By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Peter S. Karagianis, a long-time local businessman and civic leader who is credited with leading drives to save the Belknap Mill from the wrecking ball and to clean up New Hampshire's lakes and rivers, died Saturday at the age of 99, just six weeks short of his 100th birthday.
His son, S. Peter Karagianis, who worked at the Laconia Spa and later at Happy Jack's Cigar, Pipe & Tobacco Shop with his father until he retired a few years ago, said Karagianis was a good father who always made him feel special.
"I can remember him coming in and saying 'Let's go down to Bill's Diner for lunch.' On the way, we'd stop by at the Belknap Mill and we'd look at the brick walls. He always included me in everything he did," said Karagianis.
He said that his father had a remarkable ability to connect with people from all walks of life and to be able to persuade them to work together for causes which benefitted the whole community.
He said his father was the son of Greek immigrants who ran a retail fruit business in downtown Boston, and was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1916 and grew up in the Central Square area of Cambridge. He graduated from Cambridge Ringe Technical School, and in the 1930s he worked for Stop and Shop, opening stores in Connecticut, Rhode Island and on Cape Cod. Because his four brothers were already in the armed services, he received a deferment during World War II and worked at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the aircraft engine division.
Because the outcome of the war with Japan was still in doubt, he was finally drafted but never shipped out, because V-J day came shortly thereafter. He moved to Laconia in October of 1945 and purchased what would become known as the biggest little store in town, the Laconia Spa, which at that time was located at the corner of Main and Mill Streets in downtown.
He quickly became involved in both the economic and political life of the city, working with the Laconia Chamber of Commerce to promote Motorcyle Week and being elected to the City Council and later the state Legislature, where he became chairman of the Belknap County Delegation. He also served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and was the winner of the Jim Irwin Award. He was
Former House Speaker George B. Roberts Jr. of Gilmanton recalls stopping in at the Spa with his uncle during the early days after Karagianis came to the city.
"He and my uncle would talk politics and the economy for an hour or more while I was standing there looking at the candy, which was at eye level. I'd buy some and there would always be more pieces in the bag than I had paid for. I told my uncle and he said 'That's because he's a good man."
Roberts said Karagianis played a key role in saving the mill by helping to convince the Belknap County Delegation to accept a federal grant for the project after the Laconia City Council had turned down the money in 1974, and in helping to pass House Bill 50, which established the Winnipesaukee River Basin Project, a regional sewer treatment system, in 1972.
He recalled that Karagianis had gone to Department of Housing and Urban Development's Boston office with him to help convince them that the county qualified as a unit of government eligible to accept funds of behalf of the mill and that he was a staunch and effective advocate for the causes he worked for.
Karagianis had mortgaged his own home to help raise funds for the Save the Mill Society, which had been formed to prevent the mill from being town down.
"He was a rock as far as this community was concerned, and so important in a variety of ways, like saving the Belknap Mill and starting the Lakes Region Clean Waters Association,'' said former Laconia Mayor Rod Dyer, who said that Karagianis' contributions to the city created "a legacy very few people will ever leave."
He recalled being on opposite sides of issues with Karagianis when Dyer was mayor of Laconia and the Clean Waters group pressed for a ban on new construction inn the city until a new sewage treatment plant could be built.
"That wasn't something which the city looked favorably on, but we were able to work together with the group to get House Bill 50 passed which set us up to receive federal funds for the project," said Dyer.
He recalled that the Clean Water group developed the slogan "Don't Do It in the Lakes" as part of ts effective campaign on behalf of cleaning up the lakes and was an example of what an involved group of citizens can accomplish.
Roberts recalled that when William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, came to Laconia to talk about the project that Karagianis drove out to greet him at Laconia Airport in a big Buick.
"He told me to drive on the way back and sat with Ruckelshaus in the back seat," he said, "and filled him in on all of the details of the project."
During the meeting that followed, Ruckelshaus announced that Laconia would be receiving the EPA's first-ever grant for a regional sewage treatment system.
In 1985, he was dubbed "Mr. Laconia" by Edwin Chertok, former Laconia Mayor and Belknap County Commissioner. He was a 70-year member of the Laconia Kiwanis Club, where in the 1950s he led the Laconia High School Key Club as a councilor. He was a also Mason for over 70 years, and in 1975 he was honored as a "33rd" degree Shriner.
His son said his father would frequently tell him, "The best thing I ever did was to move to Laconia." And from the praise his father has received, it is evident that many people think that his move to Laconia was one of the best things that ever happened to the city.
Former Belknap Mill Society President Dick Metz joined Peter Kariganis Sr. to ring in the new year in 2008 at the mill. (Laconia Daily Sun file photo)
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