Savannah public servant Pete Liakakis leaves a worthy legacy
Tommy Barton is the retired editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.
Stop the presses.
It seems Pete Liakakis, who died on April 14 at the age of 90 and was buried last week, was mortal after all.
Liakakis, the closest thing modern Savannah had to an old-school political godfather, lived his life in perpetual motion. He was always running for something:
for political office.
At a community meeting.
To put up political campaign signs in the best places in Chatham County, which he knew like the back of his hand.
Learn more about Pete Liakakis’ legacy:Pete Liakakis remembered as entrepreneur, charity official for Savannah
Liakakis’ impact on the community:“President Pete” Liakakis dies at 90; Savannahian was a community icon
At Brighter Day Natural Foods Market to consult owner Peter Brodhead about a natural remedy for a friend who had headaches and difficulty sleeping. Liakakis did not keep a pharmacy at home. He had the trunk of his big American car.
To check the many small businesses he owned, United Alarm, United Detective Agency and a series of convenience stores (all named PAL, after his initials – Peter Antonio Liakakis).
Hold the annual Greek Festival at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church.
Cut a ribbon for a business opening.
Cutting the carpet on the dance floor during a community activity.
To watch over his beloved wife, Mary Jean, or another family member.
Delivering a ventilator to an elderly person locked in a stifling apartment in a public housing project.
To escort a tractor-trailer loaded with food, drinking water and emergency supplies donated through its “Savannah Responds” program to a hurricane-ravaged community in the boondocks.
And he never slowed down, not until he was elected in 1995 for the first of two terms to a citywide seat on the Savannah City Council, or in 2012 after his two terms as president. of the Chatham County Commission.
Liakakis knew only one speed – all flat out, pedaling for the medal. For him, “retirement” was a dirty word. I think he knew from experience with his contemporaries that it was a fine line between being honored at a retirement dinner and headlining a funeral service.
He was one of those men who could never sit still and could never say “no” to someone in need, which in Savannah means almost everyone at once.
Pete was a force of nature, a swirling human tornado with every strand of his orange-red hair perfectly in place. I prefer to believe that he did not die like a lesser mortal. No, it wore out like the batteries in its internal Energizer Bunny ran out of juice after 90 years. They gave his age as 90. I don’t believe it either. I would measure his age in dog years, because he was as active in every day of his life as a Jack Russell Terrier. I do his actual age at around 630.
Pete was born in Savannah and graduated from Savannah High School, which he attended with another iconic Greek-Savannahian, John Paul Rousakis. Rousakis went into insurance, then into politics. Liakakis, who enlisted in the Air Force where he was trained in communications and intelligence, would join his former high school classmate and work on his political campaigns.
Rousakis, the so-called “mayor for life” of Savannah served from 1970 to 1991. Rousakis did not lead any campaigns. He ran machines. Liakakis was a vital cog behind the scenes, making sure the mayor and his city council cared for every ethnic and demographic group – white, black, Jewish, Catholic, old, young, rich, poor, liberal, conservative. It was a winning prescription and Pete learned it on the master’s lap.
Another skill Liakakis learned was the art of political signalling. Yes, signs don’t vote. But well-placed signs boost name recognition, which translates into votes. Liakakis and his sign team knew the best sign locations and all the landowners who would let him plant the biggest signs on their properties.
His connections and work ethic have paid off for countless politicians, mostly Democrats, from the city council level to the statehouse to Congress. For local politicians, having Liakakis in your corner didn’t guarantee victory, but it did give you more than a fighting chance. He also paid it forward, mentoring and befriending dozens of young people bitten by the political bug. But Liakakis, to his credit, was a classy guy who could take a punch and get back up and keep going.
Indeed, Liakakis lost a close and heartbreaking mayoral election in 2003 to Otis Johnson. But Liakakis was no whiner. He went on to a successful run for county commission chairman, which was smart. At this time, the center of the political universe of Savannah and Chatham County shifted from City Hall to the County Courthouse.
Liakakis also had excellent knowledge of all corners of the community. Its head was a Wiki-Pete-ia of local information. Unlike many white politicians, he and his mentor, Johnny Rousakis, made genuine efforts to get to know the black community of Savannah as people, not as a voting bloc.
When a poor black neighborhood on the east or west side was flooded, Liakakis was often among the first to show up and help. He remembered the names of the people he met, and the names of their moms and dads, where they went to church, and the names of their preachers. And he didn’t flatter or talk to people. He was remembered as a giver, not a taker. In return, they remembered Liakakis and Rousakis on election day.
But Liakakis was more than a successful politician, he was a hard-working businessman who often found the limelight.
Early in his business career, Pete’s security company was hired by Hollywood producers for the filming of “The Longest Yard” in Savannah in the early 1970s. Pete, who had martial arts skills, was hired to keep fans away from the film’s heartthrob star Burt Reynolds.
Around town, Liakakis played the role of “Burt’s bodyguard” until the end. I think that’s where he learned to play it cool and dress cool – Saturday Night Fever disco style, from the top of his well-groomed head to the bottom of his waxed half-boots with block heels . He favored the Hollywood look, complete with tinted sunglasses. But there were no accounts for all of his loud polyester sports coats, other than that he often found himself on private detective duty and had to dress to blend in with the hotel draperies.
Punch to the face:Savannah man blocked fists, fans in love with Burt Reynolds
Pete’s only business deal that went wrong was his acquisition of a two-story building with a large PBR sign on the corner of East Harris and Drayton Streets, best known as the best dive bar in town, Pinkie Master’s Lounge. Liakakis was the second cousin of the bar’s politically active owner, Pinkie Masterpolis. After Masterpolis died, it fell into Pete’s hands. But all was not well with the bar’s operations and a messy legal dispute ensued.
Liakakis also loved being everyone’s guardian angel.
Pete’s first job on the public payroll was Deputy Director of Civil Defense, a paid disaster watchdog. For many people, this may seem like a reminder of a patronage job. But Liakakis took it as seriously as a Category 4 hurricane.
And he got results. He brought “Jaws of Life” technology to Savannah, saving the lives of countless citizens. He was looking for any opportunity to talk about improving disaster response.
Liakakis was a committed talker. He once called me home around 8 a.m. on a sunny, lazy Sunday. “What is it, Pete?” I mumbled groggy.
Big mistake. Liakakis could make the head of a statue speak.
Never ask a guy like Liakakis, who spoke in one long sentence, an open-ended question. He got excited and gave me a full and completely boring report on a hazmat drill he had witnessed. But every community needs someone like him. We were lucky to have Pete.
Pete’s fingerprints are on nearly every nonprofit and worthy cause in Savannah. He was gentle on anyone out of luck, from cops to ne’er do wells. He was burned a few times but always kept his faith in people. In this way, he reflected the city in which he was born and died.
Pete Liakakis was a Savannah original. His passing marks another end of an old-school soldier in local politics. He was the happiest of warriors. Indeed, after his death, the old City Hall gang almost reassembled behind the pearly gates: Liakakis, Rousakis, Eli Karatassos, Don Mendonsa, JB Blackburn, Leo Center and Harley “Nippie” Morrison.
And a final word on Pete’s playful sense of humor. I once asked Pete the one question everyone wanted to know the answer to, but didn’t have the guts to ask – if he wore a hairpiece.
He smiled, then dared me to grab him by the hair and swing him.
Not wanting to get tangled up with a black belt in martial arts, I hesitated. And lived to write another day.