100 Things to Know About Henry Segerstrom

This month marks what would have been the 100th birthday of one of Orange County’s most influential native-born sons: Henry T. Segerstrom. In this centennial year, we’re spotlighting facts about the man and his Segerstrom family legacy. 
Photograph Courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

This month marks what would have been the 100th birthday of one of Orange County’s most influential native-born sons: Henry T. Segerstrom. Segerstrom’s impact on the local arts, culture, and retail scene continues to resonate long after his death in 2015. From his beginnings in a lima bean field, he grew into an international figure renowned for his business acumen and philanthropy. In this centennial year, we’re spotlighting facts about the man and his Segerstrom family legacy. 

1. Henry T. Segerstrom was born April 5, 1923, a Thursday. 

2. According to the old English nursery rhyme, “Thursday’s child has far to go” (traditionally understood to mean a child born on a Thursday will be successful). Segerstrom certainly lived up to that.

3. He shares a birthdate with Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of Vietnam from 1967 to 1975, and Michael V. Gazzo, the actor who earned an Oscar nod for his supporting role as Frank Pentangeli in “The Godfather Part II.” Segerstrom outlived both.

4. Segerstrom’s sun sign is Aries, a fire sign symbolized by a ram. One attribute of Aries—they like to lead. Words used to describe an Aries include passionate, motivated, go-getter, confident, and community-builder.

5. Henry was the middle name of his father, Anton.

6. The “T” in Henry T. Segerstrom, how he signed his name and is nearly always referred to in public accounts, stands for Thomas, his mother Nellie Ruth’s maiden name.

7. Grandparents Charles John “C.J.” and Bertha Segerstrom were Swedish immigrants who came to Orange County in the late 19th century by way of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

8. The Segerstroms leased land in Orange in 1898, then began buying land parcels, including 40 acres in Costa Mesa, and eventually cornered the market on lima beans. Family holdings grew to 2,500 acres by the mid-20th century. 

9. Henry’s father, Anton Segerstrom, was one of 10 children and worked as a tenant farmer on his parents’ 20-acre orange grove. 

10. As adults, Anton and his brother Harold would commute to the fields each day. They’d leave their homes in Santa Ana in coats and ties, then change into work clothes for their farm duties. 

11. Anton died a month shy of turning 72 in 1963. Henry’s mother lived to age 99, helping to manage the family business long into old age. 

12. Back in Sweden on the day Henry Segerstrom was born, parliament had been shaken up by a vote of no confidence in its prime minister, forcing the country’s leader and his cabinet to resign. 

13. Henry and his sister Ruth Ann were raised in Santa Ana, where Henry attended Washington Elementary, Willard Middle School, and Santa Ana High.

14. At age 4, he loved wearing a cashmere sweater—perhaps an early hint of his affinity for fine things? 

15. At Santa Ana High, he was president of the Honor Society and president of his senior class. 

16. Stanford University admitted him in 1940, when he was 17. 

Photograph Courtesy of Segerstrom Family

17. Already a member of the Army ROTC, he interrupted his college education in 1942 to fight in World War II, like millions of other American GIs following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. 

18. Segerstrom graduated Field Artillery Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He would deploy to the European front as a second lieutenant. 

19. During the five-week Battle of the Bulge in France from December 1944 to January 1945, Segerstrom, part of the 103rd Infantry Division, suffered severe injuries while carrying a wounded comrade. It was Germany’s last major offensive of the war.

20. His comrade was killed. An explosion peppered Segerstrom with shrapnel in his right hand, forearm, lower back, and forehead. He lost his index finger—crudely severed by a field medic with a pair of scissors—and would undergo multiple surgeries over nearly two decades. 

21. He recuperated at Dibble General Hospital in Menlo Park. Right-handed, Segerstrom taught himself to sign his name and write with his left hand. 

22. His war medals included a Purple Heart and the European Theater of Operations Ribbon with Battle Star. 

23. He remained on active duty until 1947, discharged with the rank of captain after four and a half years in the military. 

24. Segerstrom undertook independent study at Stanford in the Food Research Department while undergoing his rehabilitation and recovery.

25. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Stanford in 1946.

