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The only Greek in town

The only Greek in town

As a kid, growing up in the 1960’s in a small southern New Jersey town where we were the only Greek family (the Tiniakos Family came later in the 70’s), was tough. The town was made up of predominately Irish and Italian Catholics. Not only weren’t we Catholic, but my parents had accents – Mom especially. I clearly remember the taunts the kids gave me when my mother called out my name to come home for dinner… Haaaarrreeeee (you must roll the “r” as you say it). The entire neighborhood would erupt in “Haaaarrreeee!” I guess it could have been worse. She could have called me by my Greek name, Argyri. That would have been a disaster.

Although my parents worked hard and our family was respected in the community, we were looked at a little differently because we were the “Greek Family”. Most of my childhood friends didn’t even know where Greece was. I can remember them asking if we still believed in the twelve Olympian Gods, and why we celebrated Easter on a different date. The only Greek they had heard of, at that time, was Telly Savalas, who played Kojack. Forget about trying to pronounce my last name! That’s a photo of me training for the family business)

It was different on the other side of the Delaware River in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Over there, entire Greek villages were emptied and dropped into the town. Whole blocks of row homes were filled with Greek families. They didn’t have to worry about their friends mispronouncing their last names – most of them were related anyway and had the same last name! They surely had it easy.

I can remember when I opened my office in Upper Darby in 1985 and walking down Wellington Road. I heard Greek music coming from many houses and the yiayias outside talking Greek to their neighbors. I went back to my office, called my mother and told her… “They actually speak Greek outside. I heard Greek music. Unbelievable”.

You ask why I told my mother I heard Greek being spoken outside? Remember, in the 60’s it wasn’t “cool” to be ethnic. There was still a prejudice against foreigners. We didn’t speak Greek outside the home. If you did, people stared at you – it was certainly a different time. In southern New Jersey, there was no large concentration of Greeks, like Upper Darby in the 70’s and 80’s. The Greeks that came earlier, like my grandfather in the 20’s and my parents in the 40’s, wanted to assimilate into the American culture, as other ethnic groups did too. They left a war-torn Greece with nothing to offer them and they wanted to start new. They were proud of being Greek, but they wanted their kids to be American. Why do you think many of my generation born here have names like Harry, Bill, Ted, or Gina, and not Haralambo, Vasili Theodoro, or Evgenia, like many of today’s young?

Like I said, it was tough. When I played baseball (my brother played football), our last name didn’t exactly fit on the back of the jerseys. In my brother’s case, they thought his last name was both first and last and wrote it “Kara Palides”. In High School, where I was the only Greek, I was simply referred to as “The Greek” or “Harry the Greek,” like I’m sure other Greek-Americans in my position were similarly named. Funny, I never heard any other person called “The Chinese” or “The Italian” or even, “Jose the Mexican”. Must be something about the Greeks? (Yes, that is me in the photograph and I did save the goal!)

Today, most of us parents help our kids with their homework, meet with teachers, and get involved with the school. Back then, when it came to homework, we were on our own. Dad was working at the diner all hours, and Mom read a little bit of English but not enough to help, but she hovered over making sure we completed the homework. Who knows what she understood at the parent-teacher conferences and when it came to sports, Mom would sit on the wrong side… God bless her, she didn’t know, but she cheered the loudest!

There was one thing we did have going for us though… food. The neighborhood and my friends loved it when our family cooked or had a party. My friends’ fathers were plumbers, accountants, factory workers, but my Dad… he owned a diner. They loved that and all the Greek food my Mom cooked. My sister’s friend, Sue, use to just walk in the house, open the refrigerator and take out a chuck of feta cheese – she loved it.

At my law school graduation we had over 200 people at the house and when I told my friends dinner was being served they looked at me like I was crazy. They had been stuffing themselves for over an hour with mezethakia. I explained to them what mezethakia were. They thought that was the main course! Xeni… what do they know!

