Growing up near Coney Island in the 1930s, Gerard L. Cafesjian developed an affection for merry-go-rounds.

So much so that when the Minnesota State Fair carousel was put up for sale more than a half-century later, the West Publishing Co. executive donated more than a half-million dollars to help keep it from being dismantled and sold.

"I believe something special happens on a merry-go-round," Cafesjian told the Star Tribune in 1990 after being identified as the secret benefactor behind a 16-month campaign to save the carousel. "The music, the magic and the movement combine to create a one-of-a-kind personal experience. When we preserve the carousel we also preserve that joy and hope — that happiness — for the entire community for years to come."

Cafesjian, formerly of Roseville, was living in Naples, Fla., at the time of his death Sept. 15. He was 88.

The son of Armenian immigrants, Cafesjian was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up hopping the subway to Coney Island, where he'd pay a nickel to ride on the merry-go-round.

After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy, served in the South Pacific during World War II, then took advantage of the G.I. Bill to earn an economics degree from Hunter College and a law degree from St. John's University.

He practiced law in New York for several years, then joined the editorial staff of West Publishing Co. in New York City before moving to the company's headquarters in St. Paul in 1960.

Over three-and-a-half decades, he rose through the company ranks, eventually becoming executive vice president in charge of marketing and advertising.

Although he served in a high-profile position at West, Cafesjian shunned publicity and lived a largely quiet life until 1990, when he was identified as a major benefactor behind efforts to save the 76-year-old State Fair Carousel. Cafesjian wasn't the only person to pledge money to the cause. But he provided the largest portion of the funds needed to save the merry-go-round, with its 68 hand-carved horses, from being taken apart and auctioned in pieces.

"I saw the preservation of this wonderful carousel as a special way that I could offer a measure of happiness to children of all ages and our community as a whole," he said in the 1990 interview. At the time, Cafesjian was a member of two national carousel associations.

The carousel was refurbished and relocated to St. Paul's Town Square, where it was renamed after Cafesjian. It was later placed in storage, then moved in 2000 to Como Park, where it remains today.

In addition to his love of carousels, Cafesjian collected art and was a passionate advocate and contributor to various Armenian projects, including the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenia Fund USA.

In 2009, he opened the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, Armenia, which contains more than 5,000 sculptures, paintings and other works of art, including many collected by Cafesjian himself.

Cafesjian was preceded in death by his wife, Cleo. He is survived by a sister, Mary Dobbs, daughter Kathleen Baradaran, son Thomas, one granddaughter and three great-grandchildren.

No service has been scheduled.