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.
Ross Farnsworth even delved into sports ownership, buying a minority share of the Phoenix Suns.
Yet, they never left their starter home. Never left the LDS ward or public schools where their 12 children grew up. Of course, they kept adding on to the house to accommodate their growing family, which just made the backyard smaller. But hey, there were parks nearby where there was plenty of space to run and play.
Ross Sr. simply did not want to lose the common touch by living behind gated walls. And it was that common touch that brought my family, literally to the Farnsworths" door.
My family connection to Farnsworth was through Ross's brother and sister-in-law, Duane and Camille Richins. Camille Cox Richins and Anita Cox Farnsworth are sisters.
The Richins came to Tonga in the '60s to teach and to be administrators at Church-owned Liahona High, where they met my parents as students and got to know them even better after they married and became dorm parents.
Duane and Camille Richins helped sponsor my parents' immigration to America as students to Church College of Hawaii, later renamed BYU-Hawaii.
After a year of going to school and working at the Polynesian Cultural Center, my parents were finally able to save enough for my lone one-way fare to Hawaii. Leaving my siblings was excruciating, as none of us knew how long it would be before we'd be reunited, or in young minds, if ever at all.
Mom and Dad underestimated the cost of living as college students and trying to save to reunite with their children on PCC wages. So, they dropped out of school, applied for green cards and moved us to Mesa, Ariz., so they could both work and expedite my siblings' immigration. From Tonga, the Richins' alerted the Farnsworths of our family's plight and Ross, as a young bishop, helped us organize luaus as fund raisers to pay for my siblings' fare.
"It's interesting," Ross Jr. told me, "Dad told me that he wrestled with just writing a check to pay for your siblings' fare because he knew how difficult the separation was for your family, particularly for your mother. But he told me he felt restrained in that doing so would cripple your family's independence. Given his own background, he felt it was better that he help organize luaus wherein your family could participate in the process and not just be recipients of his generosity."
As a boy, I have vivid memories of performing the haka and Samoan slap dance, my dad and other men playing music and my mom organizing cooking and serving food at numerous luaus organized by the Farnsworths and others.
Now 80, suffering from diabetes and bouts with cancer, Ross Farnsworth still attends three weekly board meetings of his real estate empire as chairman.
"His mind is sharp, but his health has slowed him a bit," Junior told me.
"But if you come unprepared or don't have the right answers at a board meeting, he will rip you to shreds. He's a tough employer. Especially if you're one of his kids."
Which is probably why all 12 Farnsworth children are faithful Latter-day Saints. Two daughters have served with their husbands as mission presidents in South America — Janet Farnsworth Turk and her husband Terry are currently leading a mission in Peru, and Julie Farnsworth Ashby and her husband, Fred, led the Uruguay Montevideo Mission as mission president from 2006-'09. Two other sons-in-law are current stake presidents. One son is a bishop. Eight of the 12 are current or past presidents of various service clubs like United Way, Kiwanas or Rotary. Ross Jr. is president of Farnsworth Holdings, but his heart and passion is with the organization he founded nearly 10 years ago, One Life At A Time.
Its purpose is to train and educate the thousands of young people in Central America who, after serving missions, return to a life of poverty. Many aren't qualified for the Perpetual Education Fund because they either dropped out or simply didn't have opportunities for an education. Junior's programs have educated more than 2,000 young people in Central America. Junior is doing for them what his dad did for us — provide hope and opportunity. Church, community and civil service wasn't taught so much in the Farnsworths' tiny home as it was lived.
And it was that service to my family and me personally that I was compelled to return to Mesa to express gratitude to Ross Farnsworth. Ross Senior asked if I'd speak to his entire family, so he gathered his posterity on a Sunday evening and held a special family home evening/fireside.
I recounted for them how their parents/grandparents assisted my family and what I learned from the experience. I returned specifically to tell Ross and Anita Farnsworth that their investment in the Sikahemas was not squandered. We all graduated with BYU degrees and all served missions.
We've married in the Temple, raised good families and have been independent and self-sufficient, in part because of what they did for us and how they did it.
As I've earned a good living in my life, I've been mindful of how the nouveau riche ruin their children and second generation because of affluence. Like Ross Sr., I'm a pioneer in my family that way and have tried to follow his pattern. So far, so good.
I learned and have tried to be a good steward of all that God has blessed me, in part, because of Ross and Anita Farnsworth.
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