Paying It Forward

John Arrillaga attended Stanford on a basketball scholarship. Then he transformed the campus for those who followed.

March 2022

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Portrait of John Arrillaga dribbling a basketball

STANFORD STARTER: Arrillaga captained the team as a senior, then wowed crowds for a year in Bilbao, Spain. Photo: Stanford Athletics

John Arrillaga Sr., ’60—the pioneering Silicon Valley developer who became one of Stanford’s greatest benefactors—died in January, leaving a legacy literally built into every corner of campus.

Over decades, Arrillaga’s donations, drive and hands-on work transformed the layout of the university, from the Escondido Village Graduate Residences to the Physics and Astrophysics Building to the renovated Old Union, among many, many other projects he built or contributed to. The campus community is generally familiar with his construction projects for Stanford Athletics—including several varsity facilities as well as recreation centers on both east and west campus—but they don’t know the half of it, says former provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, a close friend. “There are hundreds. Most of them don’t have his name.”

Perhaps no project better illustrates Arrillaga’s energy, devotion and meticulousness than the one he believed should bear no person’s or corporation’s name—the reconstruction of Stanford Stadium. It was a mammoth task he largely funded and personally oversaw down to the smallest details, including selecting every single palm tree, creating his own seating designs and tracing into the dirt the path of the exterior walkways. 

‘He was just a fabulous guy who loved Stanford, who was a partner with the president, the provost and the athletic department.’

Demolition of the old stadium began just moments after the final home football game of the 2005 season, an act of confidence that set the tone for what followed—construction of a brand-new facility in nine months. The stadium was ready for the Cardinal’s home opener, an astonishing turnaround time for an endeavor that easily could have taken years. “The difference was John Arrillaga,” says Ted Leland, PhD ’83, Stanford’s athletics director from 1991 to 2005.

Arrillaga was not your typical athletic booster, Leland says. He offered scant opinion on coaches, teams or players. If you were with Stanford, he was with you, and he supported the program by supplying his professional expertise. “When it came to how wide the hallways were going to be in a sports center, he had an opinion on that, I’ll tell you,” Leland says. “He was just a fabulous guy who loved Stanford, who was a partner with the president, the provost and the athletic department.”

One of five siblings, Arrillaga grew up in a working-class family in Inglewood, Calif.—his mother was a nurse; his father was a laborer. In high school, the man Fortune would later declare the richest man in Silicon Valley outside the tech sector couldn’t afford a suit jacket for his senior portrait. The one he borrowed from his chemistry teacher had sleeves six inches too short for his 6-foot-4 frame.

He attended Stanford thanks to a basketball scholarship that covered tuition. To pay for living expenses and books, he worked a number of jobs, from washing dishes to delivering mail to gardening, a lifelong passion reflected in the attention to landscaping in his professional work. During his senior season, he was the basketball team’s captain and leading scorer as well as a third-team All-American. After graduation, he followed his Basque roots to Spain and played professionally in Bilbao. He finished his single season there as the Spanish league’s second-highest scorer. “From the first minute of practice, Arrillaga left everyone speechless,” a Spanish journalist recently wrote.

John Arrillaga in a striped shirt and tie smiling at the cameraPhoto: Raymond Purpur/Stanford Athletics


Upon his return home, Arrillaga sold insurance for a year before landing on the career that would make him a billionaire: purchasing farmland in the Santa Clara Valley and building—then leasing—corporate offices for the exploding tech industry.

He began repaying the debt he felt he owed to Stanford almost immediately after graduation, at first with small gifts to the athletics department and later with larger sums dispersed throughout the university. In 2006, Arrillaga gave $100 million, the largest donation by a living individual in school history until seven years later, when he made a $151 million gift. Beneficiaries of his generosity were often students much like the one he had been.

More than 300 students have benefited from the need-based and athletics scholarships established by the Arrillaga family—nearly 50 this academic year alone. “I will be forever indebted to him and his family,” says Jayne Appel Marinelli, ’10, who starred for the Cardinal women’s basketball team and played seven years in the WNBA. “I would not have been able to have the opportunity to go to Stanford and Stanford opened the door to the rest of my life.”

Etchemendy remembers Arrillaga coming to him troubled by how much debt Stanford medical students were incurring. Etchemendy’s initial response was to reassure him that Stanford’s numbers were much lower than those of many comparable medical schools, but Arrillaga was unpersuaded. In 2020, he committed $55 million to the School of Medicine to eliminate debt for income-qualified students.

Arrillaga was a constant presence on campus, driving around on a golf cart (often giving rides, always stopping to pick up garbage) or slipping into Jimmy V’s Sports Café.

Arrillaga, who worked until his death, was a constant presence on campus, driving around on a golf cart (often giving rides, always stopping to pick up garbage) or slipping into Jimmy V’s Sports Café, where he might’ve shared your table on a crowded day, leaving you none the wiser who he was. He could delight people with his card tricks—perfected while he was recovering from mononucleosis as a student—but he avoided the spotlight. Even the stadium’s ribbon-cutting lasted a relative blink of the eye.

Leland says administrators had to plead with Arrillaga to finally put his name on a building, convincing him that the gesture would inspire students and other donors alike. Perhaps the naming that most deeply mattered to him was that of the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, named after his first wife, Frances Arrillaga, MA ’64, MA ’65, who died in 1995 of lung cancer.

The couple had two children, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, ’92, MBA ’97, MA ’98, MA ’ 99, and John Arrillaga Jr., ’92, MBA ’98. Both are philanthropists in their own right. Arrillaga later married Gioia Fasi Arrillaga.

Arrillaga’s generosity extended beyond Stanford. He built and donated dozens of buildings for police departments throughout Silicon Valley, as well as libraries, community recreation centers, veterans’ facilities and a Ronald McDonald House. But his name is forever linked with his alma mater.

In 2009, Arrillaga was awarded the Degree of Uncommon Man, Stanford’s highest honor, for his service to the university. “Our community mourns the loss of John Arrillaga, whose extraordinary generosity has had a profound impact on our university for more than half a century,” President Marc Tessier-Lavigne says.

Sam Scott is the senior writer at Stanford. Email him at

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