When the 19th Century businessman Peter Cooper, who was universally beloved for his honesty, fair dealing and philanthropy, died in 1883, the minister stood before the open casket and intoned, "Here lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to The Great White Throne."
Such a man was George Vukasin, the longtime president of Oakland's Peerless Coffee Co., who died on February 15 in Alamo, just a few months short of his 83rd birthday.
The son of a Yugoslavian immigrant, Mr. Vukasin was a businessman of the old school: one who played fair with everybody - his employees, his customers, his suppliers, even his competitors. He never wanted to be the richest man in town. His real ambition was to be a pillar of his community, and in that he succeeded.
As president of the Oakland Port Commission, he supervised the construction of Oakland International Airport and brought the Japanese container program to the Port of Oakland.
As President of the Oakland-Alameda Memorial Coliseum Board, he was instrumental in bringing the Raiders back to Oakland and made the Coliseum the best example of one sports complex being home to three professional sports teams. He was also a longtime member of the Oakland City Council and Vice Mayor from 1975 to 1977.
But his contributions went far beyond the Bay Area. As president of the National Coffee Association, he made it his life's mission to raise the quality of coffee around the world by convincing growers, especially those in Colombia, to switch from low-quality Robusta beans to high-quality Arabica beans.
His motives weren't only aesthetic. He knew that if the quality of the coffee was higher, the farmers could charge more. And that meant they could afford to switch from growing coca beans – the main ingredient in cocaine – to coffee beans.
For this, he was awarded Colombia’s highest honor, the Manuel Meija Award, named after the father of the Colombian coffee industry. He also earned a more dubious distinction: a hefty price on his head set by the Colombian drug cartels. Whenever he flew to Bogota to confer with the government, his plane would be met on the tarmac by an armored car and a platoon of soldiers who would whisk him to a different safe house every night.
But the thing he was proudest of was his family. He and his wife Sonja had a 50-year love affair that featured travels all over the world. And nothing made him happier than spending time with his children and grandchildren. No school activity, no sports game, no social event went unattended if he could possibly help it.
My favorite memory is the day, more than 20 years ago, when he and I were walking along Webster Street across from the Oakland Tribune. Mr. Vukasin gestured toward the string of inexpensive Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian restaurants along the street and said, "See those restaurants? They were all Yugoslavian restaurants when was a kid."
He got a thoughtful look on his face and added, "Same people, different faces. That's all."
George Vukasin never forgot where he came from. He was buried on Monday at Mountain View Cemetery.
There lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to The Great White Throne.