Wherever you are in the world, you’ve undoubtedly tasted the produce George Chiala ’64 grew. Once upon a time, it started with strawberries.
Noted agriculturalist and philanthropist George Chiala ’64 passed away after a long illness on January 2, surrounded by family and friends. Santa Clara Magazine interviewed Chiala last year in preparation for a profile of this distinguished graduate—and it is from this interview that the following article was prepared.
As commuters rush north on Highway 101 through Morgan Hill, perhaps a few glance at the farmland to the east—and at a single unprepossessing 40-acre field covered with row upon row of jalapeño pepper plants.
But when the man who grew those peppers looked across the same field, he saw a bell tower, and ranks of classroom buildings—all echoing the architecture of Santa Clara Mission and University—and a vast sports complex. And at the entrance to it all, a sign reading: Saint John XXIII College Preparatory High School.
George Chiala was no ordinary farmer. Indeed, reflecting his upbringing in Cupertino and his time studying business and economics, Chiala was one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial farmers in the U.S. He took his SCU education—not least his training in social justice from his Jesuit professors—and became one of the South Bay’s most important community leaders and philanthropists—a role underscored in 2014, when Morgan Hill gave him the city’s highest honor, its Leadership Excellence Award. He’d already been named the city’s Man of the Year in 2005.
The famously soft-spoken and humble Chiala didn’t like to talk much about the honors he had earned, saying only that Santa Clara “taught me to have respect for everyone and see charity and good works as an expression of faith.” But when the talk turned to the new high school, for which he was the primary driving force, Chiala lit up and his voice became animated.
“For all of the growth of this area, the San Jose diocese has not seen a new high school in more than 50 years,” Chiala said as he navigated his SUV around the target field. “Right now, parents have two choices if they want their high schoolers to get a Catholic education: bus them over the hills to Salinas, or drive them 30 miles each way in gridlocked traffic to the Catholic high schools in Silicon Valley.”
He shook his head in dismay, “Imagine the hardships on the parents. And, on the kids, who spend much of their school day trapped in cars. Our children need a top-notch diocesan high school in their own community.”
Given that the first phase of St. John XXII Prep is a $30 million project, on land that the Morgan Hill school district once attempted to develop and gave up on, one might imagine that Chiala took on an impossible task. But in Morgan Hill, where they had seen George in action for decades, few had any doubt that he would succeed. In fact, before his death, Chiala had already led an initial campaign that successfully raised $9 million to purchase that 40-acre plot.
It seems that few people could say no to George Chiala. As Susan Krajewski, campaign director for the project once said about George, “His passion is contagious and spurs others to action.” Watching Chiala ask a local business leader for money during lunch in a local restaurant was to see a man whose certainty in the value of his work made him utterly fearless.
Spark and Kick
This stunning combination of gentleness, entrepreneurial innovation, and unrelenting drive always characterized Chiala. The son of a pioneering Cupertino farm family, George followed the path of many Valley farm boys and attended Santa Clara. In the summer, he worked at his father Vito’s Morgan Hill farm. On one particularly hot summer day in 1967, George stopped by the local drugstore for an ice cream cone … and encountered Alice, a San Jose State food science major who was working at her uncle’s shop. They married soon after graduation and both took office jobs.
But George had other dreams—and in 1972, he finally confessed to Alice that what he really wanted to do was to start his own farm. Alice—as fearless as her husband—agreed, and together they founded George Chiala Farms.
As George would later recall, “It was hard at first. We planted 20 acres of strawberries, and 90 acres of sugar beets, along with tomatoes and peppers. Then we began to experiment with sweet corn … lots of it. And after that, garlic.” That last is especially important, because history will credit Chiala with perfecting the processing and packaging of the minced garlic—today a multimillion dollar industry—that helped put nearby Gilroy on the map.
The Chialas struggled in those early years. Alice took work as a substitute teacher while raising their four children. George worked endless hours building the business. And when school was out, Alice and the kids joined him. Recalled Alice, “There were always things to do, from making boxes to driving the tractor.” Their two sons, George Jr. MBA ’02 and Tim, now run the farm’s business.
Through that difficult decade, George never stopped learning his trade, taking courses, joining the Farm Bureau, talking to industry veterans like Mitch Mariani—and, like a true entrepreneur, never stopped looking for ways to turn his little start-up farm into something much bigger.
In 1984, George found his opening. He and Alice raised the capital to not only buy more farmland, but also construct a new food processing plant to apply the latest innovations in the field. The Chialas now set out to leapfrog the competition, slowly abandoning the unpredictable world of fresh produce and instead becoming major players in the world of processed food ingredients.
Business took off even faster than they anticipated, and the Chialas never looked back.
You have probably never seen Chiala farm produce—but wherever you are in the world, you have undoubtedly tasted it. The Chiala food processing plant, set in the middle of the family farm, which now stretches for miles on the valley floor, is as unassuming as its founder. But each year more than 100 million pounds of garlic, onion, jalapeños, and other crops are prepared there, using a proprietary dehydration-brining-IQF freezing process, and diced or minced to be shipped in barrels to food manufacturers throughout the world. There, they become the kick in V8 juice, the tang in Heinz ketchup, the secret ingredient in Nestle’s cocoa, and, as George liked to say, “the spark in Velveeta cheese.”
Meanwhile, even as the farm grew into a major industry player, George continued to innovate, pioneering new techniques for planting, irrigation, water conservation, and most recently, working with a local scientist to produce hydrogen from plant waste. The Chialas were just as creative on the charitable front—something George credited to his Jesuit SCU professors. He sat on the board of St. Catherine’s School in Morgan Hill and other nonprofits, most notably two local hospitals. The farm continues to be a leading provider to local food banks. And George and Alice often opened their historic Fountain Oaks estate for fundraising events by local organizations.
“He isn’t done trying.”
At the beginning of this decade, George Chiala took on his biggest challenge: St. John XXIII College Preparatory. He now will not see its ultimate triumph. He was still working on that dream right up until the day he died, raising money and fighting seemingly endless bureaucratic barriers.
Says Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, “George made many people’s dreams come true over the years, and the college prep was to be one more of those. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen before he passed, but knowing George, he isn’t done trying.”
San Jose Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath, speaking at Chiala’s memorial service, agreed: “George is probably working with Jesus right now to find a way to make it (the high school) happen one day.”
If those who now take up his torch are successful, those Morgan Hill commuters could see the first walls rising from that pepper field in the next few years; and the first class arriving two years after that. Phase 1 will total 600 students. By 2029, the goal is to have 1200 coed students matriculating at St. John XXIII Prep in the most technologically state-of-the-art campus in the region—and many of them applying to SCU. “We’ve got a ways to go,” said George in early 2016. “But we’ll get there.”
George Chiala is survived by four siblings, his wife Alice, sons George Jr. and Tim, daughters Christi and Nicole, and eight grandchildren. Those wishing to support the St. John XXIII Preparatory High project can contact South County Catholic High School, 17190 Monterey Rd, #202, Morgan Hill, CA 95037.