The story of King Con
Michael Sweet talks to the legendary Queenslander whose rags-to-riches story, and how he shared his wealth, is the stuff of real inspiration
"Retirement? No fear," says Con Souvlis sharply when I broach the idea that after more than seventy years of hard graft, it just might be time to take things easy.
Speaking from the counter of his Betta Electrical Store in Torquay, Hervey Bay, (just one of the very many successful businesses he has created), 86-year-old Con does admit to reigning in his retail duties slightly.
"I don't do any selling these days, but I still greet the customers," says Con. "I've got a saying: "I'm a-walkin' and a-talkin' and a-huggin' and a-kissin'. The old dears they love it."
And it's not just the old dears who love Con and his sayings up on Queensland's Fraser Coast. For more than fifty years his generosity in an effort to improve other people's lives has become legend.
That's because for half a century Con has given away literally hundreds of thousands of dollars - to local charities, sporting clubs and community projects - and often just to individuals down on their luck.
This extraordinary generosity stems from his own very humble beginnings, but also a profound sense of thankfulness for a life that so easily could have been taken away - as a Digger in the Pacific War.
Constantine Michael Souvlis was born in Ingham, Queensland in 1925. The first-born of Michael, a sponge diver and later pearl diver who arrived in Australia with the Paspaley family, and Chrissanthi (nee Fermanis), both from Kastelorizo.
They were desperately poor. His early childhood was spent in Perth where his father moved to find work.To augment his family's modest and irregular income, as a 12-year-old he began selling newspapers on the streets.
"I was a bit of a wild villain in my younger days," says Con. "I used to pinch and steal to survive. It was a very hard time."
At 18, though he could have avoided the draft as he was employed in a factory producing essential military equipment, he was grateful to be called up - eager to join the defence of his homeland.
In late 1944, Australian troops were desperately battling the Japanese in the Solomon Islands and in the second phase of the allied advance on the island of Bougainville, Private Con Souvlis was in the frontline with the 42nd Infantry Battalion.
Known as 'Bomber' to his mates (a nickname earned as a result of his boxing prowess), and operating as a forward scout for his unit, Con witnessed brutal close-quarter jungle combat - an experience which he admits had a huge impact on his later life.
"I was nearly killed three or four times. I know how lucky I am to be alive. There's someone up there who must love me," says Con, remembering the fear that gripped him and his fellow diggers, many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice.
"When there was movement in the jungle and a Jap would jump out in front of me, I would shoot the bastard and run like hell backwards. I was scared all the time."
Someone was looking after the young Greek Aussie digger. On one occasion Bomber just missed out on an assignment with eight of his soldier mates. Their truck sank in a fast-flowing river and all were killed.
At war's end, like the thousands of young Australians who returned and counted themselves beyond lucky to have survived, he picked up the pieces of his life.
Years later one of his many gifts to the community would be to donate 27 acres of land to the RSL to build a retirement village for war veterans in Hervey Bay.
In the late 1940s, Con the warrior transformed into Australia's first real 'Con the Fruiterer', opening his first shop in Toowong, Brisbane. With a gift for sales and natural business acumen, Con's commercial projects thrived.
Soon he was able to diversify, investing profits into businesses beyond retail, including property development, press ownership, the share market - glimpsing an opportunity and then realising it.
"He's been very good at second-guessing the future," says his youngest daughter Shanna.
"He had a fishing tackle shop way back, noticed the growth in local housing at the time, and asked 'what do those people need?' so then he moved into paint and hardware, then electrical and then furniture."
Awarded so many accolades in recent years, including an AM, the Keys to the City in Hervey Bay, and as a Queensland finalist in the Australian of the Year Awards, perhaps the recognition that the straight-talking Con Souvlis would be happiest with, is from his daughter, who describes her father as "a simple man who has worked hard all his life."
"He's the sort of person who gives so much but never has holidays. He doesn't own a flash car or a fancy house. It's not his style," says Shanna.
Con's biographer, award-winning journalist Toni McRae met Con seven years ago when she was editor of the Hervey Bay Observer, a local newspaper Con owned, until he sold it to APN News and Media.
"I shook his hand and said one day I'd write a book about him," says McRae, who honoured that promise by beginning her research in earnest in late 2011.
McRae says that one of the driving factors in Con's life, the reason for his extraordinary achievements and generosity, lies in the response of a post-war second generation migrant to the society in which he found himself.
"Con wanted to give something back big-time to the country he had the privilege of growing up in, and which had given him so much.
"He suffered that ugly racist part of Australia in the 50s and 60s and he came from extreme poverty, set out to make a lot of money, which he did," says McRae, who describes Con's philanthropy as something more than donations to good causes.
"He doesn't just hand out money, he gives a hand up, often involving the recipients in working towards raising even more funds for their project."
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