In 1986, a few years after his brother left Croatia with a lottery visa and established a life in Eastport, Zarko Peruza joined him in Anne Arundel County.
Over the next 36 years, until he was struck and killed in January while bicycling on Hilltop Lane, Peruza was a familiar face in the Annapolis area’s service industry, greeting customers with kindness and the occasional extra slice of cheese for their sandwiches.
“He was just a great guy,” his daughter Zaklina Peruza told The Capital. “I think about it now and I don’t think nobody’s going to match my dad.”
On Jan. 24, around 10 p.m., Peruza was bicycling home from his job at the Safeway on Forest Drive when an unknown vehicle struck him near the intersection of Hilltop Lane and Merryman Road. The impact threw him “in the air like a trash can,” his daughter said. The vehicle that struck Peruza has not been located, police said. Peruza was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 74 years old.
“He was a simple man whose life was taken too early,” his granddaughter Ana Peruza told The Capital. “He had more to give and it is very unfortunate that his journey had to end so soon.”
Born in Serbia in 1948 to a Croatian mother and a Sicilian-Croatian father, Zarko Peruza’s young life revolved around soccer. As an adult, he played professionally for the Croatian football club Roma — a name he and his brother Alex eventually used for a restaurant they opened together on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — and also trained some of the country’s great talents.
One of his mentees, Davor Šuker, played for club teams like Sevilla, Real Madrid and Arsenal, and qualified for the World Cup with the Yugoslav and Croatian national teams in the 1990s and early 2000s. Šuker went on to serve as the president of the Croatian Football Federation for nearly a decade.
After his playing days, Peruza remained a faithful fan of the game. Known for calling family members during matches, he was thrilled as he watched his home country place third in last year’s World Cup.
As for his other profession, Peruza worked in the food and restaurant industries throughout his life in America. His first jobs in Annapolis were at Maria’s Italian restaurant downtown and Café Normandie on Main Street. Later, after selling his Roma restaurant, he made sandwiches at the Pantry 1 Food Mart on Spa Road — the “BEST” sandwiches in the city, according to his granddaughter Ana Peruza, a South River High graduate.
Though he spent decades preparing food and serving people, Peruza perhaps never worked more intensely than when he first arrived from Croatia. While his daughters Zaklina and Ana stayed with their grandmother in Australia, Peruza routinely clocked between 70 and 80 hours of work a week.
By the time everyone in the family had settled in the United States, the father pulled together approximately $75,000 for green cards, which allow immigrants to live and work permanently in the U.S.
“He helped everybody. He trusted everybody,” Zaklina Peruza said. “I can’t believe this happened to him.”
Peruza’s only form of transportation was his bicycle, according to his granddaughter, and for over two years, Annapolis has had plans to install an off-street side path on the road where he was hit. According to city spokesperson Mitchelle Stephenson, the side path is expected to be finished sometime next year.
Ward 5 Alderman Brooks Schandelmeier said Annapolis “failed” Peruza and his family.
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A funeral service Saturday was well-attended by relatives and community members, family said. Peruza’s ashes will be spread in the Adriatic Sea between the Croatian and Italian coasts.
He is remembered by his daughters Zaklina and Ana, and his grandchildren Royce, Ana, Sofia, Lexus, Isabelle, Lola, and Rocky.
“The family is very grateful for the prayers and support we have been receiving,” his granddaughter Ana said. “I could not have asked for anything more to properly put my grandpa to rest. I feel blessed to have such an amazing community.”
The Annapolis Police Department is following “strong investigative leads” on Peruza’s case, Capt. Amy Miguez told The Capital Monday, though no other details on the vehicle or a possible suspect have been released.
“We are hopeful we’ll be able to charge someone in this crash,” Miguez said.
Anyone with information on the crime is asked to contact Officer Bruce Ko at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I want someone to find who the hell did this,” Zaklina Peruza said. “You’ve gone from manslaughter to murder. Why didn’t you stop?”