V. Paul Gavora, who escaped tyranny in Europe to come to Alaska and help build the 49th state, died at his home in Fairbanks on May 21. He was 86.
He was born in the former Czechoslovakia, but Paul was an American long before he came to the United States. At 19, he came to America in search of freedom. At 26, he came to the territory of Alaska in search of opportunity. He never looked back. He became a successful businessman, a leader in the Fairbanks community, a philanthropist, a devoted husband, and a father of nine. He never took for granted the freedom and opportunity he found in his new home. Instead, he used these gifts to provide for his family, build his community, and leave Alaska a better, stronger state than the territory he found.
Vladimir Gavora was born in Brezova pod Bradlom, Czechoslovakia on September 5, 1931. When he was seven, Germans invaded and occupied his hometown. When he was 13, his father died, leaving his mother alone to raise his brother, sister and him amidst the violence of World War II.
In 1948, Vladimir was expelled from the 10th grade for questioning the communist ideology that had become the official doctrine of post-war Eastern and Central Europe. Fearing arrest, he decided, at 16, to escape to the West. By then, Czechoslovakia had fallen under the control of the former Soviet Union. Its borders were tightly controlled.
Under the cover of darkness on November 10, 1948, Vladimir swam across the Danube River that separates western Slovakia from Austria. Traveling in the trunk of a car and later by foot through the Alps, Vladimir made his way to West Germany. There, he joined other Czech and Slovak refugees who were exiled in the American zone. He finished high school in West Germany and in 1951 was awarded a scholarship to study in America. He earned his passage to the United States by working as a security guard on a United Nations ship carrying other refugees. During a violent storm in the North Atlantic, Vladimir was charged with keeping panicked passengers safely below decks. The seas were so rough he had to be tied to the railing near a stairway and given a billy club. For an entire night he kept his fellow passengers from coming up the stairs and being swept out to sea.
Once in America, Vladimir adopted the name “Paul” after a favorite uncle. At Colorado State University he met Donna Lee Tighe. They were married in 1953 and moved to Chicago, where Paul earned a combined undergraduate and graduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago. His graduate advisor was the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who heavily influenced Paul’s approach to business and politics. Paul said later, “You don’t graduate from the University of Chicago in economics without Milton Friedman getting his claws into you a little bit.”
In 1958, Paul was offered an assistant professorship in economics at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. With three children and a fourth on the way, Paul and Donna moved their family from Chicago to the territory of Alaska. But when they reached Fairbanks, the territorial legislature had failed to provide funds for the promised professorship. To support his family, Paul took the first job offered in the newspaper want ads: delivering milk for Creamer’s Dairy. It was the same work that had paid his way through school in Chicago. “I’m a very accomplished milkman,” he would later tell a reporter.
In 1962, Paul used $7,000 from a second mortgage on his home to buy his first grocery store. In 1964, he opened his first Market Basket store in Fairbanks and as Alaska grew, Paul’s business grew. He would go on to own and operate six Market Baskets located throughout Alaska as well as the Southgate Hub in Fairbanks. He developed Fairbanks’s first shopping mall and two other interior malls. In 1972 he opened a wholesale food company called Northland Hub that provided groceries to restaurants, stores and commissaries from the Russian Far East to Anchorage and to Prudhoe Bay.
Paul went on to own and operate Circle Hot Springs in the 1970s, adding an Olympic sized pool, greenhouses and gardens. He was behind the development of a number of different real estate properties in the Fairbanks area, including renovating the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. The former hospital now houses another business he founded, Denali State Bank. Paul created thousands of jobs for Alaskans and was the first University of Alaska School of Business’s Businessman of the Year in 1977.
While he was building his business, Paul and Donna were also building their family. They eventually had nine children, 19 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. And although Paul worked 10-12 hour days, six days a week to build his business, he kept his success in perspective. His family and his community were what counted most.
He called himself “an Alaskan by choice” and he never left the state. He was often frustrated with the temporary mindset he saw in many of his fellow Alaskans. He considered it both a civic duty and business necessity to put down roots in Alaska. At a time when national chains and big box stores were beginning to colonize the state, Paul made a point of filling his malls with independent, Alaskan merchants.
For Paul, Alaska was a home, not a place to be exploited and left behind. He served as a Regent at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He was a longtime member of the Alaska Judicial Council. Paul was one of the original founders of Fairbanks Youth Football. He was a pioneering supporter of understanding the unique environment of the state. He was one of the founders of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, a congressionally chartered scientific commission dedicated to the study of the arctic. Paul was a major supporter of the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks. He was a longtime Rotarian and the former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party. In 2005, he endowed a chair in vascular surgery at the University of Washington.
Paul was a founding member of the POETS, a Rat Pack-like group of Alaskan men who had lunch together for decades every Friday at the Elks Club. On occasion, they were known to be over-served. At the end of the meal, they gambled for the check. The loser picked up the substantial tab.
He was a man of few words – by his own telling, “a doer, not a talker.” But if Paul had a credo, it was the question he would put to his children as they grew up and considered careers of their own. When a son or daughter would talk about what he or she wanted to do with their life – become a lawyer or a journalist or a businessman – he would invariably interrupt and ask, “Yes, but can you eat it?”
Can you eat it? The question revealed a lot about Paul. First, it showed his economist’s practicality – there is job security in providing basic human necessities. But more importantly, it revealed a grounded, good sense that is very rare in a man of so much ambition. The basic things were the important things – family, friends, food. The rest was a dangerous distraction.
“After you take care of the necessities, like home, food, clothing and the like, the buck is a commodity,” Paul said. “It’s a tool of the trade. It has no other value.”
True to his credo, Paul was a dedicated, ambitious and innovative gardener. He grew magnificent potatoes, cabbage and corn with which he would treat his friends and family at harvest cookouts. He was an avid hunter and fisherman. On Sundays he cooked marvelous meals – often using ducks, pheasant or fish he had caught. He loved spending time with his grandchildren, and understood that the secret to entertaining little kids was to give them a job to do.
In March, 2017, Paul lost the woman who had been his partner, comforter and wife for 63 years. The year after Donna Lee passed was difficult for Paul. And as his health deteriorated, he spoke of his work on earth being done. His children were prospering and independent. His grandchildren were many and happy. He wanted nothing more than to be with Donna. And now at last he is.
Paul leaves behind his children, Alexandra Gavora, Daniel Gavora, Rudolf Gavora, Steven Gavora, Jessica Gavora, Jennifer Button, Carrie Gavora and Matthew Gavora; his brother, Svetozar Gavora of Nova Bana, Slovakia; his grandchildren Benjamin, McKenzie, Cali, Nicholas, Christopher, Alexis, Dylan, John, Madeline, Lucas, Peter, Samuel, Lucy, Raina, Kira, Owen, Abigail, Ava and David; and his great-grandchild Matthew. He was preceded in death by Donna and their daughter, Pauli Gavora.
The Gavora family would like to express its profound appreciation for the people who took such great care of Paul. Mary Temple, Jacob Temple, Rufus Kangbo, Ayo Temple, Jackie Evans, Mariah Aiello
Nancy Lozano-Mulvaney, Laurie Palusak and Sandy McLeod.
Funeral services will be held today, Wednesday, May 30, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. at the Holy Family Chapel at the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks.
In lieu of flowers, Paul's wishes were that donations be made to the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks: www.catholic-schools.org/donate.html.