An entrepreneur’s final act of generosity

Thu, Aug. 16, 2007

An entrepreneur’s final act of generosity
By Gayle Ronan Sims

Jirair S. Hovnanian accomplished one final dream last week —
surrounded by his family, he helped to build a home for free and gave
a Camden family a new start.

Mr. Hovnanian, a Mount Laurel home builder whose business developed
6,000 homes in South Jersey over four decades, died Tuesday, 10 days
after he participated in an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home

"On the morning of his death, my grandfather had been animated and
talking about a new project," said grandson, Garo. "Then his heart
just stopped." Mr. Hovnanian was pronounced dead a short time later
at Virtua West Jersey Hospital Marlton.

A funeral service will be held Friday for Mr. Hovnanian, 80, who never
stopped striving to make the world a better place for his family, the
Armenian people and the underdog. The Iraqi-born Armenian American
died after collapsing at his Mount Laurel residence that day.

The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Gregory’s Armenian
Apostolic Church, 8701 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia. Friends may visit at
9 a.m. Friday.

Burial will be in Lakeview Memorial Park, Cinnaminson, N.J.
Mr. Hovnanian, who lived the American dream and helped others do the
same, founded the home-building firm J.S. Hovnanian & Sons of Mount
Laurel, N.J.,in 1964.

On Aug. 4, Mr. Hovnanian’s firm completed a house in 96 hours for
ABC’s television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The Pennsauken
home was built for Victor Marrero and his five sons. The Marrero
family had been featured along with three other Camden families in an
ABC 20/20 documentary in January about children growing up in poverty.

"Mr. Hovnanian gave me and my sons a lifeline. I will love him all my
life," said Marrero. "He was quiet and always in the back. He was not
a showoff. He told me ‘I know you and your boys will be all right.’ He
threw so much loveat me."

"My grandfather inspired others and was happy to help the Marrero
family," his grandson said. "He was thrilled when our company was
chosen to build the house. We tried to keep him out of the heat by
bringing him to the site at night when it was cooler. But he was there
when they moved the bus and when the Marrero family first saw their
new home."

"It was incredible to see how tight the Hovnanian family is," said
Shannon Oberg, development and marketing coordinator for Urban Promise
in Camden, the organization that donated the land in Pennsauken for
the Marrero home. "Mr. Hovnanian’s sons and grandson show such
respect and admiration for him. It was sweet to watch them. Building
the home for the Marreros and the love of the Hovnanian family for
their patriarch was like his legacy blown up in a hugeway right before
my eyes."

Mr. Hovnanian, whose Armenian parents fled to Iraq in 1915, was one of
six children. His father, Stepan, owned a construction company in
Baghdad. Mr. Hovnanian, who graduated from a Jesuit high school in
Iraq, immigrated to North Philadelphia in 1948.

"He knew very little English and owned nothing – but he had big
ideas," his grandson said. Mr. Hovnanian married Elizabeth
Vosbikian. On a wing and a prayer, her family had founded Quickie
Manufacturing Corp., which makes Quickie broom, mops and nearly 100
other popular inventions.

Determined to succeed and make a better life for his family,
Mr. Hovnanian earned a bachelor’s in business in 1952 from the Wharton
School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He and his three brothers founded a building firm in the early 1950s
which eventually split into four companies. Mr. Hovnanian started
J.S. Hovnanian & Sons which over the past four decades has built more
than 6,000 homes in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties.

During the 1970s, Mr. Hovnanian worked for the enactment of New Jersey
laws protecting buyers of new homes such as the Uniform Construction
Code, the Municipal Land Use Law and the 10-year Home Owner’s Warranty

Mr. Hovnanian’s interests branched out into other personal and
business ventures such as building a school which bears his name in
1978 in New Milford, N.J., for Armenian children.

He also financed and founded the Center for the Advancement of Natural
Discoveries using Light Emission (CANDLE) in Armenia, a huge facility
which generates beams of ultraviolet light for protein crystallography
and to employ scientists in his homeland.

A champion rose-gardener, Mr. Hovnanian, along with two scientists,
founded Nature’s Wonder, a local company producing an extract of peat
product that encourages plant growth.

A long-time supporter of the Burlington County Boy Scout Council, he
started the Jirair S. Hovnanian Scholarship Fund. As part of their
application, college-bound Eagle Scouts write essays on "What it Means
to Me to be an American."

In 2006, Mr. Hovnanian was given the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for
his contribution to America and for outstanding citizenship by the
National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations Inc. Mr. Hovnanian was
president of the New Jersey Builders Association and life director of
the National Association of Home Builders.

In addition to his grandson and wife, Mr. Hovnanian is survived by
sons Stephen and Peter; five more grandchildren; two
great-grandchildren; three brothers; and two sisters. Donations may be
made to the Jirair S. and Elizabeth Hovnanian Family Foundation, 900
Birchfield Dr., Mount Laurel, N.J. 08054.