An entrepreneur's final act of generosity

Posted: August 16, 2007

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 Edition.

"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 love at 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 huge way 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 Program.

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.


Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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