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The Estate of a Greek-American from Ohio Supports a Village in Fthiotida

LAMIA – An 87-year-old Greek-American died on December 24, 1980 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He may have been “wearing tattered jackets” and “living in a hotel room on $100 a month.” He may have been “not spending much money,” as the Associated Press reported at the time, but Eustathios Xezonatos, or Steven Zonas as he was known in the United States, left behind a large fortune in shares of stock whose value now exceeds $2.5 million, a fund whose profits have benefitted his hometown village of Mexiates in the Fthiotida prefecture, 15 kilometers (about 9.3 miles) west of the city of Lamia in Central Greece.

“It has been 42 years since his death and 32 years since money started flowing into the village after eight years of legal entanglements, with forged wills found after his death,” noted Kostas Christopoulos, President of the Steven Zonas Foundation, which was established in 2002 and still manages the legacy. He added that “every year the Foundation covers the school tuition for the children of the village, with amounts that total more than 90,000 euros. It brings relief to needy families and orphans, and to people who are looking to improve their health.”

He pointed out that “in times like the ones we are going through now, the Foundation is a refuge for those who cannot afford medicines, to those who cannot buy heating oil or wood, to those whose holiday table would be non-existent. We have said: ‘no child without food, no elderly person without medicine and heating.’”

The summer of 1980 was the first and last time Steven Zonas visited his village, Mexiates, since he left for America. Those who knew him speak of a frugal man who in no way indicated that he could have substantial savings in his old age.

In November 1980, he returned to America with the promise that he would return after he had settled some business there. He never returned. He was found dead – with a will in his pocket.

But he had, since 1972, that is eight years before his death, expressed his wish in a will asking that the property go to his village in a certain way so that the dividends would continuously pay off uninterrupted. When he was in Greece, he made an additional secret will with a notary in Lamia, confirming the will of 1972.

As the Steven Zonas Foundation president explains, “it took eight years of legal battles in America for the community at the time to win in the courts, to have the wills annulled which after his death had been considered genuine, and to find all those involved in the forgery ring.”

‘Greek Village Wins Appeal in Contested Will Case’ was the Associated Press headline on August 14, 1987 when from Cincinnati it was reported that the court battle was over. The AP wrote: “A Greek village is the rightful heir to most of the fortune left by a Greek millionaire who lived and died frugally in Cincinnati, a state appeals court has ruled… Zonas came to Cincinnati in the early 1900s. Those who knew him say he didn’t spend much money, wore tattered suit jackets and lived in a $100-a-month hotel room. He owned a small restaurant for a time and later washed dishes and cooked chili. However, he left nearly $1.6 million in stocks when he died in 1980 at age 87. Attorneys say dividends and interest put his estate at more than $2 million.”

According to the Foundation President, the trustee of the shares is a bank in America that every year sends the profits to Greece for the needs of the village, for matters related to education, health, help to the needy and orphans, etc.

“From 1990 until now more than 2.5 million euros have come to Greece. Schools, kindergartens, churches have been built and a huge amount of help has been given for the education of children,” said Christopoulos, who added that “when the stock markets in America are doing well the returns reach up to 180 thousand euros a year. But there are times when the returns fall to 15 and 20 thousand euros. For 2021, the yields were at 100,000 euros and this year they went up to 115,000 euros.”

In central places of the village and in the shop windows lists are regularly posted of the students and institutions that have benefited, with amounts ranging from 1,500 to 3,500 euros.

“This is financial aid that is received according to various criteria with the main objective to support those who need it the most,” Christopoulos explained to the ANA-MPA news agency, noting that “by the end of the year the primary school will be equipped with projection systems and computer labs, with musical instruments and sports equipment, so that it will become a model school in terms of infrastructure… the financial support offered by the Steven Zonas Foundation for the education of the students, including incentives to learn foreign languages, have helped retain a large part of the inhabitants in their village. It has also helped to integrate foreign families who arrived as workers in the area, and today their children study with the financial help of the institution.”

Material from the ANA-MPA was used in this report.

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