26. His Stanford MBA came two years later, in 1948.

27. While at Stanford, he often sojourned to San Francisco to enjoy the arts and culture.

28. He returned to Orange County in 1948 to join the family business.

29. Segerstrom encouraged the family to acquire government surplus buildings erected on land that served as Santa Ana Army Air Base during the war. Their first tenants were a Newport Harbor cannery and an Anaheim truck and transfer center. 

30. Under his leadership as managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, the family-owned organization shifted from farming to real estate and spearheaded postwar commercial development in Orange County. 

31. Cognizant of the role water plays in growth and development, Segerstrom ran for the Orange County Water District for a four-year term beginning in 1957. He was reelected six times for a total of 28 years—16 of them as president.

32. He married his first wife, Yvonne de Chavigny Perry, a San Francisco native and lover of the arts, in 1950. She taught art to hospitalized World War II servicemen and became an accomplished painter, printmaker, and jeweler. 

33. De Chavigny Perry also once dated singer, TV producer, and media mogul Merv Griffin (“The Merv Griffin Show,” “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” etc.). She met Segerstrom at a wedding in Palo Alto. 

34. The Segerstrom nuptials took place in Paris, with the mayor of the City of Light presiding—Pierre de Gaulle, brother of French president Charles de Gaulle.

35. He had three children—two boys, Toren and Anton, and a girl, Andrea—with de Chavigny Perry. The couple would divorce after a long marriage. 

36. Segerstrom married his second wife, Renée de Troyes, in 1982. An avid patron of the arts and a philanthropical force, she died in June 2000 at 72.

37. He would meet clinical psychologist and bestselling self-help book author Elizabeth Swiecicki Macavoy in July 2000. They married after a whirlwind three weeks of courtship in New York City.

38. The couple told the Los Angeles Times this story of how they met: On business on behalf of the performing arts center, Henry was dining alone at the St. Regis Hotel. Elizabeth, who lived and worked in New York, also was by herself when he saw her shuffling work papers at her table. His joking question asking if she was “doing her homework” led to conversation, and that led to dinners, piano bar serenades, and marriage. 

39. Segerstrom said that from the moment he saw her, he was determined not to let Elizabeth get away. In the newspaper account, he credited “an angel sitting on my shoulder” for them coming together. 

40. Elizabeth Segerstrom plunged into local arts philanthropy. In May 2011, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County honored her with its Golden Baton Award in recognition of her contributions to the proliferation of the arts in Southern California.

41. The first recipient of the Golden Baton when it was established in 1982? Henry T. Segerstrom.

42. Segerstrom’s largesse from South Coast Plaza fueled his philanthropy. The idea to build a shopping center on family farmland in Costa Mesa began to take shape in the early 1960s. The notion was met with skepticism.

43. C.J. Segerstrom & Sons also developed Orange County’s first air-conditioned office tower: a United California Bank in Santa Ana. 

Photograph Courtesy of Segerstrom Family

44. A black-and-white photo of Segerstrom posing in front of a billboard advertises the development of South Coast Plaza. “Here in 1966!” the billboard reads, while touting anchor stores May Co. and Sears, along with 70 other shops to come. 

45. In March 1967, Segerstrom and cousin Hal T. Segerstrom Jr. open South Coast Plaza shopping center on what was once a lima bean field. It occupied 1 million square feet. 

46. The luxury boutiques that made South Coast Plaza stand out from other regional malls began to arrive in the mid-1970s. Segerstrom courted that high-end market and curated the shops with the help of his first wife, making in-person appeals.

47. French designer André Courrèges landed in 1975, touted as Orange County’s first free-standing international designer boutique in a 2018 article that Luxury Daily excerpted from a book on Segerstrom published by Assouline Publishing. 

48. Other fashion world notables who came to South Coast Plaza included Yves Saint Laurent, Mark Cross, Halston, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès. 

49. Luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. opened its second Southern California store and only the third in the state at South Coast Plaza in 1988. 

50. Segerstrom is quoted in the Luxury Daily piece as saying, “I believe in the best. No matter what language you speak, no matter the color of your skin, no matter where you live, everybody likes quality.”

51. In a sort of farm-to-fashion gesture, he would gift people with a Hermès bag filled with lima beans. 

52. According to Robert Chavez, who became chief executive officer of Hermès Americas more than two decades ago, Segerstrom possessed an innate ability to persuade. Chavez is quoted as saying: “The moment you met Henry, you believed in Henry. Whatever his vision—whether it involved the best in retail or setting a new standard for philanthropy—it was irresistible.”

