Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Hornets stunned by good fortune

rpench@sacbee.com

In one of the more unusual sports stories you will hear, the Sacramento State Hornets, the promising men’s basketball team with the junior high school-caliber gym, have been stunned by a stroke of good fortune.

Ernest Tschannen, a part-time Orangevale resident, is 90, has no children and never has been married. He has attended only one basketball game – a Milwaukee Bucks contest in the old Mecca – yet he just cut a $750,000 check to the athletic department’s fundraising effort toward construction of a 5,000-seat events center.

“I don’t make money for myself,” said Tschannen, who will be honored Tuesday at the Hornets’ annual basketball tipoff banquet. “I work to help other people, with donations, for good causes. When I first heard about Sacramento State and their need for a new facility, and I went to the campus, I thought, ‘This would be a very good way to help.’ 

Shake the head, roll the eyes, blink a few times. The Hornets are still in shock. But this really happened.

Tschannen, 90, is a native of Switzerland who made his fortune investing in apartment complexes. When he heard of Sacramento State's need, he visited the campus and decided to be of assistance. Video by Ailene Voisin,

Tschannen, a native of Switzerland who owns 3,500 apartment units and estimates his net worth at $75 million, has been a generous benefactor for more than a decade. The UC Davis Eye Center received a $1.5 million donation last year. Other recent recipients of substantial donations include the American River Parkway, the Tahoe Pyramid Bikeway and numerous church and outdoors foundations.

And what he says is true. He spends his money on others. His home in a working-class neighborhood just north of Lake Natoma reflects his humility, love of the outdoors and Swiss independence. The backyard is an overgrown garden of cactus, plants and fruit trees. Two ladders rest against an orange tree. A narrow, winding walkway, under and around branches, leads to an empty pond in the middle of the yard. Two kayaks hang on the side of the house. An old ski pole sticks in the ground, with an improvised on/off switch for a drip system cleverly attached to the handle.

Inside, Tschannen spends most of his time in a converted dining room crowded with stacks of papers, two desks, two computers and two fax machines, one that appears to be the first of its generation. A road bike and a stationary cycle occupy a section of the living room.

When I first heard about this, I started stuttering.

Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz, on Ernest Tschannen’s $750,000 donation

“I can’t drive anymore, so I ride my bike and I walk about an hour a day,” said Tschannen, who wears hearing aids and thick glasses but exercises an hour daily. “I still kayak – I used to have 15 – but not as much as I used to.”

As he continues a tour of his surroundings, accompanied by Sac State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz, Tschannen offers other glimpses of his life, and of his sly humor. He is a vegetarian who eats fish. He dislikes beer but enjoys a glass of red wine before bed because it is said to improve his vision. With a grin, he admits to dressing up for the interview and photo session, abandoning his usual shorts and T-shirt for a long-sleeved buttoned shirt and polyester pants that hang loosely on legs that remain toned and powerful from his outdoor activities. And interestingly, for someone who admittedly knows very little about the game, his hands are huge; he easily could palm a basketball.

So how does a millionaire who cares little for team sports become the most significant player in Sac State’s events center fundraising campaign?

The Hornets went grocery shopping. Associate athletic director Markus Jennings, who was hired only months ago to oversee fundraising efforts, coaxed a few of his coaches into a meet-and-greet appearance last spring at the Bel Air in Gold River. As they sat at a table inside the store, shaking hands and passing out keychains and sports schedules, Katz recognized Lee Grichuhin, his brother’s baseball coach at Mira Loma High School.

The men exchanged pleasantries and business cards. They commiserated about the potentially thorny issue last spring; had the Hornets won the Big Sky Conference regular-season title, they would have hosted the postseason tournament in a temporarily and hastily renovated wellness center on campus. Grichuhin, a financial adviser, also said he was familiar with “The Power of 1,000 Hornets,” the grass-roots campaign the athletics department created after students rejected a fee of $219 per semester toward funding the construction of the events center.

A week later, Katz received a call from Grichuhin, who said he had a client who might be interested in making a substantial donation.

I don’t make money for myself. I work to help other people, with donations, for good causes.

Philanthropist Ernest Tschannen

“When I first heard about this, I started stuttering,” Katz said. “I almost had an anxiety attack. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I didn’t say anything for probably at least a month because I didn’t want to jinx it.”

The need for a larger facility on a campus with 30,288 students has moved beyond the debate stage. This extends far beyond sports. Almost every major college has facilities that accommodate sports events, speaker appearances, graduations and concerts. Sac State’s Nest has a capacity of 1,000, while UC Davis, for instance, boasts the Pavilion and the Mondavi Center, two significantly larger and more attractive facilities.

Yet the notion of squeezing more money out of students who pay $6,872 each semester for a full load of units is so unseemly that many Sac State officials privately agree with Tschannen: Funding for an events center projected to cost between $70 million and $100 million – a dip from the $125 million school officials estimated last spring – should be financed entirely by private contributions.

“Absolutely,” Tschannen said. “There are enough wealthy donors in this area to make this happen.”

Though donations by the Alex Spanos and Eli Broad foundations for improvements to the football stadium and construction of the field house were substantially larger, Tschannen’s gift is the biggest generated by the athletics department. This aggressive “feet on the street” approach, Jennings said, is here to stay. More supermarket visits are being booked, with the hope that if there is one Tschannen, a quiet area resident receptive to being approached, maybe there are others.

“When I pass away, I want my money to stay in this country, because this is where I earned it,” Tschannen said. “When I asked Lee (Grichuhin), ‘Where do you think I should donate?’ he told me Sac State. When we visited, I just loved the campus. And Brian is doing a fantastic job. I think this is a great way to spend my money.”

And the kicker? The good news that might give the hyperkinetic Katz a heart attack? Tschannen hinted there might be more to come.

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