Greek mechanic realized American dream

first_imgHe was 4 years old in 1944, sitting with his five older brothers and sisters as their mother gave them some terrible news. Their father, fighting in World War II, had been killed in action. Six years later, his mom also died, leaving Tony to be raised by his older siblings. “We all worked hard on that farm, so there wasn’t much time for school. I never did make it to high school.” At 14, he moved to Athens to work in a garage as a mechanic’s apprentice – learning his trade on taxis, buses and trucks because there weren’t that many private cars in the 1950s. “I enlisted in the navy at 21, and when I was discharged in 1963, I returned to Athens to open my own garage,” Tony said. And there he stayed for four years until the American dream came calling. Volkswagen’s “Beetle mania” was exploding in the United States, and there weren’t enough mechanics who knew how to work on the strange little cars that looked like a bug. “VW offered me a job in America, and I figured, `Why not?’ I was young and single. I thought I’d go there and stay a few years,” Tony said with a laugh. The owner of Tony’s Auto Repair in Burbank put down his mechanic’s tools and wiped his hands on a work rag Thursday morning. The car repairs could wait. For now, it was time for Tony Papanikolaou to say thanks. He came to this country 40 years ago with nothing. He retires next week with everything – a beautiful family and a good life. “If you want to meet the American dream, you’re looking at him,” the 66-year-old mechanic said, turning the clock back more than six decades to a little farm just outside Tripoli in Greece. Thirty-seven years later – 31 of them married to his wife, Helen – Tony’s getting ready to retire next week after selling his business. The man who never made it to high school has put four children through college working on those funny little cars that look like bugs. “I always kid Tony that I put his kids through school, and now I’m going to be paying for his retirement, too,” said Steve Urbanovich, one of Tony’s longtime customers who owns a 1966 VW Beetle he calls Peanut. “In the 41 years I’ve owned Peanut, Tony’s the only guy I’ve let touch her. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. You can’t replace the skills of a mechanic like Tony.” When his children look at what their father has accomplished in that repair shop on Victory Boulevard, they say they feel pride and gratitude. “Our dad came here with nothing but worked hard to bring his brothers and sisters to this country, one at a time,” says daughter Aphrodite, who graduated from the University of Southern California and is now a school finance director. “He sent his four children through college without ever having a chance to go to high school himself. He’s given everyone in his family a great life – working hard in that auto repair shop,” she said. And now before he leaves, Tony just wanted to take a minute to thank all of his longtime customers and the country that gave him a chance 40 years ago. If you want to meet the American dream, you’re looking at him. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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