Constantine “Gus” Katsoris

Edited

He is pictured by the antique 1928 sewing machine that has been a cornerstone of the business since it opened.

Gus is a mainstay of Eastown Grand Rapids.  He owns one of the oldest shops in the area, started by his father after emigrating to the United States from Greece after World War Two.  He loves to talk, and gets to know each of his customers well.

Gus was born a first generation Greek-American on July 13, 1947.  His mother and father met in Greece during World War II, when the Nazi’s asked his father (George) to take a census.  His mother was single, but George knew that if she was listed as such she’d become a bar maid for the Nazis.  So George listed her as his fiancée.  Here’s the story in full:

Gus’ mother came the United States while pregnant with him as a part of a Truman program to emigrate women out of the war zone.  Gus said she threw up the entire voyage; Gus jokes it was he that was sea sick.  His father emigrated some time after, for he had been captured by the Nazis as a POW (over a mistaken car ownership).

Gus was drafted to the US Army during the Vietnam era.  He said he was proud to go – that it made his parents proud.  He was listed for combat, and his father worried Gus would be killed, so he declared his son as the last of his name, or Sole Surviving Son.  That should have removed Gus from direct combat, but Gus declined.

He trained in Louisiana for a Vietnam mission, but that’s not where he ended up.  Right before they were shipped, North Korea shot down a U2 plane and threatened to declare war.  Gus’ regiment was instead directed to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea from 1969 to 1970.  Unfortunately, Gus was stationed directly when and where Agent Orange was dispensed.  As with many soldiers from that era, the chemical has had a lasting affect.

Gus returned to Grand Rapids and transitioned into the National Guard.  In the late 1980’s, Gus began helping his father at his shoe repair shop, located in Eastown Grand Rapids.  Here he speaks about being conned into helping his dad and learning the trade.

Today Gus is known as a mainstay of Eastown, running one its oldest businesses.  He is planning to retire soon, due to the cancer that resulted from exposure to Agent Orange.  Still, his spirits are high.  Neighbors can expect to see him cruising around in one of his two Mustangs for some time to come.

Tito Francona

“Ted Williams, who was the greatest hitter in baseball … spent time with me telling me the do’s and don’ts for a young kid.  But his team didn’t like that.”

My mother is wildly into baseball, as was her mother.  I don’t think my father’s growing up near Tito Francona played any part in their getting married, but I’m sure the day she found out he was a family friend was very exciting.  To me, Tito is a kind face whenever I return to my father’s hometown to visit family, not a famous ball player weary of reporters.

Tito Francona was born November 4, 1933 in Aliquippa, PA.  He started playing baseball very young, and seemingly had a knack for it.  At age ten, his family moved to New Brighton, PA – where my father grew up.  There was no baseball team there at that time, so Tito began waking up at 6am to ride with his dad who worked at the steel mill to play with the Aliquippa team.  His continued play throughout grade school and high school garnered the interest of scouts, who helped him begin his career as a major league baseball player.

My favorite part of Tito’s story isn’t his records, but what took place on the morning of Tito’s first major league game.  His roommate had advised he break into the ball park before it was open in order to acclimate himself to the new field.  Here, in his own words, is the story of how he met opposing ball player Ted Williams.

Tito played with the likes of Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra.  Tito went on to be the technical leader for the batting championship in 1959 while playing for the Cleveland Indians, but lacked enough at-bat’s to qualify.  Even so, his team celebrated the victory by wheeling a tea cart onto the field, a silver tea set on top, and a bag filled with 363 silver dollars (the count of his record).  I was able to see the tea cart in his home during the interview.

Barbara D. Markess

I grew up with Dolly.  She took care of us when we were little while visiting my grandmother.  She was the family nurse, and has always been there for any questions (including whether turtles carry salmonella… which prevented me from getting a pet).

Barbara “Dolly” Markess was born on May 22, 1932 at her parents home in East Rochester, PA.  Only a few years after her birth, her father and uncle (my grandfather) built a home for them in New Brighton, PA.  There she lived with her father, mother, and younger sister.  She continues to live there today.

Dolly spent her life caring for others, and it is clear it was her calling.  Even while I was setting up the interview, she would ask, “Do you need anything?”  She cared for her mother meticulously when she was in old age, and her dog was equally regimented.  Dolly was used to keeping track of detail from life at the hospital.

Dolly’s first experience in care, however, was teaching her grandmothers how to read and write in English.  Both had emigrated from Croatia before her parent’s births.  Here she recalls helping them.

Dolly earned her Bachelor’s at Duquesne University.  She worked and trained in nursing at Providence Hospital in Beaver Falls (the neighboring town) and, for a time, in Boston where she felt the work was more diverse.

Dolly commented that even church has changed in her lifetime.  She recalled that mass used to always be in Latin, though there was a church nearby that conducted mass in Croatian.  Now, even the traditions within mass have changed.

Father Jacques DePaul

Father Jacques DePaul died on October 25, 2015 at the St. Vincent monastery in LaTrobe, PA.  His obituary can be read here.

“I was a convert… I went to mass with [the girl I liked] and she explained it too well.”

I grew up known Father DePaul as a distant cousin who was always kind and jovial.  When I was little, he gave me an autographed picture of Mr. Rogers, who was from LaTrobe, where Fr. DePaul lives.  I didn’t know much about his life’s journey, however.

Father Jacques DePaul was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1936.  In grade school he loved figure skating, and passionately told me of his favorite movie, the Red Shoes.  He joined the St. Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, PA in 1964 to become a Benedictine Monk after studying in seminary in Detroit and Georgia.

Surprising for those who don’t know him, Fr. DePaul was raised Protestant.  His conversion story is this:  In high school, he met a girl he wanted to date.  She was Catholic, and wouldn’t date him unless he’d go to mass with her.  So he did.  She went on to marry and have ten children, while he followed a newfound peace in the Catholic faith.  In his words:

He is thankful for the life the Monastery has given him.  Soon after joining St. Vincent, he was sent to teach english in Paris for ten years.  He learned French, and took on the name Jaques instead of his given name, Jim.  He was then sent to Rome to complete his Doctorate.  Throughout his life, he studied St. Theresa, eventually becoming the world’s leading expert on her life.  He was a regular guest on the Mother Theresa television program.

Today he is battling a bout of cancer, but even in this, the peace and joy his faith has brought him shows. Throughout the interview, he held his iPhone.  I’d seen him communicate on it a bit beforehand.  In his final remarks, he connected his love for Jesus to the distraction of the iPhone, in spite of his fondness for it.

Lampros Kakitsis

Lampros Kakitsis was born on the island of Chios, Greece, in 1941.  After finishing school, he joined the Greek navy, and quickly became an officer.  While out at sea near the coast of Virginia, USA, he received a call from his father.  There was a civil war starting, and he shouldn’t come home.  At the next port stop, Lampros deserted his post to escape the coming hardships.

After illegally living two years on American soil, Lampros presented himself to the US government in order to become a citizen.  He was sent to the Dominican Republic until papers could be filed for his return.  In the accompanying picture, Lampros holds his native flag pointing to his birthplace in Greece.