Steve Pilibos, west-side farmer, Renaissance man, dies at age 102

The Fresno BeeJanuary 24, 2014 

Y. Stephen "Steve" Pilibos at a 2001 park dedication in Fresno.

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Y. Stephen "Steve" Pilibos was a trend-setting farmer on the west side, had college degrees in philosophy, poetry and the law, rode horses and drove cars into his 90s and amassed a fortune as a savvy Fresno developer.

Mr. Pilibos died Tuesday at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno. He was 102.

At one time, Mr. Pilibos and his older brother, Alex, had one of the largest cantaloupe-growing operations in California. He later became a developer, leaving his mark as the original owner of the downtown Hilton Hotel when it was the place to stay in Fresno and owning several shopping centers throughout the city.

Today, his family empire includes a 2,000-acre farm in Mendota, a 40-acre ranch in southeast Fresno and vast amounts of real estate.

A southeast Fresno park -- on land he donated -- is named after him.

"He was a true Renaissance man because he knew everything about everything," Fresno City Council Member Sal Quintero said.

Mr. Pilibos had degrees in philosophy and poetry from Fresno State College, and a law degree from the University of Southern California, said daughter Sarah Pilibos, who runs the family's business.

In his spare time, he would hunt for quail, duck and pheasant and ride horses, his daughter said. He also liked to recite poetry to his children, especially the 1855 poem, "The Barefoot Boy," by John Greenleaf Whittier that begins: "Blessings on thee, little man/Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!"

Mr. Pilibos read just about anything, including the National Enquirer, a gossip magazine. In March last year, Mr. Pilibos and his wife, Lucille, were featured in the Enquirer for not missing a single issue in 30 years.

Farming roots

As a farmer, Mr. Pilibos first made his mark in the Imperial Valley and then in Mendota with his older brother, Alex Pilibos, who studied engineering at USC and also had a law degree from USC.

In the 1950s, the brothers, operating under the labels Mission Bell and Pilibos Bros, began experimenting with new varieties of melons from seeds they brought from Syria.

"Nowadays they would call it genetic engineering," Sarah Pilibos said. "But they didn't have a lab. They did everything in the field."

The brothers ended up developing a cantaloupe in Mendota that shoppers couldn't resist: a sweet fruit with highly-colored orange meat, a thinner rind and a smaller seed cavity.

Mr. Pilibos had other innovations.

In the old days, melons were shipped in wooden crates. Sarah Pilibos said her father created a cardboard box to protect his cantaloupes from being damaged. He also designed grading and sorting machinery to improve the packing process, she said.

"He was always thinking of ways to improve the operation," she said.

The Pilibos family came from the Ottoman Empire (before it became Turkey) and settled in Fresno sometime around the turn of the 20th century.

Mr. Pilibos, who was named after his father but liked to be called Steve, was the youngest of Yeprem and Mary Pilibos' six children. He was born at the family home at Fruit and Jensen avenues on Nov. 22, 1911.

He learned to drive a tractor at age 12, his daughter said.

As a kid, he liked to ride his bicycle and visit gypsy encampments in the rural countryside near his home, said Robert Boro, a friend.

When he was 14, he had his own truck and would sell produce to businesses before class at Fresno High School, Boro said. When Boro asked Mr. Pilibos how he managed to get a driver's license, Mr. Pilibos responded: "What license?"

Sarah Pilibos said her father idolized his brother, Alex, who died in 1966. The Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School in Los Angeles is named after him and his wife, who endowed it.

Mr. Pilibos also was a philanthropist, but he preferred to donate anonymously, his daughter and others said.

"Steve was very generous to the community and the smartest and most ethical man I have ever met," said longtime family friend Dr. David R. Taylor of Fresno.

Mr. Pilibos was a private man who didn't flaunt his connections, Taylor said. In Mr. Pilibos' southeast Fresno home are photographs with him with at least three U.S. presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Taylor said Mr. Pilibos treasured his wife, Lucille, whom he married in 1949 and affectionately called Lu. "He told me the best thing he ever did in his life was marrying Lu," Taylor said.

