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Bitter Metropolis

How a downtown benefactor, mayoral candidate and Stanford MBA lost it all.

By Laura Stuchinsky

Chris Panopulos edges into his room at an angle. A stack of boxes stops the door from swinging wide open. Storage boxes line the walls of the tiny room, which now serves as his living room, kitchen pantry and sleeping quarters.

Six years ago, Panopulos, who holds an MBA from Stanford University, made an unsuccessful dark-horse bid for San Jose's mayor. His name frequently popped up in Leigh Weimers' column in the San Jose Mercury News. He sat on the board of the San Jose Medical Foundation; started trust funds for the city of San Jose, Stanford University and San Jose State University; and helped found the Friends of Guadalupe Park.

Today, the 71-year-old lives in a San Jose boardinghouse. His life, he says, is "shattered" as a result of a lawsuit he lost in 1993.

Panopulos believes he got "shafted" by a former neighbor who bought his house, the judge who ruled on Panopulos' legal complaints, and even his own attorney.

"He didn't get shafted," Panopulos' former attorney Don Richardson counters. Panopulos had no basis for his case, the longtime San Jose practitioner says. "I can't make a sheep out of a goat."

Actually, life had begun to slip out from under Panopulos in 1983. That's when Panopulos left his job at Westinghouse Electric Company, where he'd worked as an accountant for 32 years. Panopulos, who was then 58, took early retirement after his employer assigned him to "Little Siberia": fetching and storing archival boxes of accounting records. Panopulos sued Westinghouse, claiming his former employer forced him to leave by making life miserable for him.

The cut in income--from full salary to partial pension and social security--hurt, but Panopulos' volunteer career blossomed. He helped mount the original campaign to build a professional ice hockey arena in San Jose that ultimately resulted in the San Jose Arena. He started the San Jose City College Board, and sat on the Citizens' Task Force for San Jose Beautiful.

"I call him a diamond in the rough," says Panopulos' longtime friend, Gordon Levy. Levy, the former general manager of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, attended Stanford's business school with Panopulos and served with him on the board of San Jose Medical Foundation. "He's really given most of what he has to all these organizations."

IN 1987, in what Panopulos now says was an attempt to distract himself from the still unresolved Westinghouse lawsuit, the former accountant launched a three-year, grassroots campaign for mayor. His motto was "Vote for a better metropolis, Vote for Chris Panopulos."

Panopulos argued that the city's Redevelopment Agency was taking an extravagant approach to developing downtown while draining funds from libraries, street sweeping and recreational services. Plus, Panopulos said, the agency was compromising the free-market system by offering subsidies to entice businesses to move downtown. "How many subsidies can you give?" he asked.

But Panopulos may have been too far ahead of his time on this issue. The former accountant came in fifth out of six candidates in the 1990 primary, winning 3.5 percent of the votes. By 1988 he was destitute. He'd lost the lawsuit and had run up a $20,000 tab on his credit cards, which he'd used to pay his living expenses. His house was heavily mortgaged and in serious need of repair, and he was behind on his taxes.

To get out of the financial hole he'd fallen into, Panopulos decided to sell his house to a neighbor and building contractor, Terry Boyer. The two men drafted an agreement without an attorney. Panopulos sold the house to Boyer below market rate, but retained the right to live in the house rent-free until escrow closed. But, as time wore on, the deal began to sour.

In 1992 Panopulos sued Boyer, claiming the contractor had broken the terms of their contract and had tricked the MBA into signing over the deed on his house. Panopulos also wanted compensation for hundreds of boxes of his memorabilia that he charged Boyer had thrown out of the basement without his permission. The grocery boxes held letters sent by Panopulos to his mother while he was in the Army; a decade of Life magazines circa World War II; scrapbooks on stellar football seasons of several local universities; letters of commendation; contracts and correspondence from his volunteer work; and a manuscript of his life story. Their loss, Panopulos says, was devastating. All that remain are a dozen-or-so boxes Panopulos had had stashed in his bedroom.

The judge awarded Panopulos $5,000 for the loss of his property, most of which he concluded had been thrown away with Panopulos' express or tacit consent. But he dismissed the remainder of Panopulos' complaints.

Since the suit, Panopulos' time, and boxes, have been filled by his dogged attempts to overturn the verdict. Lack of funds thwarted his plan to sue his attorney. Instead, he has filed a complaint with the State Bar.

But as time passes, Panopulos' spirits have begun to lift, his eyes to see beyond his failed lawsuit. He's begun to think about resuming his volunteer career. Now that the Redevelopment Agency has begun construction of Panopulos' pet project, the Guadalupe River Park, Panopulos wants to raise private money to help maintain it in perpetuity.

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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