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The Remarkable Journey of Gus Antoniades: A Tribute to an Immigrant’s American Dream

Hellenic News
Hellenic News
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Eulogy written by Maria Andy Tettamanti

To fully understand the quirky, enigmatic and brilliant character that is Gus, we need to understand his deep-seeded Hellenic roots. Mentally travel with me all the way across the vast Atlantic Ocean, over the craggy mountains of Northern Greece, and plop yourselves into an idyllic village named Velvento. The day is April 21, 1938, and Costakis — as he is lovingly called by his family — is born to peach farmers. He lives amongst aromatic orchards, cobblestone streets, larger-than-life trees, bustling coffee shops, natural waterfalls and sweeping mountain vistas.

His family consists of his mother Vasiliki, father Yioryos, brother Yianis and sisters Maria and Katerina. (These names may sound familiar to you, as they carried over to the family today). They live in a spacious home surrounded by verdant pastures, attend the local Greek Orthodox Christian Church, enjoy hearty meals of roasted lamb and lemon potatoes and play heated games of backgammon. Quaint village life is perfect—until it’s not.

Shortly after World War II, a communist-dominated Cold War usurps Greece and the trajectory of my father’s journey takes many twists and turns dappled with tragic losses and personal triumphs. Growing up, my father spoke at length about the horrors of the Greek Cold War. His father would vanish for months, food was scarce and life felt like a living nightmare. Velvento was in dire peril.

It’s now 1951, Costas and the entire Antoniades family find themselves fleeing Hellas. Together, they take the seemingly eternal trans-Atlantic boat ride to Ellis Island, New York. Over the years and many dinner conversations with my father, this particular memory surfaced often, as the family’s journey to America was long, traumatic and oh-so frightening for a boy of just 13 years old. Like many of the Greek diaspora, the family of five find themselves in Chicago, Illinois. Not a single one of them speaks English. They do not have a dollar to their names. But what they did have is gumption. And smarts. And grit. And good old-fashioned hustle.

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So, in the larger-than-life city of Chicago — a place which is quite possibly the polar opposite of old-world Velvento — the entire Antoniadis clan works in realms deemed downright deplorable. But my dad always has a way of finding the silver lining. From dishwashing to janitorial duties to zipping around town as a paperboy — the entire family works in tandem to support themselves.

In fact, Gus touts his dishwashing job as the cure to his teen acne, compliments of the steamer. He attributes learning English to conversing with lonely restaurant patrons while bussing tables. Working these low-brow jobs clearly leaves an indelible mark on my father and forever changes the course of his life — not to mention the touching manner in which he treats his own employees later on in life.

As if the Antoniades family isn’t handed enough misfortune, Costa’s sister Maria passes away at the tender age of 12 in Chicago. The close-knit family is heartbroken. They move to Miami, Florida, hoping for sunnier days ahead.

Gus has a zest for learning and becomes obsessed with higher education. You name it, he studies it. And he masters it with aplomb. He graduates from the University of Florida, where he receives a bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture. He then attends the University of Oklahoma, where he receives a Master’s Degree in City and Regional Planning. During a summer at the University of Mexico, Gus studies Economics and the Spanish language. At Florida State University, he studies business. He also attends Florida International University to study Hospitalities. To be completely honest, folks, my father was a nerd. But we all know nerds rule the world.

A true Hellenic at heart, Dad marries a Greek girl. He meets Fotini Mitilineu while his brother Yiannis is teaching at Fotini’s college in Kozani, Greece in 1965. Mom and Dad marry after a two-year long-distance relationship filled with handwritten letters — and he loves my mother in a manner not depicted in ubiquitous movies and books. Gus is not a hopeless romantic but always takes care of Fotini and Gus becomes Fofo’s North Star. She bravely follows him to a foreign country, leaving behind her entire family in Greece. The newlyweds eventually settle in New Jersey working at the family’s cotton candy shop on the Wildwood Boardwalk where they eventually acquire a rundown, musty and dusty motor inn called the La Mer.

Ah, the La Mer. While most people have hobbies such as fishing, traveling, reading or, say, pickleball, well, working at the La Mer becomes Gus’ hobby. Work is his passion. He works 7 days a week and is often woken up in the middle of the night when customers mistakenly lock themselves out of their rooms. He makes certain all four of his children are well-versed in every scope of the operation — from the front-desk duties, to housekeeping and checking the pool’s chemistry to the art of plunging a clogged toilet. He magically metamorphosizes the once dilapidated motor inn into one of Cape May’s most luxurious properties.

