Immigrant Stories: Raised by her hard-working, deli-owning father
Intro: Penny Pappas and her husband “D.K.” (Demosthenes) moved to the valley in 1987. In 2015, they celebrated 72 years of marriage. D.K. died later that year. Penny still lives in their home, with the help of her children.
Pappas: I was born in Denver in 1922. My mother passed away when I was 7 years old, leaving my dad to raise my younger sister and me. Dad owned a delicatessen in downtown Denver, and he worked from 6 in the morning till after midnight, so when my mom died, Dad had to find women who could take care of us while he was at work.
Gallacher: Did he ever remarry?
Pappas: No, no I don’t think he ever considered it. He was taken to court, one time, by one of the women who looked after us. She was trying to adopt us because she said he wasn’t a good father. But the judge really came down on her, after he heard from all the people who testified for my father.
Gallacher: What was your father like?
Pappas: My friends used to describe him as an angel. He was a very kind and loving man. He never thought badly of anyone.
Gallacher: Do you have memories of your mother?
Pappas: It’s sad, but I have no memories of her at all.
Gallacher: It must have been really hard on your father to take care of you and your sister while running a major business.
Pappas: It was really difficult. He tried to have so many different women take care of us but it was hard finding the right one. The one woman we had for a long time, Mrs. Scheiman, was great for us in the winter, when we were in school, but she was too old to take care of us all day, in the summertime. So we spent some summers with her daughter and son-in-law on a farm outside of town.
When they couldn’t take us in the summer, Dad had to send us to stay with my mom’s sister in Chicago or his cousin in San Francisco. So each summer was a different feeling, a different place. It was nice in a way, but we missed my dad. It’s funny that we missed him so because he wasn’t home that much, he was always at the delicatessen.
On those times when he couldn’t find anybody to take care of us, he brought us with him to the deli. He had a balcony, where he had his office, and that’s where we would play until he was done.
Gallacher: It sounds like you grew up on your own, in a way.
Pappas: In a way but my father was a very special person. I can’t explain him but I have a friend who says he was sent by God. It’s a funny thing to say, but she insists. My dad hired her brothers to work as bartenders. They needed money to go to college, and my dad hired them and then helped them through school. One went to the School of Mines, and the other went to a college in San Francisco.
Gallacher: Growing up without a mother was very difficult for you. It must have been a really lonely time for your father, as well.
Pappas: Dad loved my mom very much. I can remember, when we were little, hearing him cry out her name in his sleep, “Katina, Katina.” It was sad.
Gallacher: What are your memories of World War II?
Pappas: My husband was a flight engineer and took care of the planes, so he was stationed in England for most of the war.
Gallacher: How did you meet your husband?
Pappas: The Greek community in Denver had very strong traditions and was insulated, in a way, from the larger community. My in-laws were at my baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Gallacher: So there was a Greek enclave in Denver when you were growing up. Was there prejudice toward Greeks back then?
Pappas: Oh yes, the Ku Klux Klan was active when I was a little girl. They didn’t like us because they saw us as foreigners.
Gallacher: Did you experience prejudice in school?
Pappas: No, except for one neighbor across the street from us. She didn’t want her daughter, Florence, playing with me because I was a foreigner. And so Florence would walk on one side of the street and I would walk on the other, until we rounded the corner and then she would cross and we would walk together to school.
Gallacher: So she wanted to be your friend.
Pappas: Yes, and we’re still friends.
Gallacher: Tell me about your dad.
Pappas: My dad came from Greece, by himself, when he was 10 years old. He ended up working in the south and, while he was working there, he heard stories about the mountains of Colorado. The Greek guys he worked with told him that there were places that looked like Tripoli, dad’s home.
My dad was so homesick that he decided to go in search of this place that looked like home. He ended up in Fort Collins, cooking for the men who were building the railroad. Once he got settled, he sent for his younger brother who came and worked with him and eventually moved out to San Francisco and opened a fruit market.
I don’t know where my father learned to be so kind and generous, having left home so young. He was such a good father and provider. I still can’t figure out how he learned all that on his own.
Gallacher: So you grew up surrounded by Greek traditions.
Pappas: Yes, I went to a Greek school and sang in the church choir. My dad was a fabulous cook who made lots of the traditional dishes. I still have a lot of his recipes.
Gallacher: What was the name of your dad’s deli?
Pappas: It was the Royal Dell on 15th and Stout. Dad had lots of office workers who liked his cooking and would come and get food to take home. He had a fabulous business.
Gallacher: When did you meet D.K.?
Pappas: Well, we grew up together in the church and the choir, and we went to Greek school together. It just happened.
Gallacher: How old were you when you got married?
Pappas: I was 20. He had to go overseas shortly after we got married. I went with him to California and stayed with my aunt and uncle after he shipped out.
I started getting sick, while I was there, and couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but my aunt knew right away. She sent me to her doctor, and he told me I was pregnant.
When I got back to Denver, I was able to find the finest doctor I could have imagined. He helped me through so much. I was so frightened and so naïve about what was going on, and he was kind and patient with me. He didn’t treat me like a patient, he made me feel like I was part of his family.
Gallacher: You were a young woman when pregnancy wasn’t talked about.
Pappas: No, you didn’t bring it up in a crowd or a group or talk about it, publicly, in any way. I was lucky to have my sister. She came back from Florida and stayed with me for the last part of my pregnancy.
Gallacher: How long was it before your husband got to see his baby?
Pappas: Dean was 2 years old before his dad got home. If I hadn’t had my father, during that time, I don’t know what I would have done.
Gallacher: What are your favorite memories of your Dad?
Pappas: Every Thanksgiving, he would take my sister and me to one of the nicest restaurants in Denver so that we wouldn’t be left out of the holiday. He wanted us to experience the American holidays and the Greek holidays. We had a sad life and a fun life, it was both.
Gallacher: What was the saddest part, for you?
Pappas: I think it was when I went to school and heard the kids, around me, saying that their mothers did this and their mothers did that, their mothers came to pick them up, their mothers made them breakfast. I couldn’t fit into that conversation.
Gallacher: Who was your female role model?
Pappas: I didn’t have one until I was about to get married. My mother’s sister came from Chicago for the wedding. I can remember her counseling me about the facts of life on the day of my wedding, as I was getting dressed. She was trying, real hard, to be my mother, that day.
Gallacher: Was it a good life with D.K.?
Pappas: It was a very good life. He was kind and gentle. I wanted to have one more child, but he said, “I don’t get home from the deli until the kids are in bed. I work 12 hours a day. I don’t know the children we have, three is enough.”
I wanted another girl so bad. We had Dean, Kathy and Ernie, and I figured the next one would be a girl.
Gallacher: Did D.K. work in your dad’s restaurant?
Pappas: Yes, and so did my sister’s husband. We all worked there. It was a good life. Yes, I had my share of sadness, but there was a lot, a lot of happiness. We had fun together.
Gallacher: How do you think not having a mom shaped you as a mother.
Pappas: Oh, I made my share of mistakes. I feel so sorry for young women who grow up without mothers because there is so much you learn about life from following your mother’s example.