Diner owner's death shakes Greek community
Athanasios Cheliotis began his day Thursday like any other: He ate breakfast with his wife and then left his Wantagh home about 6:30 a.m. to drive to the diner he co-owned in Valley Stream.
Ten minutes later, his 2001 Toyota Camry collided head-on with a car that had veered into his lane on Merrick Road in Bellmore, police and family said.
Cheliotis, 66, died a short time later at Nassau University Medical Center. The driver of the other car was treated and released.
"I'm going to miss him," said Charlie Tsemplis, co-owner with "Tommy" Cheliotis of Concord Diner in Valley Stream. "We had a beautiful 33 years. We never had any problems."
To honor his business partner, Tsemplis, 61, will close the diner on Monday, when the funeral is planned.
The crash has shaken the area's Greek community, said the Rev. Father Nikiforos Fakinos, pastor at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Merrick. Cheliotis and Sofia Panagiotakis, 23, who drove the car that struck Cheliotis' car, are parishioners there, the pastor said.
The Panagiotakis family could not be reached for comment Friday.
Because of St. Demetrios, the whole community knows one another, said Tsemplis, whose daughter plays on a volleyball team there. Both the Cheliotis and Panagiotakis families also probably are acquainted through the restaurant business: the Panagiotakis family operates a diner a few miles from the Valley Stream diner, Tsemplis said, in Rockville Centre.
Panagiotakis teaches a Greek language after-school program at the church and coaches the church's girls volleyball young adult team, Fakinos said.
Cheliotis, who immigrated to New York from a small village in Greece in 1969, was one week away from his 67th birthday and three weeks from his 44th wedding anniversary, his family said.
Cheliotis spent years as a worker in coffee shops and restaurants in Brooklyn, sometimes sleeping in the basements of those places, his family said.
He was distinguished, his family said, by how much he cared for other people. "He's given money, jobs, his time to lend a hand to his neighbor," said son Kostas Cheliotis. He added he has received call after call from those his father helped. "Anytime someone was vulnerable or people lost their path, he helped them get back on."
His daughter Diane Aykaz said her father loved to fish. He would go out on the water with his friends every Monday, hoping to catch snapper or striped bass, she said. He also enjoyed gardening and spending time with his two granddaughters, who are 2 and 8 months, she said.
Police said they are still investigating the crash.
Fakinos, who met both families after the accident at the hospital in East Meadow, said an off-duty police officer who had witnessed the crash broke a window and pulled Cheliotis from the car shortly before it was engulfed in flames. If it had not been for the officer, Cheliotis' wife, Kanella, would not have been able to hold him one last time, Fakinos said.
Outside of the family home Friday afternoon, Kostas Cheliotis said moving on would be difficult. "We're going to cry a swimming pool's worth of tears," he said.
His son said the family will celebrate his father's memory with fireworks every Fourth of July.
"I hope I can live up to him," Kostas Cheliotis said. "I'd be happy if I could be half the man he was." With Nicholas Spangler