The United States is home to many successful immigration stories.
The life of Angelo Tsakopoulos, arriving in America as a penniless, 15-year-old kid to shine shoes and pick tomatoes before eventually becoming a prosperous real estate developer and seeing his child elected to statewide office in California, is one such story.
Evangelos Kyriakos Tsakopoulos grew up during the German occupation of WWII, which was followed by the Greek Civil War, one of the early proxy wars in what became the Cold War between American and Soviet ideologies.
It was harsh living, Tsakopoulos saying “The whole day revolved around getting enough food and surviving.”
Labeled by the Truman administration as a “displaced person,” he begged his parents for permission to leave Greece, which he did in 1951.
Over 70 years later, Tsakopoulos still lists seeing the Statue of Liberty on August 4th, when he sailed into New York Harbor, as the greatest day of his life.
Barely able to speak English when first attending high school in Lodi, California, about a half-hour south of Sacramento, where he stayed with an uncle, Tsakopoulos found himself the object of local bullying.
This is when football coach John Giannoni, who also ran a boxing program, invited Tsakopoulos to his gym.
The bullying soon ended with Tsakopoulos learning the fundamentals of fighting.
Graduating high school, he attended the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois for a year, Chicago being the home of another uncle.
But one Illinois winter was enough to convince Tsakopoulos he was a Californian.
Enrolling then at Sac State, he joined the boxing team coachedby Hank Elespuru. “Hank was a great coach,” Tsakopoulos said, which explains, at least in part, how in only a few short years Elespuru’s teams became a major national force in boxing.
Tsakopoulos fondly remembers his boxing days, his friendships with Frankie Reynoso, Rex Cruz, Bob Bell – who for many years would be Tsakopoulos’ attorney – and Frank Erickson.
The major names at Sac State – Otis Grimble, Norm Tavalero – who as heavyweight was twice runner-up for the NCAA championship and with whom Tsakopoulos remains in contact – and the champions Terry Smith and Jim Flood, carried the team.
Tsakopoulos describes himself as part of their support crew, boxing at 132 pounds.
“Flood was like Marciano,” Tsakopoulos said, referring to the two-time NCAA champion’s lack of concern with his opponent’s punches, looking only to land his own.
Most of Tsakopoulos’ former teammates are now gone, but he lamented the loss of Flood and Smith in particular, as they suffered harshly from the effects of boxing in their later years.
Tsakopoulos expresses thanks in retrospect that Sac State disbanded the boxing team in 1960, following the death of Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr in that year’s NCAA tournament, knowing he might not be as sharp as he is currently if he had taken more punches in those early years.
He shook his head when I asked if he still followed boxing. “Boxing is not a sport to be pursued,” Tsakopoulos said. “We know so much better now how much damage the brain suffers.”
He was quiet for a moment before saying, “I am not a friend of boxing.”
This was a segue for Tsakopoulos to talk about projects dear to his heart.
Working with his friend, Dr. Louis Vismara, cardiologist and founding member of the Mind Institute at nearby U. C. Davis, Tsakopoulos is helping to fund research for developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD, and Down Syndrome, with regards to both medical treatments and assisting these patients entry into the larger world where they can havefull lives.
Involved also with the Institute for Aging, Tsakopoulos said, “Seniors are hitting society like a tsunami,” expressing his concern not only that are so many elderly living longer lives these days, due to medical care and healthier living, but also that the traditional balance of a younger, working-age demographic being substantially larger than the population of elderly is shifting, with fewer people per-capita available to help support the elderly.
If there is one thing Tsakopoulos understands in this world it is demographics.
Studying population growth and housing trendsis the foundation of his success.
He began his real estate business, now known as AKT Development, in 1964. Tsakopoulos would study a time-series of maps of U.S. cities, a map every two or three years as they were produced, observing how populations in select cities settled within the cities as they grew, and how housing was built to accommodate the expanding populations.
Applying this understanding to the Sacramento area, Tsakopoulos would buy land he projected to be probable areas for development. At first he would put together groups of investors, as Tsakopoulos lacked the resources to invest by himself. But later, with more capital, he could work solitarily.
Sometimes he would hold land for 20 years or more before the return on the investment was realized. This was not a speculative venture seeking quick gains, but rather a longer-term commitment as a business model.
The Tsakopoulos era has run parallel with the quadrupling of Sacramento-area population, currently just shy of two-and-a-quarter million people.
Not participating in the actual construction of buildings, AKT Development has been involved in development’s infrastructure – the laying of sidewalks and streets, for example, or installing drainage infrastructure.
But AKT generally acquires land and legally prepares it for development through rezoning efforts.
In this way, AKT has prepared land for development into thousands of residential lots and made Tsakopoulos a wealthy and powerful man.
