don christopher
Don Christopher. Photo courtesy of Christopher Ranch

Editor’s note: This article was updated and expanded on Dec. 14.

Don Christopher, who grew a handful of garlic fields into an internationally recognized brand and whose philanthropic work helped youth reach their educational goals, died surrounded by his family on Dec. 12. He was 88.

Christopher, a third generation farmer, founded Christopher Ranch in 1956 on 10 acres of land in Gilroy after receiving a loan from his father.

By the 1980s, the ranch was growing 10 million pounds of garlic, and at the decade’s end it had reached 100 million pounds annually, a feat that continues to this day.

Christopher was one of the co-founders of the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 1979, which started off as a way to draw some attention to the burgeoning industry, but quickly turned into a cultural phenomenon that attracted attendees from all over the world.

Later in life, Christopher, still working part time at the ranch up until 2020, took it upon himself to make sure the young people of Gilroy could attain their educational goals, providing not only hundreds of scholarships, but also contributing millions of dollars and countless hours to the Don Christopher Sports Complex at the eponymous Christopher High School, among many other activities.

That philanthropic spirit led to the creation of the Christopher Family Foundation in 2019, which supports educational programs for youth.

“He had four loves in his life: his family, the ranch, the Gilroy Garlic Festival, and his commitment to the next generation of Gilroy’s youth,” said his grandson Ken Christopher. “When you think about legacy and what you leave behind, I truly don’t think he understood the magnitude and gravity of what he accomplished in just one life. It’s almost like he lived 10 lives.”

don christopher ranch garlic
Don Christopher is shown in 1979 selling his locally grown garlic. Photo courtesy of Christopher Ranch

From humble beginnings to worldwide recognition

Christopher was born in 1934 in San Jose, where he helped out on the family prune orchards as a young boy. After attending San Jose State University in 1956, he heard about farmers who were growing garlic successfully about 30 miles south in Gilroy.

As a 22-year-old, Christopher decided to try it out for himself, securing a loan from his father to purchase 10 acres of land in Gilroy that would be dedicated to garlic.

In a video interview posted on the Christopher Ranch website, Christopher noted it was tough going in those early years, as garlic was selling for 10 cents a pound, while revenues were only three-quarters of a cent per pound.

At the time, consumers weren’t very excited about Christopher’s peeled garlic. But that would change, and perhaps more quickly than Christopher had ever imagined.

By the 1980s, Christopher saw changing demographics across the country, with people wanting new and exciting ways to spice up their food, so they turned to the small but mighty garlic clove that could add so much flavor to numerous dishes.

Early in that decade, Christopher Ranch was growing 10 million pounds of garlic annually, and by the end of the ‘80s, it ballooned to 100 million pounds. The once-small garlic operation cemented its status as one of the largest growers in the country.

But even as the business ascended to worldwide recognition, at its heart it remained a family operation, something that was of utmost importance for Christopher.

christopher ranch family
Three generations of the Christopher family: Ken (from left), Don, Bill and Jason. Photo courtesy of Christopher Ranch

Today, generations of Christophers hold major roles in the company.

Bill Christopher, Don’s youngest son, joined the company in the 1970s, and now serves as president of Christopher Ranch.

“My dad taught us how to treat everyone, no matter who they are, with respect and kindness,” he said. “These lessons learned from him will carry on through myself and my family.”

It’s a sentiment that is repeated by many members of the family.

“He taught me to do the right thing, no matter how hard, each and every time,” said grandson Ken Christopher, now the executive vice president of the ranch.

Son Rob Christopher, the general counsel of Christopher Ranch, noted his father’s work ethic and honesty toward others.

“Dad had a bigger-than-life personality, yet was a role model who lived what he preached more than any man I ever met—he valued hard work, was devoted to family, could admit his mistakes, and dealt honestly with everyone,” he said.

And for grandson and Vice President Jason Christopher, he is humbled to be compared to his grandfather.

“The greatest compliment I ever had was that I remind them of my grandpa,” he said.

Putting Gilroy on the map

In the late 1970s, Christopher joined Gavilan College President Rudy Melone and farmer Val Filice to pursue a far-fetched dream: give Gilroy the title of “Garlic Capital of the World.”

The trio felt that a festival showcasing the “stinking rose,” which was beginning to show some signs of life among consumers, would put the burgeoning industry over the top, and highlight the bounty of agriculture in South Santa Clara County.

Bloomfield Ranch was the site of the first Gilroy Garlic Festival in 1979, near the intersection of Highways 101 and 25.

Speaking at a later Garlic Festival, Christopher reminisced on the inaugural event, where attendees had to walk across fields next to grazing cattle. Things didn’t go exactly as planned.

“We figured there would be 5,000 people, and by gosh we had 15,000 people,” Christopher said in a video interview. “It blew everybody away. They didn’t have tickets for everybody, so they redid the tickets over and over again. That was a good thing.”

