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From Ethiopia to Westwood

By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

These days, he can be found making change and helping customers.

But his life was not always as simple and serene as it is inside Fox Hill Village.

Nicolas “Nick” Trakadas — and his Village Pantry — has been a part of the fabric of the Westwood independent retirement living community since the day it opened in 1990.

What long-time residents, staff and neighbors don’t likely know about is the dramatic and harrowing early life this Greek immigrant and his family had to endure.

But perseverance and determination ruled.

Military expansion by Benito Mussolini forced Trakadas’ mother’s family to flee Ethiopia in the path of Italy’s 1935 invasion of the country. Her family was of Greek descent, and her father owned a plantation there.

Arriving at their summer home on the Greek island of Samos, they felt they now had a safe haven and would be able to return to Ethiopia once the dust settled. But it took a lot longer for dust to settle than they anticipated.

Soon, the Italians, then the Germans, occupied Samos as World War II raged across Europe.

Eventually, the Allied forces liberated Samos and all of Greece.

Trakadas was born in Samos on June 30, 1952.

His father was the military governor of the island after World War II.

Trakadas can remember going fishing, climbing mountains, and having the run of the island — and was told that some considered him “king of the island.”

Life was good until financial hardship gripped the family and his father lost his job.

“We lost our house … My younger brother, my parents and myself lived in a 10-foot by 10-foot room in Keratsini, a suburb of Athens,” he said. “There was no bathroom and the kitchen was down the corridor. We barely had enough to eat.”

Trakadas was too young to fully comprehend the family’s financial difficulties. All he knew was something was wrong and he wanted to help.

So, at the age of 6, he got a job delivering ice.

“I’d ride on the sidecar of a gentleman’s motorcycle every day,” he said. “We’d buy ice, cut it up and I made the deliveries.”

Instead of buying candy for himself, he spent his hard-earned money on a chicken for his family’s Christmas dinner. He was a chubby, cheerful child, he said, and can remember walking toward his house, his mother watching, barely able to hold up this big chicken.

“I never felt more proud,” he said.

As years followed, life got better. Or so it seemed.

A Fierce Spirit

Trakadas’ parents met in Samos and were married in 1951. His father served as a captain in the Greek Army during the war and later as military governor of Samos. During his time in the army, Trakadas’ father became a victim of his commanding officer’s attraction to his wife. As a way to be alone with his mother, the commanding officer during the 1950s ordered a transfer for his father and his aides to the Bulgarian border, where a communist uprising was underway.

His mother, pregnant with Trakadas, didn’t want to raise her child without his father. She was fearful her husband might be killed and urged him to resign and apply for a position back in Samos. Despite his best efforts, the immediate commander refused and sent him back to the Bulgarian border.

His father eventually resigned and found it hard to find work in Greece, leading him on a quest through a series of disappointing and frustrating jobs. He finally got a job as a hotel watchman, but political interference caused him to lose that job. He later found work as a watchman in a soap factory, but the fumes from the soap made him ill, so he had to resign. He then took a job providing security with a shipping company.

Money was scarce and the family scraped and saved with what little they had for food.

“My mother would ask neighbors for onions and potatoes,” he said. “In Greece, if families were struggling financially, neighbors would share and help each other.”

When the family decided to migrate to America, his mother went to various embassies, but nobody wanted to take them in. She’d go on a monthly basis to the American Embassy in Athens pleading: “Take us in, take us in.”

“Somehow, while there, she heard a woman talking to an interviewer about coming to the United States. When the woman said she was born in Ethiopia, the interviewer said, “There’s no red tape - if you can prove you were born there, arrangements can be made for you to emigrate to the United States.”

President John F. Kennedy was in office at the time and he apparently knew the Ethiopian leader, Haile Selassie. An agreement between the two countries allowed emigration for Ethiopians to the United States.

“My very smart and astute mother heard that and told the ambassador she, too, was born in Ethiopia,” Trakadas said.

But she needed proof.

“Since they fled Ethiopia, there were no formal papers,” he was told. “However, one of her uncles found a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church who could prove she was baptized in Ethiopia and [was] able to produce a valid birth certificate.”

Still in Greece, a Lithuanian church in South Boston agreed to sponsor the whole family, and paid the $3,000 to bring them to the states.

On a Thursday night in February 1963, the family landed on American soil. They settled in Dorchester on the second floor of a three-decker at 57 Glenway Street. It was a rough inner-city neighborhood.

But Trakadas survived.

“I didn’t want to stand out,” he said. “I wanted to mix in with all the different cultures in my neighborhood.”

Trakadas’ parents refused to accept public assistance. They wanted to work and realize “the American dream.”

That Monday, his mother got a job as a seamstress for Tremont Clothing Company in Boston. “She never worked a day in her life before then,” Trakadas said. “But she knew how to sew.”

His father landed a job working as a dishwasher for Jimmy Doulos of Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant, “home of the chowder king” on Atlantic Ave. in Boston.

Doulos, also a Greek immigrant, saw the high work ethic and potential Trakadas’ father demonstrated, so he put him in charge of the restaurant’s two bars.

“Jimmy would always say, ‘The only time I ever made any serious money was when George Trakadas ran the bars,” Trakadas said.

