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January 10, 2005

‘Rags to riches’ story ends with generous bequest to UCSC

By Jennifer McNulty

For more than 30 years, Federico and Rena Perlino operated a chicken-processing plant on Front Street in Santa Cruz. They lived modestly and worked hard, raising vegetables in their backyard and rarely dining out.

Photo: poultry plant

Federico and Rena Perlino were "very, very frugal," said friend and financial consultant John R. Biondi. Photo courtesy UCSC Special Collections

“If you’d met them, you’d never have thought they had any money,” said family friend and financial consultant John R. Biondi, who recently distributed more than $4.2 million from the estate to local charities and organizations after the Perlinos passed away.

The University of California is among the beneficiaries of the Perlinos’ estate, which allocated nearly $420,000 to the university.

The funds will support UCSC graduate students in psychology who are working with deaf or hearing-impaired individuals.

The Perlinos, who had no children of their own, wanted their money to be used locally and also gave generously to the Doran Resource Center for the Blind, Cabrillo College, Goodwill, the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, and other organizations, said Biondi.

Federico was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. Rena, who was born locally, married Federico at the age of 16; she never learned to drive. “They raised chickens in their backyard until they bought the property on Front Street,” said Biondi.

In the 1960s, anticipating their retirement, the Perlinos asked Biondi to invest and manage their life savings of $25,000. At the height of the stock market, their nest egg peaked at a value of $5.3 million, said Biondi.

Federico died in the 1980s, and Rena passed away in 2003.

“To start with a small amount and grow it to millions--it’s everyone’s dream come true,” said Biondi, who grew up in the Perlinos’ neighborhood and remembers everyone calling Rena Perlino “the chicken lady” for her work in the poultry-processing shop.

“When I was a kid, we’d go duck hunting twice a week in Los Banos, and we’d take our ducks down to the Perlinos’ shop for plucking,” recalled Biondi. “We paid five cents apiece. We’d drop them off on Sunday, and if we were lucky, we’d have more for her when we went to pick them up on Wednesday.”

“They were very, very frugal. I think they went back to the old country once,” said Biondi, who retired from Smith Barney in 1996 and whose son, Richard, continued to manage the money until Rena’s death. “Rena would have a big birthday party every year--that was her big extravagance. She’d invite all her lady friends--I was the only man who was ever there--and we’d play bocci ball in the backyard. She’d serve champagne--the same inexpensive kind she gave me every Christmas. They were not extravagant people.”

Although planned giving is becoming more popular today, individuals typically notify the benefiting institutions of their intentions. "Getting a call and hearing that someone we've never met has left the university $400,000 is remarkable," said John Leopold, director of development for the Social Sciences Division at UCSC. "The Perlinos will never know how many lives their extraordinary generosity will touch."

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