VALRICO — In nearly every photo, Mathew Korattiyil beamed.
He smiled in selfies taken in cars and movie theaters. He smiled as he served pizza at gatherings. He smiled as he stood next to his family at graduations and weddings.
The 68-year-old businessman was the picture of good will.
But friends and family say this masked the relentless desire of a man who grew up poor in India to protect and comfort those around him.
“He came from nothing and built an American dream,” son Melson Korattiyil told his father’s mourners.
The circumstances of Korattiyil death’s on Aug. 6 shocked the bay area. He pulled up outside a Brandon bank just as a robber was trying to escape, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The bank robber abducted him in a carjacking to make his escape.
Korattiyil was found dead later that day at Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Community Center, where he was a member.
The man who attacked him was later arrested on that Aug. 6 day, then attempted suicide while in jail and is now hospitalized.
Days after Korattiyil death’s, at his Aug. 9 service and his Aug. 10 funeral, those who knew Korattiyil best shared their grief and said their goodbyes.
A projector played the photos and videos of a smiling Korattiyil during the Aug. 9 public viewing at Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Community Center in Valrico.
People flew in from as far away as India, London and Canada to pay their respects. More than 500 attended, and the speakers included Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.
“When I saw the incident, it broke my heart,” said Castor, the former police chief, who did not know Korattiyil. “This was as senseless an act as I have seen.”
To the Tampa Knanaya community, Christians from a southern state in India, Korattiyil was a cornerstone.
He moved with his family to the Tampa area in 1989, one of the first among the Knanaya community to do so. There were 50 to 60 families here at the time, said community center president Tomy Kattinacheril. Today, there are more than 370.
Korattiyil was born in Peroor, a village in Kerala, India. The third child of six in a farming family, he grew up poor, hungry, barefoot — and kind.
Winny Mattathilparambil, his neighbor in Peroor, told the audience at the viewing that he looked up to Korattiyil as an older brother and called him “a lion” at soccer.
When they were young, Korattiyil bought them both a pair of shoes with money he had saved. In college, when Mattathilparambil got into trouble with another student and was afraid to go to class, Korattiyil volunteered to protect him for the day.
“He said, ‘Who dares to touch you when I’m there?’” Mattathilparambil said.
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Korattiyil enrolled in a hotel management program and moved in 1983 to Chicago and married Lillykutty (Theccanat) Korattiyil, whom he had met two years earlier in India.
Korattiyil worked two jobs, one at a hospital and another at a pizza restaurant. The family saved enough money to move from Chicago to Valrico. Korattiyil owned and managed gas station convenience stores in Brandon, Dover and Lakeland.
His family lived in the quiet suburbs and Melson worked at the store with him, helping run the register and buy merchandise. His daughter played soccer. The tight-knit family went everywhere together, said Kattinacheril.
Determined his family would never endure the hunger he grew up with, Korattiyil worked seven days a week, often 12 to 14 hours a day. Aside from attending the funerals of longtime customers, Melson Korattiyil said his father rarely took time off.
He always showed up to soccer matches when his daughter Manju was playing, even if he was late. He taught her how to do a bicycle kick and his pride shone the first time she scored a header goal.
Friend Jose Koppazha said at the viewing that Mathew Korattiyil had a way of expressing his views with humor without hurting with those who disagreed. The two often played cards together and talked about the issues of the day.
“A friend is the one who walks in when everyone walks out,” Koppazha said. “He was a friend.”
Korattiyil’s daughter and two sons grew up to become medical or dental professionals. They were a tremendous source of pride to him. He had recently retired in hopes of spending more time with his four grandchildren.
Within the Knanaya Catholic community, Korattiyil was a guiding figure, Kattinacheril said. Korattiyil was generous with his money, donating to a “dream project” at the center and supporting missionaries in northern India as well as charities in his Indian hometown.
That Korattiyil’s body was found at the community center after the carjacking only deepened the pain of his death, Kattinacheril said. Perhaps his assailant was seeking a quiet place, he said.
Korattiyil’s children spoke about their father at his Aug. 10 funeral at Nativity Catholic Church. Manju Korattiyil recalled him as a caring protector.
Once she moved away, he made sure he called her every day, even if only to talk for a few seconds. If she didn’t answer, he would worry and ask where she was.
He could always tell if something was wrong, she said, even if she pretended everything was fine.
“We’re going to miss you so much,” she said. “We weren’t ready for this.”
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this story.