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Feb. 5, 1933 - Feb. 19, 2014
Basil Zirinis, a retired senior Exxon executive and Middle East expert, died at his home in Longboat Key, Florida, on February 19th. A long-time resident of Longboat Key, he was 81 years old. He is survived by two sons, Ian and Basil, as well as three grandchildren, Alexandra, Basil and Nicholas. His beloved wife of 53 years, Jean, died in 2012, and his son George in 1974.
Basil was born into a wealthy and respected family in Athens in 1933. His mother's family, from the island of Hydra, had been the largest ship-owners in the Mediterranean and the leading financiers of the Greek Revolution against the Turks in 1821. His paternal grandfather was a successful tobacco trader who built an independent fortune. By the time of Basil's birth, an Athens street had been named for the family and an orphanage bearing their name had been donated to the city.
Despite these advantages, Basil was to face a lifetime of challenge and tragedy that he overcame with determination and fortitude. When the German army invaded Greece in 1941, Basil and his mother were forced to turn over their Athens home to the Germans, fleeing to the family's country house outside Athens. There, he and his mother lived through the brutal German occupation with cousins, aunts and uncles, surviving in part from the milk of their goat, Vicky.
As World War II drew to a close, the Greek civil war erupted, pitting Russian backed Communists against Greek Loyalists. It was a particularly cruel war, in which the Communists kidnapped Loyalist children to raise them in Albania, or killed them if they resisted.
After too many narrow escapes from behind enemy lines, Basil's family resolved to send him to America. They then discovered that he was suffering from advanced bone cancer and his only hope for survival was amputation of his left arm, an operation best done in the United States.
In 1947, at age fourteen, he traveled by ship to New York. Upon his arrival, the surgeons told him he had a fifty percent chance of survival. Shortly after the operation, he enrolled in Riverdale Country Day School, where he had one major disadvantage -- he did not speak English, though he was fluent in Greek, French and German. Basil taught himself English by attending films for hours at a time. For the rest of his life, he spoke with the "Hollywood British" accent of the 1940s.
From Riverdale he attended Wesleyan briefly, and then New York University, followed by NYU Law School. It was at law school that he met Jean Ritz, his future wife. A beautiful woman, she was also brilliant, and Basil often remarked how frustrated he had been when she received the best grades in their law school class despite reading novels during class.
At her funeral, he described how the Dean of the law school had berated the leading men in the class, one of whom went on to the U.S. Senate, for being shown up by a woman.
Basil joined the New York law firm of Mudge, Rose (later Richard Nixon's law firm), where he began a successful Wall Street law career. He made what was then considered a major career mistake, leaving an offer of partnership to join the legal department of Esso (later Exxon). He must have distinguished himself, because he was offered a transfer to North Africa as general counsel of Esso Libya. In 1964, Basil moved his wife and young son to Tripoli, where he began his international career and the development of his deep knowledge of the Middle East.
In Libya, and in later assignments in Athens, The Hague and London, his language skills, international background and appreciation for other cultures gave him enormous advantages. After two successful years in Tripoli, he was asked to become general counsel of Esso Greece. After several successful litigations and arbitrations, he left a transformed Greek operation to take over a gas company in Holland for several years and was then promoted in 1972 to a senior position in Esso Middle East, based in London.
Basil traveled constantly throughout the Middle East, successfully representing Esso in its most difficult negotiations in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bahrain and elsewhere. He immersed himself in the cultures, history and languages of the region, forming relationships of trust and friendship with oil ministers that no other western oil executive enjoyed, and that continued after revolutions in some of those countries cut off official contacts. In 1989, he was asked by Exxon to take over as its chief ambassador to the EU in Brussels. He retired in 1995 at the peak of his career.
Thereafter, he devoted himself to his wife and family, but had only a short time to enjoy retirement with his wife, because in 2000 the effects of Alzheimer's began to show themselves in her. He spent the next 12 years caring for her and ensuring the highest level of care in their houses, so that she would never have to leave home. When she died in August of 2012 he was heartbroken.
Basil was a strikingly handsome, elegantly tailored man, possessing great charm. He carried himself with European grace, to the extent that many people would spend a day or evening with him and not realize he had only one arm.
He was also a legendary negotiator and implacable litigation opponent. His word was his binding contract and he expected the same from others. He was a true and loyal friend and a fierce enemy. In business and litigation, he was creative, strategic, aggressive when necessary, yet often subtle and nuanced. At home, he was firm, but fair. He focused not on sports events and school functions, but on providing his wife and children with the comforts, safety and advantages he had seen ripped away during his childhood.
Basil felt truly at home in his Longboat Key house, the "Pearl", on the Gulf of Mexico. He walked the beach every day and swam in the sea or his pool until his death. He ended each day with a martini (or two), watching the sun set over the Gulf. An active member of the Field Club in Sarasota, he leaves behind many good friends in Sarasota, and throughout the world.
As his great friend of many years, John Warden, said upon learning of his death: "His zest for life, his ebullience, his smile - all unmatched and irreplaceable".
A memorial service will be held in Sarasota in April.
Published in Herald Tribune from Mar. 7 to Mar. 8, 2014