When Eli Capilouto's grandfather came to Montgomery, Ala., from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in the early 1900s, he pushed a fruit cart until he could save the money to send for his wife and child.
Like many immigrants, he instilled in his five children and descendants a reverence for education.
"All of my generation would go to college, and we have reaped beautiful lives because of that," said his grandson, who on Tuesday afternoon almost certainly will become the next president of the University of Kentucky.
Kentuckians "deserve to have that dream answered as well," Capilouto, 61, said shortly after his name was announced Sunday to replace UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., who will retire in June.
Capilouto (pronounced Kapp-uh-loot-oh') clearly sees the link between education and better lives, a crucial connection in two poor, mostly rural states such as Alabama and Kentucky. Yet it is in the former that he has spent his entire life and career, rising in 36 years from an instructor in the dental school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham to become its provost, or top academic officer.
By many accounts, he has helped improve that school's undergraduate education and its status as a medical research powerhouse that ranks No. 20 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health.
"It's a big loss for UAB," said Catherine Danielou, associate dean of arts and sciences. "He really tries to learn who the people who work for him and the university are, and he's very concerned with students."
However, Capilouto has not always had a a great relationship with faculty members at UAB.
At least six professors reached at UAB declined to say anything about Capilouto, including the chairman of the faculty senate, communications professor Mark Hickson, and three of his fellow officers in the faculty senate.
But in a UK media release Monday, Hickson said of Capilouto: "I have found him to be open and easy to work with. Sometimes we disagree, but are always able to negotiate to everyone's benefit."
In 2007, the Birmingham News reported on a faculty survey about top administrators. In the survey of 2,600 faculty, the results found that while Capilouto was efficient, he was "autocratic rather than democratic and opinionated rather than receptive to new ideas."
"I'm sure Dr. Capilouto will bring to UK the same attention to undergraduate education that he has shown at UAB," UAB faculty member Sue Kim said, "and I hope that he upholds the principles of shared governance, not only in word but also in deed."
Capilouto has overseen changes including an overhaul of the core curriculum for undergraduates and creation of an entirely new College of Arts and Sciences.
About five years ago, Capilouto designed the Quality Enhancement Plan for the core curriculum, which stresses writing, quantitative analysis, and social and ethical studies. It's similar to the general education reform UK will begin this fall.
"We try to put some aspect of those three elements into each of the courses we teach," said Peggy Jolly, director of freshman English at UAB. "He has been so supportive of undergraduate education."
Capilouto also has been the subject of several lawsuits, which is not surprising for someone in his position. One from 2008, however, named him directly as part of a federal gender discrimination suit against the board of trustees of the University of Alabama system.
Rosalia Scripa came to UAB in 1976 as its first female engineering professor, eventually becoming an associate provost. Working on a National Science Foundation grant, she found that some female professors were being paid less than their male counterparts. After she told Capilouto about her findings, according to her lawsuit, Capilouto and the director of human resources asked her to look at different data to see whether it would show the salaries "in a more favorable light."
Soon afterward, according to the lawsuit, Capilouto demoted Scripa, saying she was "not well-suited" for her job. She was asked to sign a letter saying she was stepping down for personal reasons.
The lawsuit was settled out of court. Scripa declined to comment about the lawsuit, saying only that she stands by the allegations. UK spokesman Jay Blanton said Capilouto would decline to comment on the matter.
Eli Capilouto was born Aug. 22, 1949, in Montgomery, Ala, the son of Isaac, a dentist in private practice, and Regina, a homemaker.
He played basketball and football at Sidney Lanier High School, said his sister Susan Kubler, who also lives in Birmingham. He went to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa for his undergraduate degree and UAB for his post graduate degree. Those were followed by two advanced degrees from Harvard University — the only time he spent outside Alabama.
As an undergraduate, he was president of Zeta Beta Tau, a Jewish fraternity. Capilouto will be UK's first Jewish president.
"He is one of the most humorous, witty persons I have ever known," Kubler said. "He always had a lot of friends growing up. Our house was Grand Central Station. ... All of his friends were always at our house."
Kubler said their father was involved in many civic organizations, a characteristic his son carried on. He has served on numerous civic boards, including the Kiwanis Club, the YMCA and the Ronald McDonald House.
Dave Adkisson, chief executive officer of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, knew Capilouto when Adkisson was CEO of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce from 1999 to 2005.
Capilouto is "very approachable, very unassuming," Adkisson said. "There's a Southern warmth to Eli that Kentuckians will come to appreciate."
Capilouto also is politically active.
The Federal Election Commission reports that since 1997, Capilouto has given more than $15,000 to an array of politicians, mostly Republicans and a few Democrats. They include Alabama's Republican U.S. senators, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby; President George W. Bush;, and former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat from Alabama's 7th District. In 2008, Capilouto gave a $200 donation to a Kentucky politician, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.
He also has donated $2,000 to Americans for Good Government, a Jasper, Ala., political action committee described as pro-Israel by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Reach Linda Blackford at (859) 231-1359 and Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409.