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Eugene Trefethen Jr.; Industrialist, Vintner

February 03, 1996|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

NAPA, Calif. — Eugene Trefethen Jr., who oversaw the building of Hoover Dam and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Henry J. Kaiser, and later owned a world-class winery estate, has died. He was 86.

The philanthropist, who also helped create the Walter A. Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, died Wednesday at his home after a brief illness.

Trefethen began his career in 1926, working during school vacations as a sand-and-gravel laborer with the Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. In five decades with the company, he worked closely with Kaiser on Hoover Dam and the Bay Bridge and rose to president and vice chairman of Kaiser Industries.

"Trefethen was the financial and managerial genius who turned Henry J. Kaiser's dreams into reality, creating one of the largest industrial forces of the 20th century," said Cornell Maier, retired chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Kaiser.

A college fraternity brother of Kaiser's oldest son, Edgar Sr., Trefethen worked hard to earn that accolade.

"Any time you were around Henry Kaiser you worked, so we worked every vacation whether it was Christmas vacation or summer vacation or Easter, Saturday, Sundays--we worked all the time," Trefethen told The Times in 1985 as the massive company was being dismantled.

Gov. Pete Wilson, recognizing Trefethen's business and viticulture accomplishments as well as his work for California education and the arts, called Trefethen "the eighth wonder of the world."

Trefethen retired in 1979 and in his later years tended to the 600-acre Napa Valley estate, built in 1886.

His son, John Vance Trefethen, established the Trefethen Winery in 1973 with his wife, Janet Spooner Trefethen. They built it into a well-respected winery that now produces 100,000 cases of vintage-dated varietal wines. It won the award for best chardonnay in the world in the Gault-Millau World Wine Olympics in 1979.

"Gene Trefethen, in addition to being a marvelous person, helped all of us develop Napa Valley to world-class status," vintner Robert Mondavi said.

Trefethen also was a philanthropist, who gave generously of his time and money to UC Berkeley, Mills College, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and UC San Francisco. He also was active with the Oakland Museum of California, the United Way, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Assn., the Boy Scouts of America and the United Negro College Fund.

In his dedication to UC Berkeley, he held a fund-raiser for the Haas School of Business every year on his wedding anniversary.

Among many honors, Trefethen was named business statesman of the year by the Harvard Business School in 1990 and was the first recipient of the United Way's Alexis de Tocqueville Society Community Philanthropy Award in 1985. He was named alumnus of the year in 1979 by UC Berkeley.

Trefethen is survived by his wife of 60 years, Catherine, his daughter, Carla Jean Trefethen Saunders, son John, and four grandchildren.

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