Gilroy: Garlic legend, philanthropist Don Christopher dies at 88


Don Christopher, the legendary Gilroy farmer who turned Christopher Ranch into the nation’s largest garlic processor and helped put the Garlic Capital of the World on the map, has died.

The 88-year-old was surrounded by family when he died Monday, the company announced Wednesday.

Third-generation farmer and first-generation garlic farmer Don Christopher is shown in 1978 at his Christopher Ranch in Gilroy. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Ranch)

“There is no doubt that his legacy will endure through future generations, as he made the Garlic Capital of the World something truly special and made a difference in countless lives through his philanthropy,” Christopher Ranch executive vice president and son Ken Christopher said in a statement. “His love for his employees, for his community, and for his family was evident every single day, and he will be remembered for his steadfast commitment to making Gilroy a better place.”

Debbie Flores, superintendent of the Gilroy Unified School District, one of the beneficiaries of his largesse, said: “It is hard to imagine the Gilroy community without his presence.”

Christopher was born into a prune-farming family in San Jose in 1934. His grandfather, Ole Christopher, immigrated from Denmark and bought 15 acres in South San Jose, planting his first trees in 1896, according to Mercury News archives. The orchard grew to hundreds of acres over the decades, and family members sold their tree-laden land in the 1950s to IBM for its facility.

Don attended Oak Grove Grammar School, Live Oak High School and San Jose State University, according to the eponymous Christopher High School.

In 1956, given a gift of acreage, he founded the Christopher Ranch company. He planted lima beans, sugar beets and just 10 acres of garlic. But the stinking rose became his future. Christopher Ranch grew to be the nation’s largest garlic company and remains the largest private employer in Gilroy.

The journey wasn’t without its challenges. Christopher battled cheap imported garlic from China for years and saw the cost of farmland skyrocket.

So did the popularity of garlic.

In 1979, well into the legacy, a handful of volunteers — including Rudy Melone, Val Filice and Christopher — decided to hold a modest festival celebrating garlic to raise money for charity. They figured about 5,000 people from the surrounding communities would show up to taste garlic-infused dishes.

They vastly underestimated the appeal. Some 15,000 people descended on the first Gilroy Garlic Festival.

“We said, ‘Holy cow!’ ” Christopher recalled in a 2012 Mercury News interview. “We didn’t have enough food.”

They didn’t even have enough tickets for the two-day event. So volunteers recycled stubs, while others raced from San Jose to Monterey to buy everything from calamari to French bread.

The festival became a huge three-day affair, drawing garlic lovers from around the world. It was held annually from 1979 to 2019.

Over the decades, Christopher’s name became synonymous not just with garlic but also with local philanthropy. Flores ticked off his many contributions: He helped secure the land for the construction of the Christopher High School campus and funded the construction of the school’s Sports Complex, she said. He and his wife provided significant donations to Gilroy High School for a number of purposes, and provided matching funding to the district for the installation of security systems at the middle and high school campuses.

In addition, she said, “The Christopher family also provides scholarships for dozens of GUSD seniors each year that help them follow their dreams following high school graduation.”

While Christopher Ranch now grows garlic throughout California — 100 million pounds annually — the bulbs all find their way to Gilroy for processing. The company remains a family operation, in the hands of the next two generations after Don.

“Dad had a bigger-than-life personality, yet was a role model who lived what he preached more than any man I ever met,” son Rob Christopher, the company’s general counsel, said in a family statement. “He valued hard work, was devoted to family, could admit his mistakes and dealt honestly with everyone.”

And grandson Jason Christopher, a vice president, said simply: “The greatest compliment I ever had was that I remind them of my grandpa.”

Memorial plans are pending.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

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