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Proud Greeks > Building a new home for ancient heritage July 1, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Diaspora.

Cultural tradition thrived even as immigrants assimilated > A diverse mix of immigrant groups settled in Fort Worth area around a century ago. The Phiripes and Pappajohn families.

Georgia Alice Cole was as bred-in-the-bone Fort Worth as chicken-fried steak slathered in cream gravy. Steve Pappajohn was more honey-soaked baklava, having been born in Turkey to Greek parents. Around 1915, Pappajohn arrived, along with his mother, in the dusty flats of Fort Worth.

The 1945 wedding of Georgia and Steve was not only eloquent testimony to their love. It also set in bold relief the depths of both assimilation and cultural independence achieved by Fort Worth’s earliest Greek immigrants. After all, Steve Pappajohn may have married a traditional Fort Worth gal, but the ceremony was conducted mostly in Greek, at the local Greek Orthodox church. Soon enough, Georgia Pappajohn would adopt her husband’s faith. At 84 years old, Georgia still remembers every stitch of her simple white wedding dress and the traditional Greek crown she wore.

Georgia Pappajohn’s tale is emblematic of how Fort Worth’s Greeks walked a delicate tightrope between zealous blending into the Texas landscape and a dogged adherence to the many facets of their proud culture.

Numbering about 50 to 70 families, almost all of the early Greek arrivals in Fort Worth would start out in the city’s thriving meatpacking plants on the city’s north side. But before long, they would yield to the siren calling of their old country’s primary livelihood of agriculture. Over the years, the Greeks would become synonymous with the “truck farming” business of the city.

George Phiripes is the 88-year-old scion of one of Fort Worth’s earliest Greek farming families. Born in Niles City, along what was then the grimy northern collar of Fort Worth, Phiripes was a first-generation Greek-American whose parents, Gus Phirippidis and Catherine Spinos, passed through Ellis Island between 1910 and 1916. Almost immediately upon his arrival in Fort Worth, Gus, whose last name was shortened to Phiripes as he passed through Ellis Island, began working at the Swift packing house. A fellow worker, Steve Spinos, introduced Gus to his sister, Catherine. They were soon inseparable.

In 1914, Gus Phiripes was ready to leave the professional dead-end of the Swift plant. Enter George Pappajohn, who wanted Phiripes to take over his eight acres of land, off of today’s Interstate 35W and Cold Springs Road. This innocuous real estate transaction marked the first intersection of the Phiripes and the Pappajohn clans. Gus Phiripes, who in the summer always worked his land barefoot, bought 12 acres on White Settlement Road in 1922, which the family still owns. That farm provided the basic products for the Phiripes’ local family store, George’s Cash and Carry, which opened in 1951. For the next 48 years, the store sold everything from cigars, razor blades, school supplies and sodas to the family land’s rich harvest of mustard greens, beets, onions, peppers and eggplant.

“I remember that Phiripes store so well, filling my car full of their Greek food, especially grape leaves and cheese,” Georgia Pappajohn recalled.

Decades ago, it was the Phiripes and Pappajohn families’ anchor to the rich soil of Fort Worth, and the truck farming they excelled at, that allowed them to mix fluidly with the otherwise rough-and-tumble frontier of Cowtown, while they still waved a proud flag of their old-world culture.

Language was one of the main conduits for keeping their Greek heritage alive. George Phiripes’ parents, and Georgia Pappajohn’s in-laws, spoke Greek, mixed with some fractured English. Meanwhile, services at the Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church were almost entirely in Greek.

“I learned all my Greek from just being around my family and the community’s old-timers,” said George Phiripes. “My father learned some English, while my mother never did learn too much.”

Saint Demetrios Church, founded in 1910, was the vital center, the site of Greek community dances, weddings and baptisms, all marked by boisterous receptions featuring tables laden with food. “Church was always No. 1 in the Greek community, because it was where everyone could greet each other by name,” Georgia Pappajohn said.

Greek food was another cultural common ground for the small community. George Phiripes remembers that his mother would often fashion such long-standing classics of the Greek kitchen as moussaka, head cheese, and baklava. “Oh man, oh man, did the Greeks love to eat, and still do,” Georgia Pappajohn said.

As to the Greeks’ overall approach to assimilation in Fort Worth, they often followed the basic tenets of building the American dream.

“I think my parents’ approach to being American was really just to work hard to make a living and raise a family,” Phiripes said. “It also helped that the Greeks all blended in and got along with everybody.”

Indeed, part of the special path towards assimilation walked by Fort Worth’s Greeks may best be symbolized by how effortlessly Georgia Cole was brought into the bosom of her Greek family. Many years later, Georgia would pay back that cross-cultural love and acceptance by nursing her frail Greek mother-in-law.

In the last six years of her mother-in-law’s life, “she never once stayed a night by herself,” recalled Georgia, her voice swelling with pride. “Many nights I slept on the floor of the hospital, looking after her. All she had to say was ‘Georgia,’ and I was up. I loved that woman.”

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