The author and his Pop, May, 2007

Remembering my “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 buses 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 my parents decided to move to Kentucky. 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.

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 business owner. He accepted a position as head chef at the state park’s Hemlock Lodge, where he stayed until his retirement in the early 2000s.

During his stint with the state parks, he 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 such.

After his retirement, he was called on once again to return and help struggling park food service facilities get back on track.

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 deep conversation for about an hour, while Pop watched and listened silently.

I apologized to him for monopolizing the conversation, but he 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 Pop: watching my son become a terrific dad to his own son. There’s simply nothing to compare to the enjoyment of witnessing familial bonds develop between one’s children.

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.

Here’s to you, Pop.

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

This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on June 19, 2020.

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