“Today is the best day yet but tomorrow will be better,” John Arrillaga ’60 used to say.
The sentence was more than a saying for Arrillaga — it was a mantra he lived by, according to Phil Mahoney ’81, a commercial real estate broker who was introduced to the industry by Arrillaga. The Silicon Valley real estate developer, remembered for his philanthropy and involvement in the Stanford community, died at the age of 84 on Jan. 24. His work and relationships leave behind a legacy of optimism, generosity and wit for many of the countless people who knew Arrillaga.
Born into a working class family in Inglewood, California with roots in the Basque region, Arrillaga earned a basketball scholarship and attended Stanford as an undergraduate. He majored in geography and obtained top grades in the program. In addition to working six part-time jobs and being a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity on campus, Arrillaga served as the team captain of the men’s basketball team and was an All-American athlete. Upon graduation, he traveled around the world playing professional basketball for the USA Basketball Men’s National Team.
In the 1960s, after realizing that professional basketball “would not afford him the family life” that he wanted, according to the obituary written by his family, Arrillaga switched career paths and eventually purchased and helped develop a dilapidated building which would become his first tangible investment in commercial real estate.
Arrillaga and his business partner Richard Peery purchased and converted over 20 million square feet of farmland into campuses and offices, developing the region that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. Gearing their business to the small but growing industry of tech and electronics companies, they capitalized on the availability of land and proximity to the suburbs to house tech giants like Google, Intel and Apple. Through his career in commercial real estate, Arrillaga accumulated a net worth of approximately $2.5 billion.
Arrillaga donated more than $300 million of his fortune to Stanford during his lifetime through philanthropic efforts and dozens of endowed scholarships. His largest donations include a $55 million donation to the School of Medicine in 2020 and a gift of $150 million in 2013 which was, at the time, the single largest donation Stanford had ever received from a living individual.
“John’s support has been life-changing for countless Stanford students,” University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote in a January statement to The Daily. “He has also transformed our physical campus — his deep philanthropic support matched only by the gift of his time and his expertise in architecture, construction and more.”
Arrillaga’s generosity as a donor never undermined his acumen as “the toughest dealmaker in Silicon Valley” — a reputation described in his family’s obituary. For Mahoney, the first word that comes to mind when he thinks of Arrillaga is “complicated.”
“He was so generous to Stanford and other non-profits, but none were tougher on vendors,” said Mahoney. “Commercial real estate was a game to him, zero sum.”
Arrillaga’s success in commercial real estate is deeply woven into the rise of Silicon Valley, according to historians who study the region.
“These larger than life, extraordinarily successful, intellectual people like [Steve] Jobs [are] super important, but they’re also part of this cast of thousands,” explained Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in American urban history and Silicon Valley. “People like Arrillaga help[ed] these companies be what they are and grow — the land and the real estate is part of the story.”
Arrillaga has left a physical footprint and legacy at Stanford, building and donating more than 200 buildings and projects, according to his family’s obituary. While many of these buildings bear his name, including the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, the Frances Arrillaga Alumni Center and the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, other buildings were donated or built anonymously.
Arrillaga also donated and constructed a number of buildings, schools and other projects in the surrounding area of Silicon Valley, including the Menlo School and Ronald McDonald house, according to his the obituary.
Tessier-Lavigne wrote that he “will personally miss John’s dry wit and sense of fun” and that he is “deeply grateful for his remarkable vision and commitment to Stanford, which will be felt for generations to come.”