Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fotios Malo, 82, who fled communist Albania, was a champion of freedom

By Andrew Meacham, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

CLEARWATER — In 1971, Fotios Malo escaped with his family from communist Albania, something he had been trying to do all his adult life.

A year later, a boat carrying Mr. Malo, 44, and 31 extended family members sailed past the Statue of Liberty, a sight his children recall with amazement.

The New York Times covered the feel-good story on Page 1. But all was not well for extended family members who had stayed behind in Albania. Everyone had heard about the family that escaped to Greece on a fishing boat. Embarrassed authorities rounded up relatives and sent them to work on government-owned farms.

Mr. Malo, who died Sunday at 82, spent the rest of his life amassing a fortune in restaurants and the stock market, then sending money and goods to his family in Albania.

He was short in stature, dark and intense. He championed freedom and gave money to Republican candidates such as Ronald Reagan, who invited Mr. Malo to his inaugural ball. His anti-communist sentiments included a dimension few Americans could share — that of a disillusioned former soldier for communist causes.

He was born into a Greek family in Himara, Albania, and grew up in a tiny and ancient house in a densely packed neighborhood between mountains and the Ionian Sea. At 13, he joined an uncle in the mountains, fighting with communist partisans against the German occupiers.

The communists took over the country in 1944. The new authorities immediately confiscated private property, including 400 olive trees belonging to Mr. Malo's parents.

"Instead of owning the land, they became day laborers for the Albanian government," said Eleonora Mihopoulos, Mr. Malo's daughter. "He said, 'This wasn't what I fought for.' "

Two events, both in 1948, defined the course of the rest of his life. Mr. Malo married his childhood sweetheart, Alexandra Joshi. He also went to jail for three years, first for his politics and then for trying to flee the country.

He moved to the capital city of Tirana on his release, and spent the next 20 years trying to escape. He studied boxing and acting and hung out with opera singers, hoping for a chance to reach another shore and defect. He repaired sewing machines, sold art on the black market and illegally watched Greek television for his news.

On Aug. 7, 1971, the entire extended family packed into a commercial fishing boat captained by his brother, Vasil Malo, and escaped to Greece. A year later, most of the clan went to New York.

Mr. Malo worked at night as a Macy's janitor and ran a hot dog stand during the day. He saved enough money to buy a pizza parlor in the Bronx.

Though he struggled with English all his life, Mr. Malo excelled at the stock market. "Honest to God, he could read the stock pages better than a Harvard graduate," said Mihopoulos, 58, a restaurateur who owns Kally-K's Steakery Fishery in Dunedin.

Mr. Malo's Albanian relatives, meanwhile, were living in poverty. The man the family called "Papou" shipped them cash and appliances, everything from televisions to washing machines and cars. Over the years, Mr. Malo made it possible for about 50 of his relatives and friends to leave Albania for the United States.

In 1975, Mr. Malo bought the Tower of Pizza restaurant in Key Largo. He turned the restaurant over to his children in 1980 and retired. Fulfilling his American dream had taken less than a decade.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this week filled him with relief. "He was so happy," Mihopoulos said. "He said, 'Now this is the beginning of the new world.' "


Fotios Malo

Born: Feb. 10, 1927.Died: Nov. 8, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Alexandra; son, Dionis and his wife, Theodora; daughters, Eleonora Mihopoulos and her husband, Alexander, Christina Lappas and her husband, Michael; brothers, Vasil and his wife, Kristina, Pandeli and his wife, Vasillo; sisters, Niki Kristo and her husband, Taqo, Marika Kolilas; six grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Service: Visitation 6 to 8 p.m. today, Curlew Hills Funeral Home, 1717 Curlew Road, Palm Harbor. Service 11 a.m. Thursday, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 409 S Old Coachman Road, Clearwater.

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