Published Mar. 1, 2012
The Miami Herald
By THEO KARANTSALIS
As soon as he felt a gun barrel poke his ribs, the cop broke out his fists of fury to crack ribs, knock out teeth and fracture a thug’s skull.
Not bad for an officer well into his 80’s.
“I love to fight guys who are bigger than I am,” said Hialeah Police Lt. Leo Thalassites, 85, as he recalled fending off a robber outside a Greek restaurant in Coral Gables in 2010.
He disarmed the 6-foot-2, 250-pound “punk” and then beat him unconscious. “For more than half a century, I have taught officers to always be ready.”
Three generations of police officials were indeed ready, on Tuesday, when they crowded into City Hall to honor the brawny Thalassites, who turns 86 in April , for being America’s oldest active cop.
The International Police Association confirmed that Thalassites is indeed the oldest active law enforcement officer in the United States.
A cross between Clint Eastwood and Jackie Chan, the barrel-chested Thalassites is a mixed-martial arts dynamo who started his police career with what was then known as the Metro-Dade police department in 1956. He transferred to Hialeah Police in 1963, and state records show he has been active with the department ever since.
His current duties consist of training officers to make sure they are physically fit and ready for action.
“The history of this police department cannot be written without mentioning your name,” said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, a martial arts enthusiast who once trained as a police officer under Thalassites. “On behalf of the 250,000 citizens living in Hialeah, I proclaim Feb. 28 as Lt. Leo Thalassites Day.”
City officials stood to honor Thalassites shortly after he drove 300 miles to Hialeah City Hall – from Tampa – a trip he makes three times a week. He moved to Tampa in 1995 to be closer to the thriving Greek community in Tarpon Springs.
He served in World War II and Korea, and served in all five branches of the military — Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. Thalassites said he was fulfilling a personal mission.
“He’s a war hero, ” said Hialeah Police Chief Mark Overton, who handed Thalassites a plaque that read “oldest active police officer in America” that included his dates of service, a badge and a baton. “Now don’t hit anybody with that.”
Police officers shared laughs and took turns roasting Thalassites, as he just stood there, grizzled and stone-faced.
“We went to a call in Seminola, back in the 80’s, and Leo came straight from the gym nearby wearing shorts and a tank top,” said Norman Grad, a retired Hialeah police officer, who described Thalassites’ horrific shrapnel scars — from grenades – that were normally covered by long-sleeved shirts. “The bad guys begged me to keep Leo away as if he was a wild animal.”
Grad drew cheers as he read aloud a 2010 Miami Herald article about how Thalassites “beat down” a mugger after leaving a Greek restaurant near Southwest Eight Street.
Though Thalassites carries a Colt .45 that was issued to him in the Korean War, he has never had to use it on duty. Rather, he has always relied on something far more dangerous, according to Hialeah Police Lt. Carl Zogby: “fists that are weapons of mass destruction.”
Zogby added that Thalassites served in all five branches of the military, earned three Purple Hearts — two in WWII and one in Korea — and competed in the Olympics trials for the 1964 Toyko Games, representing the U.S. in Greco-Roman wrestling. Last year, he was named to the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.
Many officers joked – at a distance – and shared stories about Thalassites that included:
He never rests his hands in his pockets. Rather, he keeps them in “striking position.”
When he eats at a restaurant, he never sits near a window and always asks to meet with the chef.
He never answers the phone or makes calls. Instead, he has others relay messages back to him.
The one thing no one joked about is his unfailing belief in God. His father, George Thalassites, was a seventh-generation priest who served Miami’s Greek community in the 1940s. He also taught combat fighting to elite Greek soldiers.
The younger Thalassites couldn’t learn to write Greek well enough to be a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church, so his father gave him two tasks as he pursued an alternate path in life: Put Jesus first before anything else in life and take care of your body.
Since then, Thalassites has risen at 4 a.m. every day to pray. Then he runs a few miles, lifts weights and punches a heavy bag before eating measured portions of chicken and vegetables. He has maintained the same weight, 178 pounds, for more than 50 years.
He has 11 children and has been married twice. After divorcing his first wife, he married his second wife, Cora, 20 years ago.
The city last honored him 10 years ago when it named the police gym after him.
“I want to give all the glory to my lord and savior Jesus Christ,” said Thalassites, with friends and officials by his side as he recited passages from the Bible including John 3:16 and Psalm 23.
He showed a rare lighter side as he joked with Hernandez.
“The mayor was one of my toughest students,” Thalassites said. “I was scared of him.”
CALL OF DUTY: Hialeah Police Lt. Leo Thalassites, 85, holds a plaque outside Hialeah City Hall, on Feb. 28, honoring him for his title as oldest active police officer in America. (THEO KARANTSALIS/FOR THE MIAMI HERALD)