53. His Los Angeles Times obituary noted that skeptics predicted the 17-story hotel he opened in 1975 would be “Segerstrom’s Waterloo.” Nope. 

54. In 1978, he convinced Nordstrom to locate its first store outside of the Pacific Northwest at South Coast Plaza. 

55. 1978 was the same year a donation of Segerstrom-owned land adjacent to the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel across Bristol Street led to a home for South Coast Repertory Theatre, the first piece of the arts plaza. 

56. Segerstrom traveled the world to court upscale tenants that would make South Coast Plaza a high-end shopping destination, regionally and worldwide. He was just as hands-on in developing the arts plaza.

57. Part of his vision included a sculpture garden to be tucked between office towers. But Segerstrom struck out on his first try in late 1979 at wooing artist Isamu Noguchi to create what would become California Scenario.

58. Segerstrom came back empty-handed after a flight to New York and several hours of waiting for Noguchi. The backstory: Noguchi had been sick at the time of their first meeting, and he didn’t like that the plans called for a parking structure looming behind the garden walls. 

59. Handwritten letters that Segerstrom sent to the artist eventually won Noguchi over to the project, which last year celebrated the 40th anniversary of its May 1982 opening. 

60. The 1.6-acre sculpture plaza includes a 12-foot-high piece composed of granite boulders and titled “The Spirit of the Lima Bean.” 

61. Noguchi and Segerstrom reportedly developed a close bond over the two years it took to build the garden, with the artist considering the benefactor as his most simpatico patron. 

62. California Scenario is one of more than a dozen works of public art in and around the environs of Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Plaza.

Photograph Courtesy of Segerstrom Family

63. Segerstrom’s vision for what was first known as the Orange County Performing Arts Center emerged in the early 1980s, launched by a family donation of 5 acres of land and upward of $6 million. 

64. From 1981 to 1986, Segerstrom chaired the trustees’ volunteer group, whose fundraising campaign grew to nearly $74 million—all of it through private funding. 

65. The 3,000-seat performing arts hall opened Sept. 29, 1986, hailed as a cultural milestone for Orange County. 

66. Segerstrom delivered opening remarks that included a wish: “We hope you like what you see.” President Ronald Reagan sent a congratulatory telegram that was read aloud to thunderous applause. 

67. The gala opening concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which formerly performed in a high school auditorium when visiting Orange County, was conducted by Zubin Mehta. Leontyne Price, a pioneering African American soprano, sang the national anthem.

68. The five-story building features Napoleon Red Swedish granite. The stones were quarried from Malmo, Sweden, then refined in Italy.

69. In 1988, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden bestowed the honorary title of Commander, Order of the Polar Star, to Segerstrom for his role in the recognition of Sweden’s 350th Anniversary in America.

70. When King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden toured the U.S. in April 1988, their last stop was Southern California. Besides visiting Disneyland, the royal couple attended a luncheon Segerstrom held in their honor at the Center Club. King Carl is quoted as saying that Segerstrom was “a very good example of Swedes and Swedish Americans who have helped build this country over the past 350 years.”

71. Margaret Thatcher would present Segerstrom with the Tree of Life Award in 1995, a recognition by the Jewish National Fund for sharing water technology (reverse osmosis for desalination) with Israel.

Photograph by RMA Photography, Courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

72. Segerstrom signed his name on a beam in 2005 for what would become the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. 

73. A $40 million cash gift from Segerstrom (that eventually grew to $51 million) undergirded the arts plaza’s expansion and led to the 2006 opening of the concert hall. The Samueli Theater and the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge Education Center also opened that year.

74. Segerstrom told then-center Chairman Roger T. Kirwan about the $40 million gift over lunch at Pinot Provence in the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel. Kirwan described the stunning moment in one news account: “He just about knocked me out of my seat. At that point, I lost all interest in what I was eating.”

75. The Alumni Association of Stanford Graduate School of Business awarded him the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award in 2008 for excellence in management leadership.

76. Segerstrom brought Carnegie Hall to the West Coast. He met in September 2008 with Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson in New York City. That sparked a partnership with Carnegie to introduce its live festival of programming for the first time anywhere outside of the Big Apple. 