Oh well, come to think about it, maybe it was good to be the only Greek in town!

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  1. Ioanna Kelarakis


    I grew up in the South. I was always the only “Greek” in my classes or neighborhood. Sometimes, even I was confused. My father loved Latin music, so I grew up on the album, The Soul of Mexico, and I think I thought I was a Mexican for awhile. My parents grew up in Greek neighborhoods in New York and Pennsylvania. I must admit that from time to time that I am a bit jealous of you Upper Darby Greeks and your ability to mingle in this Greek Hood. I try to make up for this “southern upbringing” by constantly immersing myself in all matters of a Hellenic nature. And, if nothing else, we sure have a lot of material to keep us laughing for hours and a lifetime.

    The best to you,
    Ioanna Kelarakis

  2. Susan

    Loved that I am mentioned in this!! Wonderful post as usual!!

  3. Eleni Poulos

    Hey Harry! My mom sent me to school with the chicken pox and couldn’t understand why they sent me home. Great story you wrote. Keep it up!

  4. Alexandra Pantelidis

    LOL…..Thank you Harry for reminding us “Upper Darby Greeks” where we came from. What a wonderful post! God bless America:)

  5. John Pogas

    I remember bringing my college roommate home for dinner. My mom was concerned with what the xeno boy would eat so I suggested she make something easy like spaghetti and meatballs. Tim was a nice Irish boy and skinny as heck. Tim and I were eating mezethes (dolmathes, feta, olives, cucumbers, etc) when my mom said, “hokay boythes, ees time for deener” and she plopped a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of Tim.

    Now mind you, his serving was about 1/2 a box of spaghetti and two meatballs that were the size of baseballs. He looked at me and said, “dude, are these two meatballs for all of us?”. I said, “no way pal – that’s YOUR serving. And if you don’t finish it all my mom is going to cry”.

    Poor Tim was so stuffed he didn’t eat a thing the following day. My mom got upset that he didn’t even touch his galactoboureko. So she packed it up for him to take back to school.

    It was at that moment that Tim realized why his Greek roomate was built like Buick.

    • James (Aussie Jimmy ) Spiropoulos

      Ella boythes , time for deena. I remember inviting a school friend over for dinner one week night. He saw the table growing with food and said ‘ I didn’t know you were having a party, so I’ll leave ‘ My mother was crying with laughter .’Sit down love, no party ,only dinner’

  6. Christina Alex

    Well, I was a Greek living in the deep south as well. The only Greek in town. I caught a lot of flack, but was always very proud of my heritage. People would ask me if I was “I”talian. I would say, no I am Greek. Is that like “I”talian? I would say yes, what else could I do? Then of course, “are you Catholic?” I would say, “no I am Greek Orthodox.” They would ask, “is that like Catholic? I’d say sure. Well I won’t go into detail, but the conversation didn’t get any better from that point on! My Yia Yia and Papou came from Greece and my parents grew up in Astoria, N.Y. They were lucky to experience this infusion of their heritage and culture.

  7. Nick Argyros

    Another great story Mr. K. If more Americans felt the pride and importance as Greeks do this country wouldn’t have half the problems it has. Please delight us with more…

  8. Athena

    I am a Greek-Canadian who grew up in the big city of Toronto in a predominantly WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) neighbourhood, and I can relate to everything you shared. I remember wishing my name was Nancy or Sally, so I could feel like I belong. I now live in a smaller city in Ontario, and while we have a fairly large Greek community here, the Greeks have all assimilated. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise me when I have people ask if I’m ever going to return home? My reply is Toronto you mean? Haha! Oh well, so proud of my heritage.

