Don Diego Scholarship Foundation marks 30th anniversary

In the mid-1980s, Del Mar Fairgrounds officials brainstormed about a suitable tribute to actor Tom Hernandez, who had recently passed away from leukemia after portraying the character of Don Diego, the fair's goodwill ambassador, for 37 years.

The idea they came up with - a scholarship fund named after the late actor - proved to be a durable one. This year, the Don Diego Scholarship Foundation celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since the fund was established, 165 San Diego County teens have been awarded a total of $572,500 in scholarships. The foundation has also given out $163,000 in agriculture-related educational grants, for a grand total of $739,000.

The scholarship fund has been around long enough for some of its earlier recipients to have graduated from college and become teachers, who can now guide their own students through the application process.

"It was a pretty cool feeling, it was amazing to get that honor," said Mary Martineau, who won a $5,000 Don Diego scholarship and is now an agriculture teacher at Poway High School.

Martineau, who attended Texas A&M University, said the award not only boosted her confidence, but came in handy for paying college expenses.

"Having that scholarship helped take care of almost my first year of college. It was huge," she said.

Now in her eighth year of teaching, Martineau said she always encourages her students to apply for the Don Diego Scholarship, and so far three of them have landed awards.

"It's a legacy," she said. "I got it and took advantage of it and I am able to pass it on to my students. It's kind of cool to watch."

The deadline to apply for this year's scholarships is March 21. Applications can be submitted online at www.dondiegoscholarship.org.

Applicants must be high school seniors who have participated in some activity at the fairgrounds, such as exhibiting an animal, entering a competition, performing or working. The scholarship categories are 4H, Future Farmers of America, Employee, Exhibitor/Participant and Vocational Education. More detail can be found on the web site.

Currently, 14 scholarships are awarded each year for a total of $44,000 in grants, and the top prize is $10,000.

Chana Mannen helped launch and run the scholarship fund in its early years as part of her duties as a fairgrounds employee, including the post of deputy manager. When she retired from her fairgrounds job in 2006, she stayed on as executive director of the scholarship foundation.

Mannen said it is gratifying to have watched as dozens of hard-working, talented students received scholarships to help them pay for college.

"The real thing we want to brag about is how many of these kids have gone to college and become successful people," she said.

Along with academic achievement, she said, the scholarship committee looks at community service and other areas of civic involvement.

"We're looking for students who are going to be really terrific members of their communities," she said.

Through donations and an annual concert/fund-raiser during the San Diego County Fair, the scholarship foundation raises money to pay for scholarships, operating expenses and a program that provides funding for buses to bring younger students to the fair. Anything left over goes into the scholarship fund's endowment, Mannen said.

The nonprofit foundation's annual budget is about $200,000, Mannen said, including its scholarship awards and grants.

Among the foundation's goals, she said, is to continue to expand the number and amounts of scholarships. The organization has already come a long way from its founding in 1986, when three $1,000 scholarships were awarded. The foundation was launched with seed money of $25,000 contributed by five original donors.

For students who are thinking of applying, Mannen suggested that they think about what they have learned through their experience at the fairgrounds, which will help with the one-page essay that must be submitted with the application. And she urged them not to wait to get started.

"My tip to them is don't wait until 10 p.m. on Monday night (March 21). Give yourself time," she said.

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