A son of Greek immigrants and a child of the Great Depression, George Kariotis was very young when he moved with his family from Boston to Cape Cod.
They didn’t go for the scenery. His father got a job through the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, and was making “12 bucks a week, something like that,” Mr. Kariotis recalled in a recorded interview posted on the Northeastern University website. His mother took in laundry to make money, and Mr. Kariotis himself began adding to the household’s income as soon as he was old enough to deliver newspapers.
“My Dad helped support the family from the time he was a little boy,” said his daughter, Kathryn Kariotis Harmon of Dayton, Nev. “He bought my grandmother her first washing machine when he was 10 years old with money he saved from his paper route. It wasn’t a luxury for her. It was a way to bring money into the family.”
Entrepreneurial from childhood, Mr. Kariotis went on to help found a high-tech company that became Alpha Industries of Woburn. He also served as secretary of economic affairs and, as a Republican, unsuccessfully challenged Governor Michael S. Dukakis in 1986.
Mr. Kariotis, a trustee emeritus at his alma mater, Northeastern University, died in his sleep July 7 in his Eastham home. He was 90 and had divided his time between Eastham and Marco Island, Fla.
“George was a true son of Northeastern, an American patriot, and a path-breaking entrepreneur,” Joseph Aoun, Northeastern’s president, said in a statement. “Throughout his life, George advanced causes larger than himself through public service and his devotion to the endeavors he believed in. I am grateful for the time I had to work with him; Northeastern is a stronger institution because of his wisdom and support.”
Mr. Kariotis was a significant benefactor for the university, where the George S. and Ellen Kariotis Hall was dedicated in 1982.
“I teach in the Kariotis building,” said Dukakis, who praised his former political opponent’s success in the state’s high-tech community and his service in the Cabinet of Governor Edward J. King.
“He was a darned good guy, an effective secretary, and I always thought the world of him,” Dukakis said of Mr. Kariotis. “He was an up-from-the bootstraps guy” and someone who “contributed one hell of a lot to this state in so many ways, and also to his alma mater.”
In the recorded interview with Northeastern, he spoke of how a $100 grant covered most of his tuition, making it possible for him to attend the university and go through its co-op program. His life, he said, could have turned out much differently.
“Back in 1940, it looked like there was no college for me in my future,” Mr. Kariotis told Northeastern. “I was working at a grocery store.”
After spending his childhood and teen years in Hyannis, Onset, and Falmouth, Mr. Kariotis graduated in 1940 from Lawrence High School in Falmouth.
He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern in 1944, but took time away from the university to study in the V-12 program at Tufts College and serve in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific theater.
While in the Navy, he was best man at a wedding and was standing in the receiving line when he met Ellen Arvanites.
“In Greek wedding lines, the women who go through kiss the groom and the men kiss the bride,” their daughter said. “And when my Mom got to the bride and groom, she said, ‘You know, I’d really rather kiss the best man.’ ”
Mr. Kariotis married Ellen Arvanites on April 15, 1945.
Before starting his own company, he worked in North Adams and California for Sprague Electric, a capacitor company. Returning to Massachusetts he joined Microwave Associates.
When he and his partners founded Alpha Industries in 1962, “we couldn’t pay ourselves any salary, because it would be depleting what small resources we had,” he told Northeastern. “So we went salary-less for six months.’’
Alpha Industries would grow into a leading semiconductor firm in the state, with about 1,300 workers worldwide, before it merged with another company in 2002 to become Skyworks Solutions.
Taking a leave of absence for four years beginning in 1979, Mr. Kariotis served as King’s economic affairs secretary. When he returned as chairman of his company, one of his tasks was to steer Alpha through legal thickets as the company pleaded guilty in 1985 in a kickback deal involving a US Defense Department contract. Mr. Kariotis said he had no knowledge of the kickback until the board was told long after the incident occurred.
In 1986, Republican officials picked Mr. Kariotis to run against Dukakis for governor after two Republican candidates dropped out because of separate controversies. Starting late, Mr. Kariotis campaigned enthusiastically, despite facing long odds at a time when Dukakis’s approval ratings were high in the run-up to his 1988 presidential campaign.
Dukakis, who ended up winning with 69 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Mr. Kariotis, agreed to a single debate. When rain delayed the end of the World Series between the Red Sox and the New York Mets, the candidates ended up debating during Game 7.
Dukakis was “the sure winner of the Luckiest Candidate in the Debate Division Award,” syndicated columnist Mary McGrory wrote , adding that Mr. Kariotis’s “name recognition may have gone up with the technicians directly involved in the broadcast.”
With candor and humor, Mr. Kariotis brought up the timing of the debate during his concession speech Election Night.
“In fairness to Mike, I should clear up something. He was criticized, I think, for giving me only one televised debate during the seventh game of the World Series. I should point out that that was really his second choice; his first choice was tomorrow.”
Mr. Kariotis, who also had served as a board member of Lahey Clinic, had lived with his wife in Wayland for many years. Gardening was among his hobbies, and in Eastham “he has personally planted about 2,000 bulbs and irises around my house here,” said his son, Stephen, who also lives in Eastham. “We did all the gardening together. He was awesome.”
In addition to his wife, daughter, and son, Mr. Kariotis leaves five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. July 24 in the Four Points by Sheraton in Eastham. His family said Mr. Kariotis would have wanted those who attend to dress for summer on the Cape, casually and in bright colors.
“He was probably the most unpretentious man I’ve ever met,” his son said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard @globe.com.