Which leads me to the deep affection he shared for his employees. An immigrant at his core, at his very ethos, Dad made sure the hotel’s employee break room is stocked with coffee, bagels, peanut butter, cream cheese, cinnamon rolls, donuts and other diabetic delights. Dad personally made runs to Sam’s Club to make sure his employees — who often hailed from faraway places, such as Moldova, Poland, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, and beyond — would, at the very least have something to munch on. Simply said, he loved La Mer and all the colorful characters that came with it. One long-standing employee in particular, Bert Howie, becomes his confidante and most cherished person.

As many of you know firsthand, Gus was socially awkward. Small talk was not his forte. So while Gus loved outings, he often lacked the proper words to say in social settings. For example, he would bring up divisive politics during weddings. He would argue for the rightful return of the Elgin marbles at dinner parties. He fiercely denounced the Cypriot occupation at baptisms. He could be completely polarizing but he bore a strong constitution — and he never gossiped or spoke ill of anyone whatsoever. He was simply an outlier. He had a small circle of friends whom he held near and dear to his heart. And what he admired most about them most were their wits and natural talents.

But where Dad was a natural and what he truly succeeded at — personally speaking — was fatherhood. When it came to his children, he was extremely warm, generous and always amenable to a hug, kiss or estrogen-filled meltdown. After school pick-up, he was always game to whisk me to Burger King for a Whopper and a chat. During these conversations at the greasy spoon, Dad would explain how the Greeks invented democracy, philosophy, the Olympics, marathons, the Pythagorem Theorem and more. But in all seriousness, we would have deep and meaningful conversations about everything from classical music, architecture, the breathtaking impressionist paintings of Monet and Matisse, nature — and loss.

Dad’s biggest losses included his older brother Yianni’s unsolved murder in 1986 and his beloved little sister Kathy’s death to cancer at the age of 59. Gus outlived every single one of his immediate family members. One can only imagine the breadth and vastness of that pain.

Gus was a survivor.

But Dad tightened his bootstraps. Or in his case — he tightened his sensible shoes. He would grind. He was ambitious. His drive and entrepreneurial spirit found him working at his office at the La Mer until his legs failed to carry him at the age of 85. His sheer determination was a beautiful act to witness. He left impossibly large shoes to fill. In fact, my Dad is the physical embodiment of the American Dream. Against all odds, Gus achieved success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative. In Cape May, he was asked to name a street he personally developed and being the modest man he is — he chose to fittingly name it Velvento. Through intrepid real estate acquisitions and investments, Dad became an extremely successful businessman; yet remained unpretentious and true to his simple village roots.

For example, his idea of a good time was frequenting the local flea market to haggle for tools, parakeets, mangos and Makita power tools, followed by polishing off a bucket of Church’s fried chicken washed down with an ice-cold beer while Willy Nelson or Ray Charles’ music wafted through the room. Yes, folks, Dad’s Shangri-La was Costco where the cooked hotdogs prices are set at a solid $1.50 since the store’s inception in 1983.

Dad knew it was the little things that were the BIG things in life.

Gus became an important part of the fabric of Miami, Cape May and Velvento, and gave back to a myriad of causes, such as The American Hellenic Institute, Autism research, Archimedean School, Mount Sinai and Cooper Hospitals, The University of Florida, Stockton College, East Lynne Theater, The Cape May Chamber of Commerce, and the Mid-Atlantic Center of the Arts. He contributed toward Velvento’s elementary school where the library is lovingly named after him. He traveled twice a year to Greece and Cyprus as a representative of the United States Government and met with the Greek Prime Minister and President of Cyprus. And while he would never admit it, Gus was an accomplished painter and his alluring oil paintings adorn our homes and office spaces.

Gus leaves behind his wife, Fotini, children Vasiliki, Maria, Yioryos and myself, grandchildren, Dylan, Ava, Yiani and Arabella, son-in-laws Trevor and Sebastian and daughter-in-law Karolina. We promise his legacy will continue to shine through us.

As we gather here today to bid farewell to Gus, let us remember the journey of a young boy from Greece who dared to dream beyond the orchards and cobblestone streets of Velvento. Let us celebrate a life that embodied the pursuit of knowledge, the love of family, the passion for hard work and the perseverance to overcome any obstacle in his path.

As they say in Greek — Zoe se mas — life to us.

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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