There were no limits on where Joan Adele Belilos would go for her grandchildren.
Together with her trusty Dodge Caravan nicknamed "Bertha," Belilos was a traveling roadshow of love, always up for a cross-country drive or a plane ride over Hawaiian volcanos.
“She was not a typical grandmother,” said granddaughter Kali Saxton Shaw, 40, a Colorado native who lives in Alaska. “I went to college in Vermont, and I was looking for someone to drive my car with me back to Colorado. She was the one who volunteered. She and I and my golden retriever drove all the way from Vermont to Colorado with the golden in the back licking my grandmother's arm the entire drive. We put Willie Nelson on and sang loudly and poorly the whole way.”
Belilos, a mother of three who spent 21 years as a special education teacher at Hewlett High School, died on June 9 at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan while recovering from a fall in her home, her family said. She was 87.
“She was a force to be reckoned with,” said granddaughter Jeannine Shaw, 37, of Colorado. “If she had something to say, she would say it. You always knew what was on her mind, in a good way and a funny way. She always had a smile on her face.”
Added grandson Matthew Rivera, 31, of Manhattan: “She was very loquacious. She loved talking to absolutely everybody. She was a teacher at heart. She was always trying to help people get out of their own way. She was definitely the center of attention wherever she was.”
Belilos, who lived in Hewlett for the past 42 years, took each of her six grandchildren on a trip, allowing each to pick the destination. Together with her late husband of 64 years, Joseph Belilos, the couple catered to the traveling dreams of their grandchildren.
“She got to know each of the grandchildren,” said daughter Renee Shaw of Colorado. “She wasn’t just a ‘holiday grandma.’ They really got to know each kid individually. As she learned about them, she did everything in her power to be the teacher, the grandma, and make sure they followed their passion."
Even though she hated the heat, she still took granddaughter Jeannine Shaw to Hawaii.
“We went on an airplane ride over the volcanos, went snorkeling, and on a sea kayak,” Jeannine Shaw said. “She was super adventurous. I was impressed.”
But it wasn’t just about trips. When granddaughter Alayna Shaw was in college and needed to move to a new apartment down the block, Joan Belilos and "Bertha" took the lead.
“We put the mattress in the back of Bertha,” said Alayna Shaw, 30, of Colorado. “She drove, and my grandpa was in the passenger seat. We jogged behind Bertha and held the mattress. She’d hit the gas a little hard and we’d be running fast.”
Belilos’ generosity and adventurous nature started long before she was a grandmother. When her daughter came home from college for a vacation and realized she left her medical school application materials in Binghamton, Belilos drove all the way back in an ice storm to get them.
“Always go above and beyond for your kids — her and my dad did that for us,” said daughter Dr. Elise Belilos of Northport, a rheumatologist at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola. “She passed that on and we’ve all done that for our kids.”
Born on Oct. 18, 1934, in Dallas, Joan Belilos grew up the daughter of a horse trainer, traveling the country as a child and almost never beginning and ending a school year in the same place. She had to drop out of college after one year because her parents didn’t have enough money to send both her and her brother. She moved to Miami, where she waitressed and met her future husband while waiting in a car at a raised drawbridge. The two were married on June 13, 1956, in Miami, and moved to Brooklyn, then Buffalo, Michigan and New Jersey before settling in Far Rockaway in 1961. In 1980, they moved to Hewlett.
Joan Belilos went to night school to get her bachelor’s degree in education from Brooklyn College in 1973 and then a master’s in education with a special education specialty from the same school in 1975.
She taught at Maimonides School in Far Rockaway for 15 years before getting a job at Hewlett High School in the early 1980s. She also served as the director of the department of special education in the Hewlett school district for about a decade, her family said.
“She was always a teacher with us as well, looking to make sure that we realized our full potential,” said son Elliot Belilos, 60, of Virginia. “She made sure that, whether they had the means or not, that we had the opportunity to pursue our dreams.”
In addition to her children and grandchildren, Joan Belilos is survived by one great-grandson, Cooper.
She was buried at Mount Golda Cemetery in Huntington.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to AHRC, an organization that serves children and young adults with learning disabilities.