Mike Mihaly, of Vallecito, went from being a freedom fighter during the Hungarian Revolution to a self-made millionaire in California's gold country.
...While working as a dirt-poor miner in Canada 50 years ago, Mike Mihaly never expected to someday retire as a self-made millionaire in California's gold country.
"But I had the dream, you know," the 69-year-old Hungarian refugee said."If you don't dream, you're never going to try."Mihaly
must have dreamed big.After fleeing his war-torn native country, the penniless Mihaly worked as a gold miner in British Columbia before starting his own successful businesses in Wisconsin.He
wife, Penny, now live on 135 acres near Natural Bridges in Vallecito.Their large Mediterranean-style, hilltop home has a sweeping view of New Melones Reservoir.Since retiring to Calaveras County seven years ago, Mihaly has become a member of the City Hotel Corporation's board in Columbia and also serves on the Columbia College Culinary Arts Program's community advisory committee. Mihaly
has made numerous contributions to the college and was named to its Hall of Fame last year.
Raised north of Budapest, Mihaly
was following in his
father's footsteps by studying forestry when the Hungarian Revolution erupted in October 1956.He became a freedom fighter and was forced to flee when the Russians crushed the uprising.
Captured by the Russians and held prisoner for three days in the basement of a railroad station, Mihaly
was then released by other freedom fighters.
"They broke a couple of my teeth," he
said of the Russians.
On Christmas Eve 1956, Mihaly
left Hungary for Austria, where he
had to sell his
coat just to buy a meal.
An American journalist drove him to Vienna, where he
caught a bus to the town where his
sister was attending college , the same area where "The Sound of Music" was filmed.
At the age of 20, Mihaly
moved with his
sister to Canada.She
finished college in Vancouver and he
got a job as a gold miner.
"Tough times," is how he
recalls that period of his
Tired of the mining business after nearly three years, Mihaly
took any job he
could in the hospitality industry.He worked as a bartender, waiter and dishwasher in restaurants, hotels and country clubs.
One of his
managers recognized Mihaly's potential and suggested formal culinary training.
"All I wanted was a chance (to attend college), which I got," he
Hungarian accent still thick.Mihaly
, whose first name is Arpad, goes by Michael
, the English translation of his
At age 25, Mihaly
used money saved from gold mining to help pay his
tuition at San Francisco City College
Earlier this week, he
proudly showed off old photos of himself standing next to a 3-foot Eiffel Tower replica he
made of sugar while working a summer job at a famous Chicago restaurant.After two years in San Francisco he transferred to the School of Hotel and Business Administration at Cornell University in New York and then became a food service manager at Marriott locations in the Midwest.He
wife, then a middle-school teacher, in Illinois before moving to Wisconsin, where they lived for 30 years.
started three businesses in 1975, including Hospitality Unlimited
, a food service management company that eventually employed 350 people at seven locations and prepared about 5 million meals per year.
"I like people.I like food," he
said."I was very lucky I met and worked with some of the best in the industry, and I learned a lot from them."
In July 1986, a leading national restaurant magazine named Mihaly
as a "rising star."Working in the restaurant industry did have its downside: Mihaly didn't spend a Thanksgiving at home with his family until he retired in 1997.
"If you want to be good (at your career), you have to like it," he
said."You have to have the passion and the dedication."Mihaly
and Penny, a Southern California native, had planned to build their retirement home in Wisconsin, but instead purchased the house in Vallecito.
After touring that property, the pair spent the evening at the City Hotel
before buying the salmon-colored house the next day.
"That's why you work hard all your life, so you can retire," he
stays busy taking care of his
property and numerous animals, including 14 cows, six chickens, three horses, two cats and a dog. He
and Penny also have vacation homes in Colorado and Southern California.
In June, Mihaly
, along with his
wife and son, will return to Hungary for his
50-year high school reunion.Since leaving in 1956, Mihaly
has returned to his
homeland four times.He
no longer has any family there.
"I'm very proud of my heritage, but I am an American," he
, as he
entire life, enjoys staying active.
"If you retire and you just watch the tube sitting on a sofa, you die pretty soon," he