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Henry T. Segerstrom shares a basic duality of character with the institution he leads: The Orange County Performing Arts Center, of which he is chief executive officer, is a privately funded, privately run cultural facility that depends on the public for audiences; Segerstrom is an intensely private man who nevertheless uses his photogenic looks, quietly charismatic manner and myriad business connections to draw hefty donations.
The public Segerstrom is the most visible member of the family that gave $6 million and five acres toward the Center. But despite his warm smile, the private Segerstrom seems cool to close scrutiny.
On those rare occasions when he grants an interview, persistent enthusiasm typifies his comments about all aspects of the Center, its first year and its future. Through his blue eyes, set off against ruddy cheeks and silvery hair, the view is bright.
“I wouldn’t change a single thing that has been done because I think we’re successful,” said the 64-year-old community leader, looking across a glossy wooden conference table in the Costa Mesa offices of the family real estate and lima bean farming business.
The low, brown, discreetly modern headquarters of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons sits in a compound at the rim of the San Diego Freeway, near the Segerstroms’ sprawling South Coast Plaza shopping center. Nearly obscured by greenery, the building faces the two-story family farmhouse that Segerstrom’s Swedish immigrant grandfather built in 1915. The family still farms fertile bean fields that stretch beyond the compound’s edge. Segerstrom himself lives in Newport Beach.
Questions about Segerstrom’s cultural likes drew a wary, diplomatic response: “That’s a very loaded question, and I’m not going to answer that one, because I’m not going to offend any one of the groups (that perform at the Center). I’ve been thrilled with them all!”
The Center’s Performance Fund, started in May to raise $1 million for programming by November, is ahead of schedule, Segerstrom said, but he declined to say how much it contains. (Board sources, asking to remain anonymous, said the fund has attracted cash and pledges worth about $600,000.)
Segerstrom described his role with the Center as “providing inspiration and leadership and making judgment calls.” He avoided giving examples beyond referring to his support for a restructuring of the Center’s volunteer organization in April.
“I find myself thinking about the Center on evenings and weekends and even during my sleep patterns,” Segerstrom said.
He doesn’t vote in the committee meetings but offers advice, Segerstrom said.
Nevertheless, said Donald W. Shaw, chairman of the nominating committee: “I think that Henry’s opinions carry a great deal of weight. Let’s say we have three opinions, then Henry will say, ‘I think I’m in favor of this opinion.’ He’ll talk and we listen and listen hard.”
Shaw, a Newport Beach builder, has known Segerstrom since the two were in their 20s, working on building projects their fathers planned. Segerstrom’s was a landowner, Shaw’s a contractor.
“He sometimes comes across to those who don’t know him as a little pompous, but he isn’t,” Shaw said. “You’ve got to know him a long time before you get to know him.
“Henry has a tendency to be ‘old school tie’ sometimes. His family has been here for generations, and so his ties have been the people who have been here a long time, and he went to Stanford, so many of his friends tend to come from there.
“But he’s learning to reach out to new people. He is trying very hard. He knows that reaching out into the community for support is important to this Center’s future.”