Reaping a Joyful Return on Tithing

Normally, a guy buying a new car doesn't stoke my interest. Then I checked the price tag: $350,000 out the door. And then the buyer: John Crean.

Until last week, I'd never met Crean, a true American archetype of 20th century success. From afar, he was just another rich Orange County Republican who reportedly had more money than a man should, and who had bankrolled Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral. He's the kind of guy about whom you'd say, after hearing he'd bought a car at that price, "How self-indulgent can a guy get?"

How do you pull the trigger on a car -- in this case a Maybach -- that costs more than most people's houses? For a guy with more garages (18) on his grounds than most people have shirts, was this purchase really necessary? Especially when it comes with a refrigerator, two TVs and a DVD player?

And then you sit down with Crean and a rather large picture emerges. Not that Crean puffs himself up; talking to him is like talking to a guy who runs a hardware store that had a couple of pretty good years. Rich man's bluster? Forget it.

No, the Crean story can only be fully understood by contemplating the money he's given away over the years (stay tuned for the mind-blowing figure) and by how utterly unassuming he is about having done so.

For those not steeped in local lore, Crean, now 78, is the flesh-and-bones embodiment of the mythic figure American schoolchildren grow up hearing about. That is, someone from humble beginnings who, through hard work and exquisite timing, creates a lasting legacy.

Crean's niche came in running the nation's leading trailer and recreational vehicle company as Americans began taking to the highways. Just say "RV" and realize how much a part of the vocabulary it is. That tells you Crean's impact on American culture.

That's who he is. But, what is it that he does?

Well, the roots go back many years when Crean and his wife, Donna, were young parents about to join a Lutheran church in Anaheim. The pastor talked about tithing and how good it made you feel. "But the thing that struck me," Crean says, "was he said that whatever you give, you get back tenfold. Those were damn good odds."

He laughs, but he's serious. He started giving; he started getting back. He kept giving; his business kept growing.

I ask how much he's given over the years. He starts fumbling through his desk drawers. He's seen figures recently about how much he'd made during the 1980s and '90s.

"I would think you'd remember the figure," I say, joking.

"Yeah, I know what it is," Crean says, still looking. "I just wanted to double-check it."

He finds it. The figure is $355 million. Of that, he says, he and his wife gave half to charitable causes.

I'm too old to fall off a chair, but I wanted to. Sure, there are tax deductions and all that, but $175 million to charity? I ask for an example, and he cites $2.3 million to a church group that couldn't afford land. The gift was never publicized, he says.

As he talks, I don't detect an ounce of piety or self-congratulation. "That's the kind of thing Donna and I really enjoy doing," he says. "Most of the giving has been things that were really good causes or projects, where the people trying to put it together were pretty sure there's no way it's going to happen. And we come in with a big gift and make it happen. It's a trip. It really is."

I don't have the space to do Crean justice. Luckily, he told his life story in a book he co-authored with local writer Jim Washburn. Published in 2000, it's about a life fully lived.

So, do we begrudge Crean for plunking down the $350K for a set of wheels?

Nah. I'd say he deserved it.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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