Mr. Pilibos also was proud of the fact that he didn't need to go to the bank for a loan. "He also never greased the palm of any politician," Taylor said.

Sealed with a handshake

Mr. Pilibos made agreements with a firm handshake, Taylor said. Quintero can attest to that.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Pilibos wanted to build apartments on 13.5 acres in southeast Fresno. But Quintero said the neighborhood needed a park -- and Mr. Pilibos agreed and donated the land for it.

"We shook hands over it," Quintero said.

But Mr. Pilibos had one condition, Quintero said: The city had only one year to get the ball rolling. If the city balked, Quintero had to support Mr. Pilibos' plan for apartments on the land.

"He had to give me a timeline because he knew the city would drag its feet," Quintero said. The park was done in time.

Quintero said Mr. Pilibos helped redevelop the city's downtown core on Van Ness between Fresno and Tulare streets. The centerpiece was the Hilton Hotel, which opened in 1972. It is now called the Holiday Inn. For many years, it was Fresno's preferred destination for visiting entertainers like The Who, Elvis Presley and Tom Jones.

Some of Mr. Pilibos' development plans met with skepticism.

In 1960, for instance, he purchased the downtown Sequoia Hotel, which was built in 1912, and tore it down to make room for a modern building. In its heyday, the hotel was a gathering spot for Fresno's movers and shakers and for fruit buyers.

In an interview with The Bee three decades later, Pilibos said he bought the rundown hotel because he wanted to preserve a piece of Fresno history. He said he offered the owner $100,000, giving him until dusk the next day to accept the offer.

When the hotel was demolished, Mr. Pilibos kept 30,000 bricks from the structure. He took the bricks to his ranch in southeast Fresno, cleaned them, stacked them on pallets and covered them with plastic -- waiting for a chance to reuse them.

Years later, he used some of the bricks in a shopping center he built at First and Ashlan avenues. Another 15,000 bricks were incorporated into the design of the columns at the Food Maxx center on Kings Canyon Road.

A letter writer to The Bee objected to Mr. Pilibos' view of himself as a preservationist. To advance the theory, the letter writer, Roger B. Taylor (editor's note: the original version of this story incorrectly reported the letter writer's name as Robert B. Taylor), offered the former YWCA building at Tuolumne and L streets as an example. Taylor wrote that Mr. Pilibos had "remuddled" the building designed by Julia Morgan, the foremost woman architect in American history.

"We need to save whole structures to achieve authentic historic preservation," Taylor said.

Sarah Pilibos, however, noted that her father purchased the old YWCA from the Pacific Bible Institute, which had already altered it. "My father believed that he could rebuild buildings better," Sarah Pilibos said. "This way they would never have to be destroyed."

Sarah Pilibos said her father was a conservationist who set aside a large parcel of land near Mendota for a wildlife preserve and ensured 200 acres along the Kings River near Minkler -- that took him years to piece together -- would never be developed.

Though he hobnobbed with the rich and famous from around the world, Sarah Pilibos said, her father had several opportunities to leave Fresno but never did.

"They wanted him to go to Saudi Arabia and build farms," she said. "They wanted him to build hotels in Beruit."

"The social opinions about him, whether right, wrong or indifferent, won't change the fact that he was a great man who cared about his family and the community," she said.


Y. Stephen 'Steve' Pilibos

Born: Nov. 22, 1911

Died: Jan. 21, 2014

Career: Fresno developer, west-side farmer

Survivors: Wife of 64 years, Lucille; daughters Sarah Pilibos, Catherine Pilibos, Barbara Meinert, Mary White; son Alex Pilibos; and six grandchildren

Services: 11 a.m. Tuesday at Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church, 3673 N. First St., Fresno

Remembrances: Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church; Terry's House; Saint Agnes Medical Center; or the California Armenian Home for senior citizens

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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