Philanthropist George Chiala earns the 2014 Leadership Excellence Award
Published in the Feb. 5, 2014 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Marty Cheek
Local farmer George Chiala can check off many significant items in his list of life-time achievements. Among his accomplishments are building a local hospital in Morgan Hill, developing the soccer fields that became the city’s nationally-recognized Outdoor Sports Center, and working with his scientist friend Mike Cox to develop a new source of energy using agriculture waste.
Chiala’s dedication to improving life for many people in the South Valley region has gained him the honor of receiving the prestigious 2014 Leadership Excellence Award from nonprofit organization Leadership Morgan Hill. Lorraine Welk, president of Leadership Morgan Hill, announced Chiala as the honoree Jan. 27 at a special event at Guglielmo Winery, describing him as a community leader with vision and spirit to make a difference in Morgan Hill.
“We have a criteria for selecting the Leadership honoree. It’s a philanthropist, it’s a person that the community looks up to,” she said. “We admire George. He’s done so much in this community for so many organizations. He’s just a generous philanthropist.”
The Leadership Excellence Award will be presented to Chiala at a gala tribute dinner in the summer.
Past recipients of the award are Roger Knopf in 2003, brothers George, Gene and Gary Guglielmo in 2004, Michael Rubino in 2005, Dennis Kennedy in 2007, Sherry Hemingway in 2008, Mike Johnson in 2011, Rosy Bergin in 2012, and Mike Cox in 2013.
Chiala moved from Cupertino to Morgan Hill when he was a boy and recalls spending hours working in his family’s South Valley fruit business growing prunes and apricots. He later built his agriculture business, George Chiala Farms, Inc., growing strawberries and row crops.
“I grew up here,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to give back a little bit. It’s a great town. The community is a fun place. And I came from a very good family, too.”
He said he found out he was the 2014 honoree when, one day shortly before Christmas, Mayor Steve Tate and volunteers from the Leadership Morgan Hill organization came to his office on a surprise visit. He had only been expecting his friend Mike Cox for an afternoon meeting.
“I figured, they needed some help for something, and pretty soon a lot of people show up and come into my conference room,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what they wanted, maybe a donation. They told me I would receive the award and I was honored. They brought me a bottle of champagne. It was really nice.”
Chiala’s wife, Alice Chiala, said George is the kind of person who finds it difficult to turn down an opportunity to make people’s lives a bit better.
“George has been active in this community for as long as we’ve been married and even before that,” she said. “He helped with the youth groups. He was the tractor driver who drove the tractor to get the fields ready for the sport complex when it first started for the soccer fields. He’s always been active with the (Santa Clara County) Farm Bureau. He served as president of the Farm Bureau for years. He was involved in building Saint Louise Hospital when it was here in Morgan Hill. He served on the O’Connor Foundation before they built Saint Louise and was there for many years until they asked him to be on the Saint Louise Foundation.”
Twenty-five years ago, George was on the committee that started the fund-raising tradition of a car raffle for Saint Catherine’s parish, Alice said. He’s also actively involved in the effort to build the Catholic high school in the Southeast Quadrant of town.
In 1999, he started a relationship with the Second Harvest Food Bank, donating thousands of pounds of food as well as equipment over the years to the agency that feeds people in need. Two years ago, Chiala’s involvement with the local mushroom industry led him to work with the Rotary Club of Morgan Hill in bringing mushrooms back to the annual springtime Mushroom Mardi Gras.
In 2005, he was recognized by the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce as its Man of the Year.
“As a person, he’s a really giving, caring person. He’s very modest,” Alice said. “The people who work for him from the field irrigators on up to our supervisors feel like they can come and talk to him. He’s a very approachable person and he’s really caring.”
Another aspect to Chiala’s character is that he’s a man who believes in innovation, bringing in new ideas in farming such as rotating various crops and creating his own processing plants and equipment.
Processing more than 60 million pounds of vegetable ingredients every year produces a lot of waste, and so he’s working with Cox, owner of Anaerobe Systems in Morgan Hill, to develop a way to use non-oxygen bacteria to break down the vegetation cast-offs into hydrogen that can be used for energy.
“I believe in conservation,” Chiala said. “We try to utilize our waste water. I’m involved with growing mushrooms and so we recycle all the compost back into the fields. That’s another way of using that compost because it holds water and provides nutrients to the plant. ”
Mayor Tate said Chiala and dedicated residents like him are a major reason Morgan Hill is an “outstanding community” where the quality of life is high.
“He started a business here that’s tremendously successful,” Tate said. “He built a business through innovation, doing things a little bit differently. He’s a tremendously successful businessman and then he takes that extra piece that he has in innovation and brings it to the community. He’s obviously a key honoree of the Leadership Excellence Award and it’s going to be a lot of fun to honor him.”
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