He was 10 when he enrolled in fifth grade at the Sarah Greenwood School. “They put me in a special needs class because I couldn’t speak English,” he said.

“It took me roughly three months to start speaking English. To this day, I can remember one teacher, Miss Waterhouse, who taught me vowels and consonants. Not only was she helping me, but she was also helping those with learning challenges. So, we both were learning.”

Eventually, the family moved to Natick and purchased half a duplex for about $9,000.

When Trakadas turned 15, he was determined to find an after-school and weekend job. He was hired as a bagger for Stop & Shop. He knew he wouldn’t get a job until he turned 16 so he fibbed about his age.

All through high school and college, Trakadas continued working at Stop & Shop. He went from bagger to setting up displays in the grocery department to store manager.

“I was so valuable,” he said. “I did more work than the full-timers. Every week, we changed the special displays. Here I am a high school kid and I was the one making the decisions where the displays were going and how they would be displayed.”

He graduated from high school in 1971 and later attended Lowell Technological Institute (now part of UMass-Lowell), earning a degree in management and business administration.

Life went on.

He stayed working for Stop & Shop after college, but soon was able to open his own store in Westwood: “Produce Plus,” a produce, deli and specialty foods store that even included 50 varieties of Italian pasta.

Story of Determination

Longtime Westwood resident Patsy Lawrence often spent Mondays going to the local cleaners on High Street. At times, she’d stop across the street to Trakadas’ store and the two would often chat about the town’s happenings and day-to-day activities.

In 1989, she learned from Trakadas that a new retirement facility was being built on vacant land on the junction of Routes 109 and 128 now known as Longwood Drive.

During construction, contractors and developers often stopped at the small produce store for subs at lunchtime.

Trakadas worked seven days a week and, as a single parent raising two small children, the long hours were becoming more difficult.

So, he had an idea.

“Why not open a general store inside the premises of Fox Hill Village?” he asked himself. That way, folks who couldn’t drive would have easy access to essential items all things one might expect in a market and variety store combined. It would also afford him more time to be with his kids.

“I liked the idea,” Lawrence recalls telling him. “So, I encouraged him.”

In 2011, Lawrence moved into one of the independent resident-owned apartments and has appreciated the friendship she and Trakadas share.

“Nick is dependable and honest,” she said. “What’s more important than that?”

But what Lawrence is most impressed about is the devotion and care he shows his son, Stephen, who he had adopted.

Trakadas and his former wife adopted a daughter from California and wanted another child.

He learned about the Hellenic Cardiac Fund at Boston Children’s Hospital, which flies children (alone or accompanied by their parents) in need of serious medical care and treatment from Greece to Boston, all expenses paid, including medicals. Once the children are well, they are flown back to Greece.

One two-year-old boy in need of open-heart surgery was an exception.

He was born premature to a single mother. She was told her baby may not survive — so she walked away.

The baby managed to survive for two years in an incubator at Children’s Hospital in Athens, but with the compassion of a young surgeon, the baby was given another chance at life.

On rounds, the surgeon saw the baby and learned he may not live for very long. He had no family, so the doctor arranged to have him baptized in the hospital’s chapel and gave him a name before he died. She named him Stavros (which means “cross” in Greek).

The doctor made an attempt to operate on the boy but the hospital was not equipped with the necessary and proper advanced medical technology. As soon as she learned about the Hellenic Cardiac Fund, the doctor was able to arrange for the boy to be flown to Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

Soon after the baby arrived in Boston, Trakadas learned of his condition and possible prognosis. He went to see him and was shocked, he said, at the sight of the frail and helpless baby.

“I was saddened by the way he looked,” he said. “When I learned he was an orphan, I wanted to give him a second chance of survival, so I adopted him and named him Stephen.”

Trakadas reached out to the surgeon in Greece and has since been in contact with her. In fact, she became Stephen’s godmother.

Both his children are now adults.

A few years ago, by chance, Trakadas met his former high school classmate, Rosemary, at a Home Depot and the two have been happily married since 2009.

Stephen Trakadas, 28, has faced medical challenges for most of his life including a transplant of his aorta six years ago. Like his father, he faces his challenges with determination and resilience.

“Stephen is a conscientious and honest young man,” Lawrence said. “It’s a great tribute to Nick … a success story of determination. Nick is a wonderful influence on his boy.

“He has given his son purpose in life to work alongside him as his assistant — a meaningful aspect,” she said. “We all need purpose in our lives.”

Stephen says his father taught him to be a good and kind citizen and respectful to others.

“He raised me and my sister by himself, despite the hardship he faced,” he said. “I believe we were meant to be father and son.

“If my father had to do it all over again, I know he wouldn’t change a thing. Neither would I.”

“A Lucky Greek American”

Today, Trakadas considers himself a lucky Greek American.

Every year around his birthday, Trakadas flies to Greece for the summer to his family’s home in Samos.

“When I’m visiting Greece and I barbecue, I want to help some of the neighbors who may be struggling in these hard financial times,” he said. “Instead of buying four pork chops for my family, I buy 20. I cook the four plus the other 16. And what I do is I go to the neighbors and tell them, ‘I cooked too much. Can I give you a couple?’

“Of course they’re way too proud to accept charity,” he said. “So, I simply tell them I don’t want to waste the food.”

Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions, she can be reached at lindasfaces@gmail.com.

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