Vai's View: Vai's View: Ross Farnsworth and the ripple effect of one good deed

Published: Friday, June 1 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Keala Sikahema, Ross Farnsworth Sr., Anita Farnsworth and Vai Sikahema.

Melissa Farnsworth

Editor's note: This is the third in an occasional series that follows and explores Vai Sikahema's quest to find and thank the people in his life who assisted him in his youth.

Ross Farnsworth's home is conspicuous by its modesty. Maybe 2,000 square feet, 3,000 tops. It's not in a gated community. No circular driveway. No fountains or imported foliage in the yard. It doesn't even have a garage. Just a carport. The home is functional for what it was intended — raising a family. The only evidence of his wealth is the Lexus and Caddy under the carport because combined, the cars are worth more than the house.

I first visited the Farnsworth house as a 9-year-old with my parents in 1971 for a family home evening. We were also there to plan a luau. The evening was most vivid to me because Anita Farnsworth served Mexican food and it was the first time we had ever had it. The smells of fresh tortillas, the texture of hard taco shells and tastes of salsa and guacamole were so foreign, yet so wonderful that I've been a fan since. At the time, we were renting a tiny apartment, so from my 9-year-old perspective, the home was cavernous.

On a recent visit, I was surprised how small it is and that it sits in a very understated neighborhood of starter homes for young families.

"Dad doesn't want his neighbors or ward to think he's a big shot so he stews about driving the Escalade and Mom's Lexus," oldest son Ross Jr. told me.

"When the leases are up every three years or so, he painstakingly asks the dealers that the replacement vehicles are the exact same model, same colors, same everything so no one knows they're new cars."

Ross Sr. is a child of the Great Depression. He's the definition of "self-made man." After serving his LDS mission in the Midwest, Ross Sr. returned and played football at Arizona State, where he was also in the Army ROTC, and after graduation became a commissioned officer. He married a pretty coed named Anita Cox, whom he met before his mission and reconnected with after his return. They stayed in Tempe for more schooling as Ross earned a master's degree in history with an emphasis in a field called Solving Government Problems.

Following graduation, Ross took his first job teaching history at Mesa High. On his teacher's salary and what little they had saved from his military pay, they purchased their first home. The one in which they would raise all 12 of their children. It's the only home they ever lived in, though Ross Sr. would build thousands of homes in Arizona and became one of the wealthiest men in the state and in the Southwest.

Ross Sr's father was something of a wheeler-dealer, horse trader. He was also a visionary. In the 1950s, he bought 10 acres of property so far east of Mesa that it nearly nestled underneath the Superstition Mountains because it was cheap. He had a premonition that folks living in Minnesota, where Ross had just returned from his mission, would tire of living in the snow and given the robust economy following the great war, Midwesterners would want a second home in Arizona to get away from the cold. It was a hunch. It wasn't "trending," nor had the term "snow birds" become part of the lexicon.

So, father and son borrowed enough money to build one home on their 10-acre parcel, then two, three and four. Within five short years, they were building 100 homes and their 10 acres had doubled to 20, then 40, 80 and hundreds. Ross left his teaching job at Mesa High because the demand was so great. They created a retirement community they called "Dreamland Villa," that included golf courses, tennis courts and community centers. People were flocking to Arizona to escape the hard winters in Chicago and Minneapolis because home prices were cheap — especially out in East Mesa.

Along the way, the Farnsworths were buying so much plumbing supplies, cabinetry, lumber and doors they saw opportunities to create their own off-shoot businesses in those areas. They also developed Farnsworth divisions of real estate, finance, mortgages and golf course development.

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