PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) _ Thomas Bata, the Czech-born head of the worldwide family shoe empire that bears his name, died Monday in Canada, an official said. He was 93.
Bata died on Monday in a hospital in Toronto, said Pavel Velev, who heads the Thomas Bata Foundation based in the Bata family's former villa in the eastern Czech town of Zlin. He did not give the cause of death.
"One of the greatest personalities of our time has left," Czech President Vaclav Klaus said in a statement. "Despite ill fortune in his homeland, he managed to succeed in the world and became for us a symbol of business success. We will all miss him," Klaus said.
Bata's father, Tomas, founded the shoe empire in Zlin in 1894, and it would later swell into the giant Bata Shoe Organization.
Born Sept. 17, 1914, in Czechoslovakia, Thomas Bata's life was buffeted by the worst horrors of the 20th century.
He exiled himself in Canada in 1938 when the rise of Nazism forced him to flee his homeland. Seven years later, having served with the Canadian army on the battlefields, he returned to his freshly liberated birthplace, but not for long.
When the communists took over the country after World War II, they seized his factory and declared Bata a capitalist evil.
"I found it very sad," Bata told the Associated Press in a 2005 interview, "because what we thought was liberation really became a dictatorship of the communists."
The regime gave the company a new name and it went on making shoes, but it was Bata, headquartered in Toronto, that remained a byword for shoes.
Bata broadcast support to the dissident movement on Radio Free Europe and offered his business as a vision of what could be — "so that people would see that the democratic system, based on democratic economy, would be the most advantageous for them."
It took 40 years, but vindication finally came in 1989. As Eastern European communist dictatorships collapsed one by one, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident leader and playwright turned president, asked Bata to come back.
"Vaclav Havel sent me a message through my wife and said, 'Tom should come as soon as he can,'" Bata recalled.
Cheering crowds greeted him at the airport in Prague on his arrival.
Havel awarded him the country's top decoration, the Tomas Garrigue Masaryk Order, in 1991, and he also received high Slovak and Canadian decorations. He last visited the Czech Republic in June.
Besides his business activities, Bata also served as chairman of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's business and advisory committee on non-members.
His son Thomas George Bata took over the shoe company from him in 2001.
He is survived by his wife, Sonja, his son and three daughters. Funeral arrangement were not immediately known.
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press