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.