Local leaders were keenly interested in the unknown and unexpected name prominently on display when the Samueli Jewish campus opened recently in Irvine.
In silver lettering above the main entry and at the apex of a donors' list in the foyer inside are "Andre and Katherine Merage."
Up until the official opening of the new Jewish Community Center on Aug. 15, few in the county's Jewish community could recognize the name. Although for those in its business community, the name might have a familiar ring.
Andre, who died a year ago, and Katherine Merage, 80, are the parents of Paul Merage, who is ranked as one of the 10 richest people in Orange County, with a net worth estimated at $600 million.
He and his mother both declined to be interviewed, according to Ralph Stern, of Tustin, who chaired the four-year, $20 million campaign to fund a new Jewish community building.
Stern was introduced to the Merages through an estate planning attorney. The attorney's clients include entrepreneur Henry Samueli, who with another anonymous donor bought land for the Jewish campus, and is its namesake.
"Paul is very thoughtful and has a well-defined strategy for his philanthropy," Stern said.
His is an immigrant success story. Paul Merage came to the United States from Iran in the 1960s. He co-created with his brother, David, the dough-wrapped, frozen sandwich known as Hot Pockets. They sold their privately held Colorado-based Chef America to Nestle for $2.6 million in 2002.
Since then, Merage is more visible in Orange County. Joining the UCI Foundation board, earlier this year the frozen food magnate helped UC Irvine woo Andrew Policano as dean of the Graduate School of Management. UC salary and budget constraints kept UCI from matching competing compensation packages, so Merage and a group of other executives formed an independent research institute Policano will head for extra money.
Merage was also the graduate school's commencement speaker in June.
In December, he hired Marshall Kaplan from the University of Colorado at Denver to help launch four charitable foundations, which were to be based in Irvine.
"Paul wants to give back to this country," Kaplan told the Denver Post last Dec. 30.
Paul Merage, who turns 61 this month, at 16 was put on a plane by his father, Andre, and sent from Tehran to the United States for a better future. He went to college and by 22 had earned an MBA from UC Berkeley.
Today, Merage and his wife, who goes by Lilly, are building a Newport Coast home near Pelican Hill on a 5.5-acre wedge comprised of six lots. The previous owner was the sportswear designer Mossimo. Merage's mother lives just a few miles away.
A member of Los Angeles' Temple Sinai, Stern said Katherine Merage was involved in organizing social functions for singles at the synagogue. "It's important to her for Jews to marry other Jews," Stern said. "She's a covert matchmaker." Her name was among those mentioned as contributors recently to Irvine's University Synagogue.
Jewish organizations are Katherine Merage's principal charity. A Jerusalem medical center and Denver's Allied Jewish Federation were among groups receiving $213,500 last year from the Andre and Katherine Merage Foundation of Colorado, according to GuideStar, a nonprofit online database. The foundation's endowment was listed at $20 million and total distributions amounted to $721,000.
Little information is publicly available about the four Merage foundations Kaplan was hired to supervise.
Kaplan told The Denver Post that the Merage Family Foundation would distribute grants targeting higher education improvements across the country. It listed assets of $29 million and distributed $43,800 in 2002, the most recent GuideStar figures available.
According to Interaction, an alliance of U.S. nonprofits working in developing countries, a year ago Merage worked with the Anti-Defamation League, the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, the Jewish Agency for Israel, United Jewish Communities, as well as Operation Queen Esther, an organization founded in 2000 to assist new Iranian immigrants to Israel.
Last December, Merage participated in a mission to Israel that included a stop in Nitzana.
The Merage Institute for the American Dream, which is supposed to dole out $20,000 grants for two years to 20 immigrant students entering top universities, reported $1 million in assets, according to Guidestar. The foundation has given $300,000 to 15 Merage fellows for two years, the Orange County Register reported July 11.
Among the first recipients was Jennifer Ma Pham, who will use her fellowship toward a master's degree is social work at Columbia University. She was born in a Hong Kong refugee camp where her mother fled after the fall of Saigon to reunite their family. In Orange County, her mother worked long hours in a supermarket to save enough money to bring the rest of the family to the United States.
The other Merage foundations, which were to be established in June, will focus on retired baby boomers and on improving trade with Israel. l