By MIKE MORRIS
The Union Democrat
A medal Vallecito resident Mike Mihaly recently received from the Hungarian government states in his native language, "The people over fire and water for freedom."
"The symbolic meaning is that people will fight over fire and water for their freedom," the 71-year-old explained in his thick Hungarian accent. "We fought not only for freedom of the Hungarian people, but for freedom everywhere."
Mihaly, raised north of Budapest, was following in his father's footsteps by studying forestry when the Hungarian Revolution erupted in October 1956. He became a freedom fighter, and tried to escape when the Russians crushed the uprising.
But the Russians captured Mihaly and held him prisoner for three days in the basement of a railroad station. He was later freed by other freedom fighters.
"The bearer of the medal fought bravely for Hungary's freedom and independence under extremely adverse conditions without regard for his personal safety," states a translated certificate that accompanied Mihaly's medal.
The certificate and medal awarded to Mihaly and other freedom fighters was presented during a ceremony in Budapest in late November. However, Mihaly wasn't notified of the award until December and it was later sent to him.
The last time Mihaly was in Hungary was in June 2006, for his 50th high school reunion.
"Penny was with me," he said. "It was a blast."
Mihaly has been married to his wife, Penny, for 40 years. They live in a large Mediterranean-style home that sits on 135 acres near Natural Bridges in Vallecito.
After fleeing war-torn Hungary, Mihaly worked as a gold miner in Canada. He then settled in America, working in the hospitality industry and later starting his own successful food service businesses.
When Mihaly retired nine years ago, he and Penny moved from Wisconsin to Calaveras County. The couple has a 35-year-old son, Matt, who lives in the Bay Area.
An active supporter of Columbia College, Mihaly was inducted into the college's Hall of Fame in 2005.
Mihaly, whose first name is Arpad, goes by his middle name of Michael.
Since receiving his medal from the Hungarian government, Mihaly said he hasn't pinned it on for more than a few minutes at a time.
"It's just too big," he said with a laugh. "Next time I go to Hungary, I'm going to wear it."
That trip could be in June, when Mihaly might travel to Hungary and other European countries with his wife and son.
"We may go make a little vacation out of it," he said.