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John C. Crean, 81; RV firm founder was a major O.C. philanthropist

January 13, 2007|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

John C. Crean was a man of simple tastes.

He loved his family. He loved fishing, cooking and flying model airplanes. And he loved building things that changed people's lives.

Crean did that in a big way in the 1950s by founding Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises, at one time the world's largest manufacturer of mobile homes and trailers and a business that revolutionized the housing industry.

On Thursday the multimillionaire known as one of Orange County's most generous philanthropists died of congestive heart failure at his Newport Beach home. He was 81.

"John was an amazing man," said Barbara Venezia, a longtime friend and neighbor who in the 1990s co-hosted a zany cable-TV cooking show with Crean called "At Home on the Range."

"He was kind of larger than life. He was one of those people who grabs life with both hands."

Crean started grabbing life early on.

Born July 4, 1925, in Bowden, N.D., the son of a Depression-era farmer who moved his family to Compton in 1930, he was a high-spirited, trouble-prone kid who engaged in shoplifting and petty theft for kicks as a teenager.

By the time he was 25, Crean later admitted, he had accumulated four drunk-driving arrests and was, he realized, an alcoholic. But in 1950, the year he founded Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. to design and manufacture Venetian blinds for travel trailers, his life began to change.

Eventually the company grew into a $3-billion-a-year enterprise influential enough to prompt Builder magazine in 1999 -- the year after Crean retired -- to name the mobile-home pioneer one of American housing's most influential leaders of the 20th century, a list that included William Levitt and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Crean, meanwhile, was on to new frontiers. He donated millions of dollars, especially to children's programs, through his Crean Foundation.

He and his wife of 58 years, Donna, lived in a modest apartment on their 4-acre estate -- known as Village Crean and patterned after Tara in "Gone With the Wind" -- while making the house and grounds available for nonprofit fundraising events.

And from 1992 to 1998, he and Venezia produced hundreds of weekly cooking shows out of Crean's garage that eventually became syndicated and can still be seen.

"He had an incredible sense of humor," Venezia said of her friend, whose antics on the show included cooking dog food, dropping a spider into a salad and accidentally preparing a dish with water instead of milk.

"He never felt that anything was too complicated," she said.

"People would ask him about the key to success, and he would say that 99% of it is showing up. He was just a very basic person; he was always there for you -- for family, friends and anybody who needed his time or expertise."

And he wasn't done building. In 2000 he financed a 132-home development in Hemet aimed at retirees.

In a foreword to Crean's 2000 autobiography, "The Wheel and I," which he wrote with Jim Washburn and published himself, comedian Stan Freberg called him "one of the most interesting characters I have ever known ... an American original."

Thomas A. Fuentes, then chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, in which Crean was active, described him as "a man who is full of hope and who is constantly looking for the good in others."

And Crean himself, in a passage that could serve as his epitaph, mused about death.

"I think that there is a heaven," he wrote, "for a lot of reasons. For one thing, when you come out as a baby, you don't know anything about anything. You go through life, and when you die, you're the smartest you're going to be. I don't think that whoever put this whole universe together is going to waste that."

Crean is survived by his wife; sons Johnnie of Chino (who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in 1982) and Andy of Newport Beach; daughters Emily Crean of Newport Beach and Susie Crean Thomas of Temecula; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, according to Venezia.

A memorial service open to the public will be held Thursday at the Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove.

A reception will follow at the Crystal Cathedral arboretum.

Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Children's Bureau of Southern California, 50 S. Anaheim Blvd., Suite 241, Anaheim, CA 92805.

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