George Hadjipopov, Refugee, Entrepreneur

Nov. 21, 1943 - Jan. 23, 2014
George Hadjipopov - Nov. 21, 1943 - Jan. 23, 2014

       George Ivan Hadjipopov, who escaped Communist Bulgaria as a teenager and became an entrepreneur in multiple fields as a resident of Montauk, died on Jan. 23 while being taken to the hospital after collapsing at home. He was 70 years old and had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in mid-December. A concert of traditional Bulgarian music at the Montauk Library at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday will be presented in his memory.

       Donna Hadjipopov said her husband was the strongest person she ever met, overcoming extraordinary circumstances, from being a political refugee to surviving 18 hours in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico after a boat accident 35 years ago.

       He was born in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Nov. 21, 1943, to Ivan Hadjipopov and the former Maria Dunina. At 17, without telling his parents, he crossed over the  mountains into Greece, despite being shot at by Bulgarian guards. In Greece, he was detained for nine months and investigated as a possible spy before receiving political asylum in the United States. Although he knew no English, he started a moving and storage business by the age of 21, and patented and manufactured bumper guards for cars. 

       Mr. Hadjipopov did not return to Bulgaria until 1990, after the Soviet Union fell. It was the first time he had seen his parents in three decades. At about that time, he began importing materials for the aromatherapy industry, including a rose oil that he used to create a skin-care line. He and his second wife, whom he met in 1997, went into business selling Bulgarian crafts, tableware, and textiles, which were featured in national magazines, and he won a Forbes Enterprise Award, given for innovative small businesses. He also purchased a wooden toy factory in Bulgaria that supplied European stores. 

       Mr. Hadjipopov first came to Montauk to fish in the early 1970s. He fell in love with the area, and moved to Montauk with his then wife, Henrika Connor, and their young daughter, Mary. He found work as a commercial fishermen and charter boat captain, and soon became known in the fishing community as Bulgarian George.

       After his marriage ended, Mr. Hadjipopov signed up to fish in the Gulf of Mexico on the Montauk-based Joni Renee with Capt. Richard Vigilant and three other crew members. On Nov. 22, 1978, the 72-foot shrimper was hit by a Japanese tanker while about 20 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River at Southwest Pass, a busy shipping lane, according to news reports. The boat sank within minutes and three men, including the captain, drowned. Mr. Hadjipopov and Walter (Peanuts) Galcik survived, treading water and warding off sharks. Mr. Hadjipopov told his wife that he was about to succumb to hypothermia when a tanker appeared in answer to a prayer. To his dismay, however, the boat’s crew was Russian and he felt it necessary to hide his national origins, she said.

       Returning to Montauk, Mr. Hadjipopov ran a seafood restaurant on the docks for about a year, then started House Painters of the East End, which his wife plans to maintain. He also continued to fish until about a month before his cancer diagnosis.

       In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Mary Sireci of Sag Harbor.

       A funeral service was held on Feb. 1 at the Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in East Hampton, where Mr. Hadjipopov was remembered as a gentleman, who never spoke ill of others. His granddaughter, Sarah Sireci, 7, was the last eulogizer, sharing a dream she had about her grandfather’s telling her he was with her always. 

       Mr. Hadjipopov’s ashes will be buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Montauk this summer after a memorial at sea to his favorite fishing spots. Memorial contributions have been suggest to the Montauk Food Pantry, P.O. Box 107, Montauk 11954.