As a boy in Hungary, Stephen Bankuti defused land mines in farm fields near his home during World War II, and he left school to support his family when the Soviet Army sent his father to a prison camp in Siberia for two years.
In 1956, at age 23, he was part of the short-lived Hungarian resistance movement that rose up during the Soviet occupation.
“When that resistance began to falter, he stole the truck of the company he was working for and brought a group of people to safety over the Austrian border,” said his son-in-law, Frank Joyner of Hudson. “He planned to return to the fight, but as other refugees arrived near the border, they told him how matters had worsened, and he decided to cross the border with them.”
While Mr. Bankuti was in a refugee camp in Austria, Vice President Richard M. Nixon visited and extended a general invitation to come to the United States. “When he shook Steve’s hand, he decided he would come here,” Joyner said.
Mr. Bankuti, a coach who was instrumental in bringing girls' soccer to Sudbury, and who for years operated Steve’s Auto Body, a repair and towing business in town, died of Parkinson’s disease and leukemia May 19 in his home in Marlborough, where he had lived since the mid-1990s. He was 78.
He arrived in the United States early in 1957 via Camp Kilmer in New Jersey and was sponsored by First Parish Church in Wayland to come to Massachusetts.
Mr. Bankuti started his business in Wayland in a neighbor’s garage, where he met Virginia Lamy.
“I had a 1940 Chevy that needed repairs,” she recalled. “Friends knew Steve’s story and recommended his garage. He had only been here over a year. He told me he fell in love with me the first time we met, and proposed on our first date.”
They married in 1958. In 1986, they sold the towing business, bought a 1790 house in New Ipswich, N.H., and converted it to a bed and breakfast.
“Steve was always earnest and hard-working,” she said.
Ten years later, they moved to Marlborough to be near their children.
A skilled soccer player in Hungary, Mr. Bankuti played a lead role in bringing girls’ soccer to Sudbury, said his friends, who added that he was the first girls’ soccer coach at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and also coached soccer at what is now Curtis Middle School.
Others pitched in, among them John Wilson of Sudbury and Harvey Gross of Sarasota, Fla., who formerly lived in the area and played soccer in his native England.
“Steve was an awfully nice guy and was way ahead of his time in the early 1970s to 1990s, when there were no girls’ soccer teams here,” Gross said.
“He was very generous with his time,” said Wilson, who added that after the program’s first year, membership doubled.
Mr. Bankuti’s daughters, Marie of North Kingstown, R.I., and Julie Joyner of Hudson, and Wilson’s daughter, Kathleen Sawyer of Sudbury, suggested that their “nagging” might have been the impetus.
“My father coached soccer for hundreds of kids of all ages, for the Sudbury town and school programs,” Marie said in a eulogy during her father’s memorial service.
“He helped grow the boys’ league and initiated the girls’ league in town,” she said. “Thanks to him, we girls were real pioneers. It never even occurred to him that ‘girls don’t play soccer.’ It made him feel so alive to share his passion, and he coached all four of us kids. I remember him running up and down the sidelines, calling our names, shouting encouragement and challenging us to always be the first to the ball.”
Sawyer, who was 10 when she began playing soccer and still plays with a women’s team, said Mr. Bankuti welcomed female players.
“He encouraged us as well as he did the boys,” she said.
“My father was a wonderful, giving man,” Julie said. “He was a colorful guy and raised cows, pigs, ponies, sheep, steer, ducks, and chickens — not common in the suburbs. He was a generous man with his money, time, talent, and especially love.”
Born Istvan Bankuti in Budapest and raised in the small Hungarian village of Rackeresztur, he first arrived in Massachusetts with another young Hungarian who also was sponsored by the men’s group of First Parish Church in Wayland.
“We were expecting a family and the church was looking for a house, but two bachelors arrived instead and were given quarters in the parish house,” said Mary Trageser of Newton, who with her late husband, David, took the two immigrants under their wing. “They couldn’t speak a word of English, and the men’s group taught them.”
Mr. Bankuti, she added, “was a wonderful human being. He would do anything for a friend.”
He was so proud of becoming a US citizen in 1963 that “you couldn’t say anything about the United States government in his presence,” she said.
In Sudbury, Mr. Bankuti was known for not charging a fee for jobs such as winching a teenager’s car out of a ditch.
Mr. Bankuti, who believed in staying active, climbed Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire at 73.
A service has been held for Mr. Bankuti, who in addition to his wife and two daughters leaves two sons, Stephen of Sudbury and Frank of Pepperell; two sisters, Maria Pongracz and Magda Zarka, and a brother, Frank, all of Hungary; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In September, during his last visit to Hungary, Mr. Bankuti climbed the challenging Somló Hill.
That visit to his homeland was poignant, said his wife, who added that “we all knew it would be Steve’s last.”