The lime-green leaves of the trees outside the funeral home glistened wet through the windowpanes reflecting a bright sun that suddenly appeared following a downpour of spring rain. The Orthodox Trisagion service on the eve of Jimmy Fotos’ funeral was concluding and the gathered friends settled in the pews behind his widow Irene, his children and other family at the front of the chapel. Father Paul and the accompanying chanter had just led the congregation in the singing of the somber “Memory Eternal” hymn. Its plaintive tones brought to mind in each of us thoughts of finality and loss. Some reminded of the funeral of a parent, others of their own mortality.
Father Paul cleared his throat and spoke in his gentle voice that was subdued both from the occasion and that we were in the final days of Lent. He spoke kindly of Jimmy Fotos who lay in an open casket just behind him, an icon of his patron saint Demetrios next to his resting face. His frail body laid out on white satin folds belied the strength and tall stature he commanded for almost all of his eighty-eight years.
The priest had only known Jimmy as a man in his declining years, but exposure to Jimmy’s gale force energy at any point in his life left an impact. So he recounted the stories of Jimmy’s life that he had learned over the years. Stories that were familiar to those of us who had known Jimmy and his family for years.
Father Paul recounted Jimmy’s escape from the ethnically Greek city of Politsani in Albania, considered part of Epirus the mountainous region that straddled the border with Greece. As a boy of thirteen he fled before the rising tide of communism in the country. Greek villages were being burned to the ground, churches and schools destroyed, thousands of teachers, doctors and other prominent Greeks were killed, thrown into prison or taken to concentration camps in an effort to suppress religion and Greek nationalism. Jimmy and an uncle made it over the mountains to safety in Greece and then on to America. He didn’t see his parents again for more than forty years.
And he spoke of Jimmy’s success in the U.S., entering the restaurant business and eventually seeing the potential in the rise of McDonald’s. Jimmy opened a franchise and applied his energy into growing that into a chain of McDonald’s restaurants. Founder Ray Kroc later would often praise Jimmy for his success and penchant for publicity stunts to promote his stores. At the back of the funeral home we had all passed a table with framed pictures of Jimmy’s life that included a memorable black and white photo of him perched on a tightrope suspended across the parking lot of one of his restaurants, his hands resting on the shoulders of Karl Wallenda walking the rope in front of him.
“We have recently lost so many of a generation of men this year,” Father Paul reminded us. “In fact we are only in April and we have buried fourteen members of this congregation. Who will replace these people in our church?”
These words hit home. I had stood in this same chapel for the third time in the past five weeks attending wakes for Nick Katapodis and, a week later , for my godfather Louie Zakas. Both were men with similar stories of hard work and success from humble beginnings, of devotion to family and faith. Men who seemed to tower over their surrounding and become role models to everyone they touched.
As someone in the midst of middle life, I wonder how our generation will possibly achieve the same positive impact these men had made on the lives of so many. We have been blessed with lives of plenty as a direct result of the accomplishments of men like Jimmy, Nick and Louie. We grew up in comfortable homes, attended good schools and graduated from prestigious universities. We always had every comfort of life. What have we done with that gift? Have we given back to our communities? Have we honored the legacy of these men and many others that have gone before us? Or are we distracted by the trappings of life in 2017, complaining that our Starbucks app wouldn’t load properly so we could get a flat white without digging into our wallet for cash or eyeing ads for a shiny new BMW?
Are the days of building something from nothing gone? Are we jaded and soft? Will the priest be able to speak of the good works we have done at our Trisagion service and the next generation have a model on which to build their lives?
I looked around the chapel filled with families and Jimmy’s elderly friends, including my father. I thought of how I could live my life in a way that built on the lessons that these men taught me through how they lived.
We should bring people together. The Fotos home on Dunwoody Club Drive was always filled with people sharing stories and enjoying Jimmy and Irene’s hospitality. They opened their home and brought people together in joy. That is a simple act that can change lives. I became friends with Jimmy’s children and his oldest son Andrew became koumbaro in my marriage to Helen. As a transplant to Atlanta she was welcomed by the Fotos clan and embraced like a member of the family. My godfather Louie would host dozens of people at an open celebration of Easter at the Hellenic Center on Cheshire Bridge Road that people still remember fondly. Making connections and celebrating family and friendships was second nature to these men.
We should help others. These men were generous with their talents. Nick Katapodis was devoted to his church, serving on the board of directors, mentored young people, coached basketball and volunteered in organizations that served the homeless.
We should be humble. Even with the great success that these men had in life, they never saw themselves as being better than anyone else. Louie would spend time with anyone regardless of their “stature” or “importance” and give them his counsel and advice.
These are attributes we can all incorporate into our lives. We can have the impact that these people had on so many because of how they lived there lives. Not because of thier "success" in how we traditionally define it. We can be selfless, caring and open our hearts to everyone. We can start today.
May their memory be eternal.
I have a variety of interests and enjoy sharing my reflections on them here.