An olive tree grows on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. Planted just seven months ago, it is robust and already bearing fruit. More important, it stands in honor of a man whose work ethic and humor endeared him to the school and an entire community.
John Grivizas tended these grounds for a decade. He cooked at special events on campus and at the annual Epiphany celebration. Who could ever forget his pork shish kebabs, drizzled with fresh-picked grapefruit?
"They're unbelievable,'' offered Conferlete Carney, who took over as college provost a few years ago and wisely relied on Grivizas to introduce him around the city's prominent Greek community. "He's a great cook, but he represents what is to me a significant quality of the Greek culture — family, gracious and inviting people.''
Grivizas enjoyed the attention and sincere good wishes at the November olive tree-planting, but it was a bittersweet occasion. He had worked nonstop since lying about his age as a 14-year-old boy in Lavrion, Greece, and joining the Merchant Marine. He had learned a dozen trades, worked three jobs at times to keep his family secure. Now, at age 59, diabetes forced him to retire.
His legs often go numb. He has a shoebox full of medicine that Hara, his wife of 34 years, makes him take religiously several times a day. "He's a very sick man,'' she says. "But you cannot stop him. Nothing can stop him.''
The beneficiaries of that stubborn resolve will be some of the poorest children in south Pasco and northern Pinellas counties. Grivizas relates to them. He remembers all too well.
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Grivizas' own childhood was difficult. The Greek economy lay in ruins from years of civil war and his parents had little to show for their long hours working in factories 20 miles from Athens. Still, there was a silver lining: surplus food, clothing and toys that arrived from America. The boy, his family's only child, dreamed of visiting the land that has been so generous.
After years in the Merchant Marine and in the Greek army, Grivizas found his way into the United States, walking off the freighter Adonis in Cleveland in November 1974. Alone in the cold, unable to understand English and worried about his illegal status, he found refuge in the basement of another Greek man who helped him find a job caulking windows from scaffolding hundreds of feet above ground.
Grivizas managed to save enough money to make it back to Greece, where he found Hara, eight years younger. He had known her as a "little girl,'' but now they grew close. They married in 1976 and planned their life in the United States — somewhere near the sea like in Lavrion. He found work in Houston and eventually started his own company, weatherproofing high-rise buildings. In six years, they would welcome daughters Chrissi and Katerina, but then watch their American dream crash along with Texas oil prices. They moved to New York where Grivizas worked all day every day — plumbing, laying tile, wiring buildings. The pace took a toll. They wanted something better.
They moved to Florida.
Grivizas says they really didn't know much at the time about Tarpon Springs and its Greek culture. They were just looking for something near the sea again, something affordable, and they found a cheap place in Holiday. They became citizens. The girls went to Gulf High School in New Port Richey. Grivizas and two friends opened a carwash on U.S. 19 but it lasted only eight months. He went to work for the company that had made the carwash sign — then he started his own sign company. Insurance rates drove him to leave that business, and he signed on with a roofing company in Tampa. Meanwhile, Hara sewed chamois at Acme Sponge in Tarpon Springs.
Ten years ago, Grivizas took the landscaping job at St. Petersburg College. Hara now works as a custodian at the Clearwater campus.
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Grivizas should probably sit still. "I wish he would,'' said Hara, "but this means so much to him.''
She refers to a nonprofit corporation Grivizas formed about four months ago — Clothing the Future. He set up a small storefront in the Olympic Plaza on Mile Stretch Drive in Holiday, and through word of mouth has already collected 1,200 pieces of clothing, about 40 pairs of shoes, toys, backpacks and other items that will be donated to poor children. Adult clothing that's donated will go to abuse shelters.
Grivizas understands there are other similar charities, but he wanted to do something himself.
"I'm not ready to die,'' he said this month as he walked among the racks of clothing and shoes that looked new. "I'm not ready to sit on the couch and do nothing.
"We may not be able to save the world. But we can make a difference in our own little community. I've seen bad times, and these are bad times. People need help.''