Happy birthday, Pop

I’m a proud sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Greek-American. My father, George Koutoulas, came alone to the U.S. in 1955 when he was 19 to work in his uncle’s restau­rant on the south side of Chicago. He even­tu­al­ly moved about an hour’s dri­ve away to LaPorte, a small town in north­ern Indiana. There he worked in a restau­rant owned by anoth­er uncle.

About the same size as Winchester, LaPorte is where my dad and mom met and mar­ried. It’s where my two broth­ers and I were born, and where we lived until I was in the first grade.

I remem­ber fre­quent trips via Greyhound bus from LaPorte to my mom’s home­town of Campton in Eastern Kentucky to vis­it her fam­i­ly. My dad — my broth­ers and I called him “Pop” — fell in love with the area. He said the rocky green hills remind­ed him of the moun­tain vil­lage of Kandilla, Greece, where he grew up.

It was dur­ing one of these trips to Kentucky that my par­ents decid­ed to move here. They found a restau­rant for lease in near­by Jackson, and soon they were run­ning it, and we were liv­ing in an attached apartment.

Eventually, they would move to Campton and buy a restau­rant there, the Gateway Restaurant. I spent most of my for­ma­tive years there, again liv­ing in an apart­ment attached to the business. 

A few years lat­er, after anoth­er stint run­ning a restau­rant near Natural Bridge State Park, Pop decid­ed he’d had enough of the headaches of being a small busi­ness own­er. He accept­ed a posi­tion as head chef at Natural Bridge State Park’s Hemlock Lodge, where he stayed until his retire­ment in the ear­ly 2000s.

During his stint with the state parks, Pop built a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the top chefs in the sys­tem. He was fre­quent­ly called on to over­see spe­cial events such as Kentucky Derby break­fasts, inau­gur­al events, and oth­er spe­cial occa­sions. After his retire­ment, he was called on once again to return and help strug­gling park food ser­vice facil­i­ties get back on track.

Back when Pop first start­ed dream­ing of fol­low­ing his uncles and cousins to America, he had ambi­tions of mak­ing it rich in the restau­rant busi­ness. Instead, he became the patri­arch of a fam­i­ly that would nev­er achieve the kind of finan­cial suc­cess he imag­ined, but he died hap­py and sat­is­fied, hav­ing found rich­es much more pre­cious in his adopt­ed country.

He found free­dom, love, and true hap­pi­ness — not only for him­self but for his fam­i­ly and near­ly every­one whose life he affected.

Pop loved to regale us with sto­ries of his life grow­ing up in the “old coun­try.” The par­al­lels between his youth in a poor rur­al vil­lage in Greece and that of my mother’s hum­ble upbring­ing in Kentucky were strik­ing to me.

As a teenag­er, Pop was recruit­ed into a makeshift mili­tia to fight on the side of the gov­ern­ment army against com­mu­nist forces in the Greek Civil War. He nev­er saw com­bat action but had sev­er­al sto­ries of close calls.

He was a qui­et man, one who didn’t often share his inner feel­ings. On those rare occa­sions when he spoke from the heart, I listened.

Once when, as adults, my broth­er and I were vis­it­ing with Pop, I became aware that my broth­er and I had been in a deep con­ver­sa­tion for about an hour, while our dad watched and lis­tened silent­ly. I apol­o­gized to him for monop­o­liz­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, but he smiled and said he loved noth­ing bet­ter than just watch­ing his sons enjoy­ing one another’s company.

I didn’t real­ly believe him until I had two sons of my own. Watching them just hang out and enjoy being togeth­er is also one of the joys of my own life.

Another thing I’ve come to appre­ci­ate is Pop’s love for his grand­chil­dren. When I became a grand­par­ent myself, I was able for the first time to under­stand that unique pleasure.

Even bet­ter, I get to expe­ri­ence anoth­er thing that brought so much hap­pi­ness to my dad: watch­ing my own son become a ter­rif­ic dad to my grand­son. There’s sim­ply noth­ing to com­pare to the enjoy­ment of wit­ness­ing famil­ial bonds devel­op between one’s children. 

We lost Pop to com­pli­ca­tions of dia­betes and the gen­er­al infir­mi­ties of advanc­ing age, in 2014, just a few weeks after his 78th birthday. 

Today would have been his 86th birth­day. Actually, we nev­er knew his true date of birth. When enter­ing the U.S. in 1955, he was asked for his date of birth for the immi­gra­tion paper­work. He had no idea — at that time, few Greeks cel­e­brat­ed birth­days or both­ered to note their date of birth. He knew he was born in 1936, and he just made up June 21. 

He lat­er not­ed it was a big mis­take choos­ing a date that falls in the same week as Father’s Day! For as long as I can remem­ber, we com­bined cel­e­bra­tions of his birth­day with Father’s Day. And so, why change now? 

Pop set the tone for gen­er­a­tions of his fam­i­ly. He was one hell of a father and grand­fa­ther. Those of us who fol­low in his foot­steps have a great exam­ple to fol­low. And some mighty big shoes to fill.

Not every man gets to — or choos­es to — expe­ri­ence father­hood. But every per­son can touch the life of a young man or woman. Everyone can pos­i­tive­ly influ­ence them and their future chil­dren. Everyone can help cre­ate beau­ti­ful memories. 

Here’s to you, Pop. Happy Father’s Day / Fake American Birthday. Bravo! 

And Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and to every­one who is grant­ed the priv­i­lege of shar­ing their life with a young person.

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