LYNN — George Koukounaris, a well-known real estate developer and landlord in Lynn, who died on Friday, is remembered by family, friends and colleagues as someone who was all about his family, his faith and Lynn, a man who truly embodied the American Dream after immigrating from Greece with nothing.
Koukounaris, 89, of Nahant, was born in Chios, Greece, and arrived in the United States on Thanksgiving Day in 1955 at the age of 27 and built a career in real estate development — his business success is largely attributed to a love of the personal relationships he built with his tenants, according to his obituary.
“He was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life,” said his daughter Eva Markos, of Nahant. “He was all about his family, his faith, and Lynn. He loved the city of Lynn, he loved his tenants — anyone who came his way, he wanted to help people.”
Markos said her father moved to Nahant in 1982 — he lived in Lynn for many years after moving to the city in 1958.
“Lynn was his life,” Markos said. “He worked very hard to try to improve it. He worked very hard to keep his tenants happy and safe. He loved people. He was a gentle soul, very kind and giving. He believed in giving back. He came from a very poor, poor background and during his success, his strongest belief was to give back.”
Markos said Greece meant the world to him — he was philanthropic to his hometown and on every building he built, he would put in a stone from Greece for good luck — but the United States was his blessing.
“He loved this country for giving him the opportunity to become something. He was your typical American Dream,” she said.
Ed Calnan, the city’s former community development director, said he knew Koukounaris because the city was involved with a couple of his commercial projects, including the Agora Plaza, a strip mall on Market Street and 1 Market St., which was an office building the late real estate developer worked to rehabilitate. He said both projects were in the early 1980s.
Calnan said Koukounaris built a number of apartment buildings in several of the neighborhoods in the city.
“He was a good builder who always treated his tenants with respect, which made him a success,” Calnan said. “I always found him to be a humble man, yet he was very confident in his own abilities in his chosen field of development. He had a vision. He could always see the possibility of what Lynn could be if people worked hard.”
Calnan said a lot of people in City Hall enjoyed working with Koukounaris through the years, calling him rock solid and someone who could always be counted on to do the right thing.
“I think he was a prince of a man and he was the embodiment of the immigrant success story,” Calnan said. “He was a good person and I really rarely had a conversation with him where he didn’t say how blessed he was to be in the United States of America, the land of opportunity, and he really felt that.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized him as one of the top 100 landlords in the United States, the Lynn Area Chamber of Commerce presented him with the first President’s Club Award and he was honored as a Lynn Legacy at the Lynn Museum and Historical Society for those who have made a significant contribution to Lynn’s history, according to his obituary.
Charles Gaeta, executive director of the Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development (LHAND), said he was a city councilor when he first met Koukounaris — the real estate developer was working on one his commercial ventures, the Agora Plaza, which is where Brothers Deli is.
Gaeta said he also worked with Koukounaris when he took over LHAND. He said they stayed in touch after Koukounaris sold most of his properties.
Gaeta said Koukounaris was one of the kindest and classiest people to deal with, someone who treated his residents with the greatest respect and kept rents low. He called him one of the top landlords ever in the city of Lynn, who took pride in everything he did, which reflected itself in the property he owned.
“He was very proud of his accomplishments and proud to be an American,” Gaeta said. “He came from Greece with nothing and built up a résumé with successes for himself, (which) was very big to him … He was just a pretty special guy.”
Alexandra Markos, Eva’s daughter, said her grandfather was the nicest and most optimistic person, who had a lot of faith, which he spread to other people. He was fearless, she said.
Alexandra said her grandfather used to always say: “Don’t make a permanent decision for a temporary problem,” which she said meant don’t do something you can’t take back or reverse, adding that she’s lived her life by that quote.
“That was his philosophy — be calm, have faith, things will work out (and) don’t do anything crazy,” she said.
Koukounaris was also known for his philanthropy, giving back to his community by awarding scholarships to students in both Greece and Lynn. He also built a community center in Chios, Greece, which provides free after-school programs to more than 300 students each year, according to his obituary.
Faith, as his family described, was important to Koukounaris — he was an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is an honor bestowed on those for their outstanding service to the Orthodox Church. He was also a parishioner and sponsor for St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Lynn.
“He was one of the bravest men I ever met in my life,” said George Markos, son-in-law of Koukounaris and Eva’s husband.
Markos, owners of Brothers Deli, said Koukounaris was like a father to him, someone who went out his way to help people, a family man, good businessman, and strong believer in God.
Eva said the happiest day of her father’s year was when George would annually provide meals to those in need on Thanksgiving — she said her father arrived from Greece on Thanksgiving Day with nowhere to go so the day, and George’s annual community service, was very meaningful to him.
“Everything I say won’t cover how good of a person he was,” George Markos said. “The man was amazing.”