  9. Christine Mannos

    Great article…try going up Greek in Salt Lake City, Utah! Now that was quite a challenge I can tell you. Our Greek community was a great one though and still is. Some of our best friends were Mormons and of course we lived on a street with Italians, Irish, one other Greek family. We considered ourselves just like everyone else! All of our non-Greek friends wanted to come to our Goya outings and of course the festivals. It was a great childhood and most of my family are still in Utah! Go figure…

  10. Athina

    This is such an awesome article. I can totally relate on so many levels. We grew up in a small rural community in Tennessee and then moved to Kentucky when I was in high school. Of course living in such rural communities we were definitely the only Greek family. However the few Greek families that lived in neighboring counties and even states would all come together for special occasions. The parents would have a chance to catch up with each other and the kids would all play to their hearts content. Of course when back at school it was a new ball of wax. I remember being called “The Grecian” or you are “Greasy” because you are from Greece. And as you know most Greeks are very well groomed and take pride in their appearance. Definitely being greasy was the last thing that my mom was going to let happen. And of course my parents accents would sometimes be mistaken by southerners for my parents being a part of the “mafia” It was quite an experience. Despite those issues I was and will always be proud of being Greek! I love my culture and heritage!

  11. Virginia (Karanis) Howard

    Wonderful article. Both my parents were born in Greece and we were one of the few Greeks in in Yeadon in the 50’s, three families and we were all related. We did move to Upper Darby, even at that time there were not too many Greeks, good to know there is a strong community there now.

    Then we moved to Los Angeles, everything is spread out here. All our relatives thought it was crazy for anyone to move west of the Mississippi ! Though I must say after finally going to Greece I could see why my Dad wanted to live here, similar climates and flora. Finally went to Greece a year and a half ago, ready to go again.

    I cannot wait to return to Greece where I tasted my mother’s cooking, something I had not tasted in 25 years! A real “aha” moment.

  12. Billy Phillips

    Loved your story Harry,having grown up in U.D. I can relate to many things you have said,my real name is Vasili Philipou,my family being one of the first families to migrate to U.D. from West Philly in the late 40’s. When I entered the US Army in 1966 and was initially stationed down south there were no Greeks, practically non-existent,the Army was worse,never met a Greek the whole 3 years I was in,except for a cook in Dothan Alabama who ran a little restaurant,he treated me like a long lost son,my nickname in the Army was “Greek” because I made it a point to tell anyone I met I was a Hellene,reading your story brought back many memories,thanks…

  13. Evangelia tsihlis Affatato

    Is this the same Harry from Orpheus? If so this message is from Van & Marcy from Bethlehem, Pa. Wanted to say hello, and catch up. The years have sped by so quickly. Loved your article, the same happened to my family, we were called the Greeks too. It was tough and funny at the same time. No teacher could pronounce my name on the first day of school. I would just raise my hand ahead of time! Well hope to hear from you, take care.

  14. Sylvia Koroneos

    It was much the same for me in Grade School. My brother and I were the only Greeks. There was one other girl, but she was 3rd generation Americanized. I had a friend who was from U.D. I visited there once. Didn’t realize it had that many Greeks. I’m glad that being Greek today is a cool thing!

  15. George Limbanovnos

    Hi Harry,

    as I was reading this, I started to feel like I knew what your were talking about more and more. When you mentioned UPPER DARBY I said to myself I must know him.

    When I saw the picture of my house!!!! I thought you were ME. I grew up on the third house on the left on Wellington rd. I now live in Charlotte, NC. Surprisingly enough there are a lot of Greeks here and they are ALL from KARPENESE. My wife is from here and that’s how I ended up down here.

    You might know my mom Anna Limbanovnos. I enjoyed your article.

    George Limbanovnos, DC

    • Harry

      Of course I know ur mom! Ted kostans took that photo. He lived on Wellington too

  16. Chris Litharis

    Hello to everybody. I am writing from Athens, Greece. This is a wonderful blog, Harry, thank you, and thanks to all who shared their experiences. It’s good to see that you struggled and you succeeded in your lives, overcoming all obstacles. I think you can teach a thing or two to us folks here in the motherland!

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