The festival moved to Christmas Hill Park the following year, where it remained through 2019. It’s no secret now that Christopher, Melone and Filice were successful in their mission, as the festival has since attracted millions of attendees from around the world who came to see the iconic pyro chefs, learn new recipes from celebrity figures, and try out the multitude of garlic-infused dishes.

The festival has also served another important purpose: Since its inception, the event has distributed more than $12 million to local organizations.

“You couldn’t imagine at that time we’d be this popular in 40 years,” Christopher said. “We’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

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Don Christopher is pictured in 1989. Photo courtesy of Christopher Ranch

In a statement, the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association Board of Directors said Christopher “truly epitomized the spirit of the festival and we are all committed to ensuring his legacy lives on.”

“To say the Gilroy Garlic Festival would not exist without Don Christopher is not an understatement and the entire Festival family is saddened by his loss,” the statement read. “From its inception at Christopher Ranch on Bloomfield to today, Don Christopher has been the heart of the Festival and its commitment to the Gilroy community. In addition to his incredible generosity, Don served as a constant ambassador for the Festival, promoting its mission to provide benefits to local worthy charities and nonprofit groups by promoting the community of Gilroy through a quality celebration of garlic.”

Ken Christopher said his grandfather would be at the festival every summer, “beaming with the biggest smile you could imagine.”

“He would be there from beginning to the end, shaking everyone’s hand, and he was so proud of being at the center of something that meant so much to so many,” he said.

But one of the darkest days in the Christopher family’s life was on July 28, 2019. During the final hour of the final day of the Garlic Festival, a gunman burst into the festival grounds, shooting and killing three people and injuring 17 others.

Less than a year later, still reeling from the incident, festival organizers announced that the event would be canceled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The festival returned as a drive-thru event in 2021, as well as a series of smaller gatherings in 2022. But organizers say the days of large-scale Garlic Festivals in Gilroy are over, citing issues with insurance and other factors.

Out of the tragedy, however, came a renewed commitment from the Christopher family to the community.

Philanthropic spirit 

The Christopher Family Foundation was founded later in 2019 with the goal of working with local organizations to support programs that serve youth, and plans to continue Christopher’s giving legacy well into the future.

But Christopher’s drive to improve the lives of young people began long before that.

In 1992, Christopher Ranch launched a first-of-its-kind public/private partnership by establishing a Head Start preschool program on site, giving its workers’ children a place where they can be prepared for the transition to kindergarten.

Christopher’s investment in education only continued to expand.

The family has provided dozens of Gilroy students annually with scholarships to help them pursue college degrees.

In 2005, Christopher donated 10 acres of land off of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Day Road to the Gilroy Unified School District for another high school in the city.

Christopher High School opened in 2009. Later, the Don Christopher Sports Complex was completed, thanks to more than $4 million in donations from Christopher and his family’s investment of time.

Don Christopher donated 10 acres of land that would eventually house Christopher High School. Gilroy Dispatch file photo

GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores said Christopher’s contributions to the district “will stand the test of time.”

In addition to donating the land and funding the sports complex, Christopher and his wife Karen made annual contributions to the school to address various needs, according to Flores. They also donated to Gilroy High School, and provided matching funding to the district to install security systems at its middle and high school campuses.

“Don’s reach has positively impacted the lives of our students, staff and families in great and small ways,” Flores said. “His philanthropic spirit, innovative ideas, and collaborative approach to bettering the Gilroy community will be greatly missed. His influence made Gilroy better, and for that, I am forever grateful. It is hard to imagine the Gilroy community without his presence, but his impact and legacy will last forever.”

Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley said Christopher’s legacy can be felt throughout the city.

“He touched many, many lives with his never-ending generosity, a testament to how deeply he cared for his entire community,” she said. “I am grateful for all that he meant to Gilroy, and for the privilege of knowing such a genuine and beautiful soul for nearly 30 years. Thank you, Don.” 

A fulfilling life

Sitting in a room at Christopher Ranch the day after his grandfather’s passing, Ken Christopher looked at a jar of Christopher Ranch’s minced garlic on a table and said it brought countless memories of his grandfather to his mind.

His grandfather enjoyed the simple things in life, whether it was eating a garlic pepper steak sandwich, or picking up his grandchildren from elementary school and spending the day with them, complete with hot fudge sundaes. There were also the monthly, and oft-embarrassing, birthday parties at the ranch, where everyone who had a birthday on a specific month would gather on the first Monday and blow out a cake’s candles together.

He remembers Thanksgiving dinners, where Don would pull Ken aside from the dinner table and let him know what he did right or wrong on a certain business deal, before sitting back down for another bite of turkey and stuffing.

Perhaps some of his favorite memories were of Don on the Garlic Festival cook-off stage, standing with celebrities amidst the flames of the pyro chefs.

“He’s just throwing garlic to the crowd, having the best time of his life,” Ken said. “That’s my grandfather. That’s the man I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

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Erik Chalhoub joined Weeklys as an editor in 2019. Prior to his current position, Chalhoub worked at The Pajaronian in Watsonville for seven years, serving as managing editor from 2014-2019.



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