This model is the manifestation of Tsakopoulos’ business ethos, which is the belief that much of America’s strength comes from its people being able to own a small part of the country, that part of America’s greatness is in its fostering home ownership for its citizens.
Business at this level, like high-stakes poker, is not for the faint of heart, and Tsakopoulos’ projects “Sometimes have involved controversial rezoning battles before the County Board of Supervisors.”
One does not read sixty years of Sacramento Bee coverage of someone as influential as Angelo Tsakopoulos without encountering a full spectrum of opinions on the man and his practices.
A former city planner sees Tsakopoulos’ political influence as the function of three attributes: personal charm, philanthropy, and “a history of campaign contributions and raising money.”
I have been in Tsakopoulos’ presence for only one hour but can attest to the charm, which is genuine and sincere.
Evidence of his generosity is everywhere in Sacramento, from libraries, universities, and medical facilities to non-profit journalistic enterprises such as CalMatters, which attempts to counter the loss of trust in media that has come with the internet.
Tsakopoulos has been called a “political financier,” and is widely known as a “hard bargainer,” though described by one competitor as being “a tough businessman (and) a very generous, warm-hearted person.”
I have been startled by two findings in the series of articles I am writing about the history of Sacramento boxing.
First, almost everyone I have written about who was seriously involved in boxing died with equally serious cognitive issues. Some younger guys I know seem to currently be doing well, but the balloon payment for a life in boxing can come due unexpectedly.
I knew, of course, that getting punched in the head was never good for the brain, but did not appreciate the near absolute relationship between boxing and various forms of dementia. This is why I move closer to Tsakopoulos’ position on boxing – something I have loved for most of my life – every day.
My second observation is the number of fighters who become attorneys. It can be difficult to objectively measure this because, for many boxers, an opportunity for a college education, and especially attendance at a law school, is not available.
But five of the fifteen or so Sac State boxers I am aware of became attorneys. I understand these are “college boxers,” but, even with that, one-third of the population of college graduates do not consider law school.
I’ve been introduced to others who boxed before becoming attorneys, some even admitting that the adversarial and antagonistic atmosphere of certain forms of practice soothes the instinct for aggression and competition that sports once filled.
With this, I asked Tsakopoulos if he felt similarly, if the hardball world in which he plays satisfies a thirst that athletic competition quenched when he was young. Tsakopoulos did not think so, denying a connection between his boxing and business lives.
But his friend Vismara disagreed, saying, “Angelo, you are one of the most competitive people I have ever known.”
In addition to the newspaper research, Bill Barnaby, my liaison to the shrinking number of Sac State boxers still alive, arranged a meeting for me with Tsakopoulos, a friend of Barnaby’s for years.
I met with Tsakopoulos, Vismara, and Barnaby in Tsakopoulos’s office, within walking distance of the Sac State campus.
87 years old, Tsakopoulos is in his office four, if not five, days a week.
Vismara sees Tsakopoulos as employing this competitive spirit in a beneficial manner. “Angelo carries an iron fist in a velvet glove,” he said. Barnaby added that, “Angelo is competitive in a way that makes people feel better about themselves.”
Granted, these are admiring allies of Tsakopoulos.
But former county planner Sam Miller once said, “Angelo is easy to work with. You can sit down and tell him what you want and he will try to respond. He does not play steamroller or anything like that.” A government attorney said of Tsakopoulos that “he drives a hard bargain but he’ll stand by it forever.”
Not confrontational, Tsakopoulos is known for his willingness to compromise, and it this, he argues, more than any “financial gifts,” that explains his success.
Behind all those accolades, behind the charm and the pleasantness, though, lies a steely-strong presence.
Tsakopoulos reminds me of Loreto Garza, Sacramento’s former WBA former 140-pound champion.
Garza is a good human being, humble and honest, but when it came to what he calls the “unforgiving” nature of boxing he was stone-cold confident about himself.
Not very many people are authentically self-assured to this degree, but Garza was one of them. Tsakopoulos is another.
Tsakopoulos’ antagonists in his rezoning efforts are mostlyenvironmental advocates and those in support of no-growth efforts. The not-in-my-backyard types. These are legitimate positions.
It is easy to understand someone wanting a say in how their neighborhood evolves, or even if it evolves. It’s human nature.
These folk might be in love with their community as it is, not wanting it to expand or alter. And who does not want clean air, fertile land, and drinkable water.
Tsakopoulos is seen as the opposition to these positions. And this, I think, is where his extraordinary resolve is found. He has a cause.
Tsakopoulos sincerely believes his developments helpto strengthen America. “We must work very hard to help our average citizens to own a home,” Tsakopoulos says. This is his fight.
He, too, has environmental concerns, and argues his track record is evidence of the value he places on our environment. But he feels some environmental positions at times can be “self-serving,” lacking concern for the human society with which the environment is intertwined.
