Mike Pahos was a leader at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church as well as the man who transformed a weed-and junk-strewn cliff into Shoreline Park and the former city dump into Elings Park. | Credit: Courtesy

Mike Pahos: 1929-2020

It’s fitting that Mike Pahos was laid to rest on Valentine’s Day. He was a man with a sweet tooth and a heart bursting with love and gratitude for his family, his friends, his fine life, and his deep, abiding faith. His last words were “I’m the luckiest man in the world.” But those whose lives he touched believe they are the lucky ones. Local mourners were joined by loved ones who traveled from Kauai, Northern California, the East Coast, and the Pacific Northwest to pay their respects.

Mike was truly a man for all seasons, who inspired and empowered others as he set about his long and wonderful life, which included a green thumb when it came to managing the city and county parks. Whether one is born to such a significant life or one sets out to make it so is something we might all ponder. 

Mike turned 90 last summer, but his spirit was that of a much younger man, one who still loved to sing, to dance, to enjoy fine company and good food. At the party to celebrate his birthday, he wore his birthday crown and a Hawaiian shirt. He joined with his longtime companions the Holly Berry singers in full-throated choruses of soulful Greek folk songs. As they sang, daughter Maria and son Theo expertly danced the ancient steps they learned from their father when they were just tiny; ever the proud father, Mike nodded his approval.

He embodied the Greek notion of kefi, which roughly translates to “the joy of life.” While that definition includes having fun, it is deeper than that, encompassing love of culture and the understanding that we are here for a fleeting instant in time: Each moment, each person matters; we must both receive and give back and remember always that we are blessed. 

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” —Pericles

Mike was the son of immigrant parents who fled the hopeless poverty of post–World War I Greece for opportunity in the coal mines of Newcastle, Pennsylvania, where Mike was born. The family later settled in Chicago, where Mike learned to become an active part of the Greek-American community and widened his horizons with in-depth dinner table discussions about articles in National Geographic. After serving in the Korean War, he traveled west to California, where he studied landscape architecture at UC Berkeley and had the good fortune to meet Vivian, the Greek-American flight attendant who made him swoon.

Within two weeks, they were engaged, and they married soon after that. The couple lived, loved, and danced together for just over 60 years. Two weeks before his passing, at Vivian’s 90th birthday party, Mike shared his oft-told story of his love and admiration for his wife from the moment they met. “She was the most beautiful woman in the world. She still is,” he declared, his eyes sparkling. They established a welcoming home that exudes hospitality to this day, with its year-round Christmas lights decorating the evergreen tree in the Mediterranean courtyard.

Mike was a leader at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church and a driving force in the construction of the gleaming white sanctuary with the blue-tiled roof. Nestled in the Santa Barbara foothills, it looks like it might overlook the Aegean Sea. He directed the placement of the boulders, oversaw the design of the stained-glass windows, and researched iconographers and the mosaicist. More importantly, he was one to emulate as he faithfully attended services, sang in the choir, and encouraged others to join in worship. He made a pilgrimage to ancient monasteries on Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain of Greece. He was recognized as an Archon in the Orthodox faith, and upon his passing, the National Council of the Order of Saint Andrew issued a letter praising the goodness of his heart and his service to the worldwide church.

In Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis asked, “Is it possible to talk by dancing?” For Mike, it was no question at all. The high school jitterbug champ mastered Greek folk dancing, and he inspired generations to follow in his footsteps. He admired other dancers: In recent years, he posted videos of extraordinary dance performances — from ballet to modern dance and everything in between — for his Facebook friends, just as a reminder of glorious moments set to music that moved his soul.

He loved this community and dedicated his life to making it a better place to live, work, and play. Anyone who visited the Santa Barbara Greek Festival during the 25 years he served as director witnessed the joy he felt in sharing all aspects of Hellenic culture at beautiful Oak Park. He served as El Presidente of Fiesta 1975 and was a member of the Santa Barbara Choral Society, participating in local musical productions and traveling with them to perform in great European cathedrals. He happily attended the milestones of others and reveled in their accomplishments: birthdays, school plays, athletic events, graduations, all the sacraments.

A visionary among bureaucrats, Mike embraced the Golden Mean to bridge the gap and get things done throughout his public service career. It wasn’t easy: As superintendent of Santa Barbara City Parks, he tangled with Pearl Chase over the pruning of the Italian stone pines on Anapamu Street; he dealt with the environmental impacts to the coast and beaches during the 1969 oil spill. There’s a classic image of him standing on the sand as the black tide laps upon the shore. And he dealt with the decision by higher-ups who did an end run around him and demolished the ball field at Laguna Park — it still rankled him years later: “It was a big loss for the community. Any time you lose recreation space for any purpose, it’s never going to come back.”

The crowning achievement of his tenure with the city was transformation — of the weed- and junk-strewn cliff into Shoreline Park and of the former city dump into Las Positas Park, now called Elings Park.

As county parks director for 22 years, he happily moved the park administration office from the courthouse to a former caretaker’s cottage at Rocky Nook Park. To Mike, it made perfect sense for him and his staff to work among the oaks and boulders of that historically significant, peaceful, natural place.

Mike had vision and perspective. As he stated, “A well-run business plans five years ahead; a family the 10-20-year span of their children’s education or longer. Government should plan for at least the entire life of the present generation. We need to decide what expenditures today will save money in the future.”

When you enjoy a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, toast the sunset at Hendry’s Beach, savor a meal to remember at Goleta Beach, jog around Lake Los Carneros, walk the beach at Jalama, or camp near Cachuma, remember the man who served this county so well.

There comes a time in life when you attend more funerals than weddings, and you never see it coming. Take time to contemplate wonder. Get outside, notice the beauty, and be moved by the spirit of place. In work and play, do your absolute best and be your authentic self. Gather together with friends and family and keep extending your circle. Encourage others. Step a little lighter, speak a little kindlier, laugh a little louder. Take time for a little fun every day, and dance when you have the chance. In doing so, you’ll add some kefi to your life, And you’ll be like Mike.

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