Paul Gavora gambled on building a new life in America. He succeeded.
Nine months after a 1948 Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia, 17-year-old Vladimir Gavora took the first major gamble of his life. He dove into the Danube River and swam to Austria, a determined refugee who eventually made his way to West Germany in the trunk of a car and on foot.
“At that age you do not get scared,” he told me in a 1997 interview. “That’s one of the advantages of youth.”
There were other advantages as well for a young man with intelligence, unstoppable drive, a tolerance for 70-hour work weeks, and a willingness to risk everything.
He finished high school in Germany, came to the United States on a college scholarship, borrowed "Paul" as a first name from a favorite uncle and learned economics inside and out.
Gavora, who died May 21 in Fairbanks at 86, did more than any other single person to shape the development and growth of local business in Fairbanks over the last half-century.
With his name attached to the Gavora Mall and other landmarks, he ran retail business enterprises that employed and served tens of thousands over the years. He rode high during the boom times and took hits when the economy tanked, real estate prices collapsed and the competition of major grocery chains became too much.
After the Alaska bust of the late 1980s, Gavora rejected the word "success" to describe himself as a businessman, saying he preferred "semi-survivor," but that was an exaggeration.
He turned Market Basket stores into Super Valu stores in 1987, two years after finishing his third major complex and just as the economy began to go south. “The future didn’t turn out the way I saw it through my magic looking glass,” he said at the time.
All in all, he did pretty well with his magic looking glass and invested for the long term.
Learning English as he did from books, Gavora said it took him a long while to improve his speaking skills, but he communicated well enough that Donna Lee Tighe, who he had met while playing ping-pong at Colorado State University, agreed to marry him in 1953.
Graduate studies in economics followed at the University of Chicago under the likes of Milton Friedman and the Gavoras headed north to Fairbanks in 1958, where he believed he was going to become an economics teacher at the University of Alaska.
A hard lesson in the Fairbanks School of Economics awaited Paul in Fairbanks—there was no money to pay his salary.
"Those were the days of the Territorial Legislature and it sometimes took them three years to appropriate funds after they approved a job," he told a reporter in 1976.
His academic career may have evaporated, but Gavora had delivered milk in Chicago while attending college and he did the same in Fairbanks for Creamer's Dairy. He and Donna had three children by then, with six more to follow, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to making a living.
His career as the nation's most overqualified milkman did not last long. He made connections with local retailers, became a grocery store clerk and by 1960 had signed on to manage the grocery department of the new Foodland Shopping Circle. The store was described as revolutionary because the building was round.
"He's happy putting his knowledge of economics to work serving patrons of the Foodland Shopping Circle," the Daily News-Miner said.
Gavora was happier putting that knowledge to work for himself, however, risking a $7,000 second mortgage to open his first store in 1962. The Market Basket stores followed, as did malls, liquor stores and other ventures.
He believed that anyone in business had to be optimistic and willing to take risks. He said his was a "typical American experience."
Nationally syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, a son-in-law to Paul, wrote a great column the other day about Paul's life in which he provided a more accurate summation.
"Opinions will differ about the takeaway of Paul's story," Goldberg wrote. "For me, it's not that he got rich. It's that the United States gave him a shot to try — and he remained grateful for the opportunity his whole life."