Tsakopoulos sees his purpose as a developer as making it possible for citizens to buy homes at an affordable price. This is why he is troubled by no-growth efforts, as they increase home prices by effectively making residential dwellings scarce.
A student of history, Tsakopoulos understands that not providing housing for a growing population is not healthy for society.
The problems build on one another.
Higher home prices lead to increasing rent and, ultimately, more homelessness. Civilization is in confrontation with itself.
Tsakopoulos, of course, has become enormously wealthy through this crusade, part of the reason he sees America as a “paradise” in which one should be able to profit from one’s hard work. “We are not here forever, and as long as we are here we must do the best we can for our citizens,” he said.
Former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos said of Tsakopoulos that when you do a story on Angelo, you do a story on the ethnic man.” This is most certainly true.
“Angelo is sort of the reincarnation of the ancient Athenian,” Agnos said, meaning Tsakopoulos is someone who works to develop a community balanced by education, culture and government. “Angelo constantly cultivates all these things.”
It is this sense, then, that Tsakopoulos’ Greek roots are brought into higher relief.
Agnos thinks of Tsakopoulos as the archetypal Athenian who, in addition to his business and family life hascultural and philanthropic interests, and political involvements.
I see an additional Greek dimension. Tsakopoulos is also cast as a protagonist in a dramatic struggle of tragic overtones.
The great Greek tragedies – Antigone, for example – are compelling because two equally legitimate forces confront one another, colliding with one another.
King Creon, Antigone’s uncle, has the authority and the responsibility to impose and maintain a sense of civil order.
Creon, following the law, will not allow Antigone’s deceased brother, Polynices, to be publicly buried due to transgressions he committed.
Antigone, however, is equally compelled to honor her deceased brother with a proper burial. The tragedy is inevitable.
In the current, contemporary drama, we have the established residents, many of whom are content with their villages in the current condition, not wanting a busier village or a growing community.
We also have the protectorate of farm land and the natural environment, always on the front lines, warily guarding the encroaching forces of growth.
Thirty thousand additional people have been claiming the Sacramento metropolitan area as their home every year for the past 70 years, however, and these bodies must reside somewhere.
Tsakopoulos is seen by his antagonists as facilitating the coming hordes.
This is the unending drama in which Tsakopoulos is playing a starring role, in no less of a fight than what he engaged in at age 22.
Only now the fight is less physical in form and the consequences much greater.
“If you have a better way of building homes for our people, tell me what it is,” Tsakopoulos said.
“We try to have the philosophy of life that plays a big role in our work. That philosophy is that we like to leave our city, when we pass on, a little better than we find it,” stressing that we are “only visiting in this world.”
“What is unique about Angelo is his vision,” Vismara said. “Whether it is a real estate projection or a philanthropic venture, he sees beyond what something currently is. He sees what a piece of land can become. Or a financial contribution can become.”
Augmenting the connection Vismara makes between Tsakopoulos’ boxing days and his business life, he said Tsakopoulos is “relentless” in pursuing the visions to which he commit.
Tsakopoulos will say that “my business is not my primary reason to live. We are not here forever, and as long as we are here we must do the best we can for our citizens.”
Tsakopoulos’ record of philanthropy, especially in support of education, is as prolific as his professional activity. “We try to keep in mind compassion for our people, by that we mean people who are unable to fend for themselves, the elderly and the children,” he said. “America is paradise on earth. Look what society has given me – how can I not give?”
Establishing the Hellenic Studies Center on the Sac State campus, which began with a collection of 70,000 academic volumes, Tsakopoulos and his wife Sofia also fund an endowment that sponsors the Bazzanella Literary Awards, an annual writing competition held at the university.
I told Tsakopoulos that I had won a couple of the awards when studying literature, which I took as a hint I might have some talent as a writer.
This news pleased Tsakopoulos greatly, with his animated joy including a fist bump. He asked me to include this anecdote in what I wrote about our meeting.
“Education is the great equalizer,” Tsakopoulos said. He studied history, philosophy, and business as a student.
Very much involved in the Greek-American community, Tsakopoulos has always supported business people and politicians sharing his ethnic roots.
Although not having run for office himself, he is a prominent figure in the political world, described by the Sacramento Bee as having put “Sacramento on the national fund-raising map.”
Once a guest of President Clinton at the White House, when he stayed in the Lincoln bedroom, Tsakopoulos also hosted Clinton in his home for a major fund-raising event.
“Most people don’t understand how great it is to be in America – but they have not been in my position,” Tsakopoulos said. “Anybody who complains about living here – except people with ailments and some of the people we discriminate against – (commits) a crime against God because America has given us everything.”
Everything, for Tsakopoulos, would include his daughter Eleni Kounalakis – who remembers Tsakopoulos reading from The Iliad for her bedtime stories when a child – sitting as the current Lieutenant Governor of California.
She recently announced her intention to run for the governorship in the upcoming 2026 election.