Successful U.S. Businessman, Pilot Remembered

September 22, 2006

He piloted a hellcat fighter plane for the U.S. navy in the Pacific during World War II.

A HarvardBusinessSchool graduate, he built his own company from scratch, making a name for himself in the international textile industry, winning the nickname “The King of Polyester.”

After he retired and moved to Costa Rica, he bought an enormous plot of land in northern Guanacaste that later found itself at the center of the Iran-Contra affair and was eventually expropriated by the Costa Rican government in a costly international legal battle.

Despite the eventful life of Joseph Hamilton, who lived in Costa Rica for two decades and died last month in San José of pancreatic cancer at age 86, those close to him say he was a taciturn, generous, loyal, kind-hearted man.

“He was a gentleman. He was a really nice man,” said Margaret Sohn, who met Hamilton through the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) and befriended the late textile entrepreneur.

An animal lover, sailor, avid reader and grill master, Hamilton was born and raised in the Midwest United States by his father Clair Hamilton, a decorated war veteran who later became Attorney General of Iowa. But he spent his golden years in Costa Rica.

“He truly loved Costa Rica… It was an investment but he always loved it,” said son Jeffrey, who recently moved to Costa Rica.

Hamilton lived the bulk of his life in North Carolina, where he founded Texfi Industries, which ended up going public on the New York Stock Exchange, according to his son.

In 1985,Hamilton came to Costa Rica to retire on 44,000 acres of land in Guanacaste near the Nicaraguan border. It was when he later sold land to the Panama-based Udell Research Corporation that his name was dragged into what is now known as the Iran-Contra affair. In 1986, Costa Rican authorities discovered a 2-kilometer-long airstrip on the land Hamilton had sold. The airstrip became the center of a Cold War scandal. It had alleged ties to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and was allegedly used to supply arms to Nicaraguan rebels (TT, Dec. 12, 1986). The construction of the clandestine strip may have been financed with proceeds from U.S. secret arms sales to Iran (TT, Dec. 5 1986).

Though the land was returned to Hamilton after the affair, the Costa Rican government later expropriated it to become part of GuanacasteNational Park, according to Jeffrey Hamilton.

Even in retirement, the businessman known for his tough work ethic started up his own textile business in Guanacaste, and became a partner in Travel Air, the Costa Rican airline now known as Nature Air.

Hamilton died at the CIMA hospital in Escazú, west of San José, Aug. 18. He is survived by his son Jeffrey and daughter Holly.

A memorial service will be held at the BaptistInternationalChurch in Guachipelín, Escazú, at 11 a.m. Oct. 5.

 

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