UCSF and three Armenian-American nonprofits, Associated Press - October 5, 2007
  • The $11 million farmer, The Fresno Bee (California) - October 5, 2007