77. Segerstrom began serving on Carnegie Hall’s board of trustees in 2009. 

78. Gillinson is quoted as saying, “He has this vision and really understands the centrality of the arts both to the human experience but also, if you’re going to run a great business, you should be putting something back into the community.” 

79. Segerstrom received the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence in 2010, at the time only the fourth person awarded that honor since its establishment in 2005 to recognize members of the business community for their philanthropic commitment to the arts. Previous awardees were representatives of Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, and Macy’s. 

80. Opera star Renée Fleming, who met Segerstrom at Carnegie Hall, found him “so delightful. He just had an easy laugh and a real joie de vivre, and obviously a love for the arts.” 

81. Fleming sang at Segerstrom Concert Hall in honor of his 88th birthday in 2011. Henry and Elizabeth took it all in from their box. Fleming delivered arias, Broadway tunes, classic numbers like “Summertime” and “Over the Rainbow,” and, at the couple’s request, a selection of alternative rock numbers from her “Dark Hope” CD that included a song by Death Cab for Cutie. 

82. According to Ballotpedia, Segerstrom donated $250,000 to the campaign to pass California’s Proposition 1A, a measure to extend for one to two more years sales, income, and vehicle taxes that were part of a 2009-2010 budget agreement. The measure failed.

83. In 2011, for its 25th anniversary, the multipurpose performing arts hall was renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts in honor of the family, but especially its most dedicated donor, Henry T. Segerstrom. He danced onstage with Elizabeth at the official unveiling. 

84. Artist Richard Serra, whose 66-foot steel sculpture, “Connector,” stands across from the newly opened Orange County Museum of Art, said: “You only wish there were 10 Henrys. You wish there were Henrys all over in every community.”

85. Segerstrom was presented The Dizzy Feet Foundation’s Impact Award in 2012. The nonprofit supports dance education for underprivileged youth and community-based dance programs across the United States. Actress Shirley MacLaine was another awardee of the ceremony that took place at the Music Center in Los Angeles.

86. As wealthy, cultured, and well-traveled as he became, Segerstrom always liked to call himself a farmer.

87. Composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen once said of Segerstrom: “Henry is one of those rare benefactors who has no ego, in the sense that he’s not building monuments for himself. He’s building monuments for the people to enjoy.” 

88. For his 90th birthday celebration at Segerstrom Hall, performers included the Tony Award-winning actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth.

89. Forever a Cardinal, Segerstrom always paid tribute to his alma mater, a generous donor to Stanford over his lifetime.

90. His Balboa Peninsula enclave is itself a home for the arts, with works by such artists as Henry Moore, Milton Avery, and Henri Matisse. 

91. The 7,250-square-foot waterfront home was built on six lots that Segerstrom acquired starting in 1962 from the granddaughter of a magnate/philanthropist from an earlier era, Andrew Carnegie. He bought the last lot in the mid-1980s.

92. Segerstrom died at his home on Feb. 20, 2015. He was 91.

93. News accounts attributed his death to a brief illness that resulted from his war injuries. 

94. Segerstrom is buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, on the main lawn at the front of the mausoleum. His parents and grandparents are also buried at Fairhaven. 

95. His gravestone bears a quote from him: “I believe in my own heart that in our lifetimes we are put on Earth to do more than just make ourselves happy. Be bold. Do something to help others. Now is the time for us to invest in future generations.” 

96. In addition to his three children, Segerstrom had six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren at the time of his death. 

97. Awards and accolades continued post-mortem. One he likely would have been especially proud of: Stanford Professionals in Real Estate (SPIRE) inducted him into the Stanford Real Estate Hall of Fame in 2016 

98. When South Coast Plaza marked its 50th anniversary in 2017, a compilation by Green Street Advisors of Newport Beach ranked the Segerstrom family as the 19th most valuable mall operators in the country. Estimated worth: $3 billion. 

99. Segerstrom’s long-held dream to see the Orange County Museum of Art relocate to the arts plaza finally came to fruition seven years after his death, with the October 2022 opening of the $94.5 million building. 

100. South Coast Plaza remains among the highest-grossing retail centers in the U.S. 

SOURCES: Obituaries and other articles on Henry T. Segerstrom that appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Orange County Register. The website henrysegerstrom.com served as a major source of information, as well as excerpts from the book “South Coast Plaza” published by Assouline Publishing in 2017.