Visalia car dealer dies at 93

The Fresno BeeJanuary 7, 2014 


George Zarounian of Visalia with one of this midget race cars. (Special to the Bee)


George Zarounian of Visalia was a car dealer who took pride in selling quality vehicles, a diehard poker player and a savvy Monterey real estate investor. Mr. Zarounian died Friday of natural causes at home surrounded by family. He was 93.

Mr. Zarounian was born in Goshen to Armenian immigrant parents and grew up on the family farm near Monson-Sultana.

He was mechanically inclined, enjoyed working on cars and in his senior year at Dinuba High, "he took five shop classes and one P.E. class," his son Gary Zarounian said.

Following a tour of duty in World War II, Mr. Zarounian married Hasmig "Jessie" Peloian, and they had three children. She died in August 2012.

He opened George's Auto Sales in Dinuba in 1948, and George Zarounian's Selected Automobiles in Visalia in the mid-1950s.

The sign at the Visalia dealership at Ben Maddox Way and East Main Street stated "Cleanest Cars in California," a testament to his pride in selling quality cars.

"He was very meticulous," his daughter Gail Groefsema of Bakersfield said. "His tools were lined up perfectly."

He was equally careful about his appearance, often wearing a cowboy hat that was the same color as his clothes. If he couldn't find the right color hat to buy, "he'd spray paint his cowboy hat," she said.

In 1993, he and his son opened a Cadillac/Oldsmobile/Isuzu dealership. For a hobby, they spent 30 years building midget race cars and racing them at tracks around the country.

Mr. Zarounian's entrepreneurial spirit spawned business partnerships.

He and his childhood friend Harry Davidian started Zee and Dee Packing in Cutler, becoming "one of the largest growers of vine-ripened tomatoes in the United States," Gary Zarounian said.

In 1971, Mr. Zarounian and Davidian joined forces with Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino, two young restaurant owners in Monterey, to form Foursome Development Co., which developed much of Cannery Row, Gary Zarounian said.

Another business venture involved part-ownership in "Little Irvy the Whale," a whale carcass in a freezer truck that traveled around the country as a sideshow at shopping centers and county and state fairs. Another venture involved Boss Trucks, a Kenworth truck built for racing.

Although a man of few words, "he had a warm spot after he got to know you," said property manager George Ouzounian of Visalia. "He was very honest, upfront and very supportive."

Mr. Zarounian also loved poker. In 1976, he played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas under the name "Cannery Row George," and for the past several years visited Club One cardroom in Fresno almost daily.

Until a few months ago, he worked out five days a week at Lifestyle Center gym in Visalia. After he turned 90, the staff gave him an award for being an inspiration, Gary Zarounian said.

For the past four years, Mr. Zarounian built owl nesting boxes in his home shop, selling about 500 to vineyard and orchard owners.

"Dad always had to have a purpose," Groefsema said. "He was very driven to the end. I don't think he thought he was 93."

George Zarounian

Born: Dec. 28, 1920

Died: Jan. 3, 2014

Occupation: Car dealer, entrepreneur

Survivors: Son Gary Zarounian, daughters Carol Hovannisian and Gail Groefsema; six grandchildren; five great-grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. Thursday, St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church, Yettem

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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