Santa Barbara News Press

Mystery Man Leaves Fortune to Nonprofits

In a region with countless millionaires and even a sprinkling of billionaires, it’s not unusual for local nonprofit organizations to publicly thank a well-to-do family for a donation of $1 million or more.

But the story of the late Fenton G. Davison is different.

Public donors often enjoy close relationships with their beneficiaries and are honored with plaques, parties and pictures for their philanthropy. But to Mr. Davison’s recipients, the man’s existence has been a mystery. He died at age 76 of a heart attack a year and a half ago at his condominium.

In his will, the childless and unmarried Goleta resident quietly conferred his entire estate — worth an estimated $10 million — evenly among nine nonprofit organizations in Santa Barbara.

The gifts didn’t become public until this week, when the Elings Park Foundation — shortly after receiving its final major installment — issued a press release declaring that it and eight other organizations each received $1.1 million.

The others are Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara County, Boys & Girls Clubs, Girls Inc., Cancer Center of Santa Barbara, American Red Cross, Music Academy of the West and the Santa Barbara Public Library.

Even for monied Santa Barbara, the ghostly gifts are substantial. For the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara, it was the biggest ever.

For Elings, which accepts no government money, Mr. Davison’s donation is the biggest since 1999, when technology entrepreneur Virgil Elings granted it $3 million — prompting the park to change its name in his honor.

But in contrast to the fanfare then, park officials didn’t even know what Mr. Davison looked like.

Meanwhile, his posthumous donation has left a lasting mark: The soon-to-be-finished Fenton Davison Picnic Area, located near the softball fields, will include a dozen tables and horseshoe pits.

“We’d love to have someone come over that we could say ‘thank you’ to, to shake someone’s hand, because it’s a wonderful, wonderful gift,” said Elings Park Executive Director Mike Warren.

Park officials knew one thing: Mr. Davison’s money was from real estate.

“He inherited most of that money,” Mr. Warren said. “The family had expensive real estate holdings. Oftentimes with large estates, it’s very quiet money.”

Documents and interviews have revealed more about the man.

In a sense, the story of Fenton Davison reflects the value of dirt in Santa Barbara. It also comes full circle: The sunny community that generated his family’s wealth ultimately reclaimed it.

The son of a dentist and an only child, Mr. Davison was born in Indiana on Christmas Eve of 1927. His parents divorced, and Mr. Davison and his mother moved west in the 1950s. His mother, a savvy investor, purchased properties in Encino, and later — after her second divorce — around Los Angeles.

Sources were not certain when or how the family purchased property in Santa Barbara, but his local estate included two duplexes, a 10-unit apartment, and property on State Street that now houses Your Choice Thai Restaurant.

Mr. Davison attended UCLA for a time without graduating but received his real-estate license in the 1950s.

By all accounts, Mr. Davison was not outgoing. Some called him a loner; others said he rarely left his residence.

But all describe him as gentle and kind.

“He always asked about my boys and wanted to see pictures of them,” said Susan Frazier, a certified public accountant who managed his affairs. She confirmed the total amount of his bequest but not how it was divvied up.

Mr. Davison was thrifty, habitually waking early enough to make the “early bird” special at IHOP.

Into his late 50s, he lived with his mother, Wanda Reitz, who taught him the tricks of the real-estate trade.

He was self-effacing, and tended to frequently “kick himself” for not selling or buying at the right time, Ms. Frazier said.

In the late 1980s, when he was about 60, Mr. Davison struck out on his own, taking up residence in Port Hueneme. In 1988, at 60, he married Lou Ann Treloar, but the union dissolved after just nine months. Divorce documents at the Santa Barbara Courthouse said they parted because of “irreconcilable differences.”

His mother died around 1990, and he grew gravely depressed, Ms. Frazier said.

He pledged nearly $950,000 in her name to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in the mid-1990s. The museum received it last year.

His despondency lasted years, and Ms. Frazier repeatedly encouraged him to take a cruise. Finally, after about 10 years, he did.

If Mr. Davison was hesitant to reward himself, he was generous with friends. Late in life he took Glores Cutler on several globe-trotting trips: Italy, France, Tahiti, the East Coast.

She said they became romantically involved in the late 1990s, but she rebuffed his frequent entreaties for her hand.

“I guess I was pretty stupid,” she joked.

On Aug. 2, 2004, she drove to his house to take him to the grocery store. (He hadn’t been driving ever since getting into a heart-attack-induced car accident earlier.) Mr. Davison came to the car, but turned around to get something in the house. He fell into the bushes.

“I figured he just tripped and would get up,” Ms. Cutler said. “He didn’t.”

As for the nine nonprofit organizations, Mr. Davison declared no unusual affinity for any one of them; the gift happened at the urging of his financial advisers, sources said.

But that doesn’t diminish their gratitude.

His donation will allow Sansum Diabetes Research Institute to bump to full time the employment status of a part-time diabetes educator, who gives classes to people stricken or at risk.

“They learn how to eat correctly, cook correctly, exercise correctly,” said Rochelle Rose, the organization’s director of development. “There’s such a need for that in this community. . . . We’re seeing with young children an increase in obesity.”

It perhaps will allow the Mental Health Association to serve more mentally ill patients, many of whom are homeless or indigent. It will bring a permanent stream of money — probably $50,000 a year — to the Music Academy to the West, which added the gift to its endowment, which draws interest.

It will allow the library to purchase books and online materials.

“It’s an occasion for great happiness,” said Carol Keator, the library director.

“To distribute it that way, to a resource that is open to everyone in the community, that’s really generous thinking.”