RALEIGH — It was a big deal for a boy from a tiny village in Greece to get accepted into what was then the country's only law school. Thoughtful and intelligent, Christ Capetanos would have made a masterful attorney.
But circumstances converged and changed his career trajectory from white-collar to white-apron.
Instead of staging courtroom dramas, he created his own theater from behind the counter of the Raleigh Sandwich Shop. It was his older brother's store, but Capetanos took it over shortly after he came to the United States in 1950.
Christ L. Capetanos died a few months ago of congestive heart failure. He was 82.
Capetanos was born in Greece. He was raised mostly by his 14-year-old sister because his mother, in her early 50s, worked in the olive and citrus fields.
His father worked the fields too, but he also played the clarinet, traipsing from village to village as a traveling musician. He was revered in Greece where strangers spoke of the wild, joyous notes he coaxed from his instrument.
When an opportunity to come to America arose, the elder Capetanos seized it. He arrived in New York and peddled fruit, then peanuts.
He would go back and forth, bringing money to his family and siring children. Christ Capetanos was the youngest of four, born 25 years after his eldest brother.
Not long after Christ Capetanos passed the entrance exams at the University of Athens Law School, he was drafted into the army. As civil war raged, he served three years until 1950. That year, he came to America and joined his brother, John, who had traded Greece for the City of Oaks 30 years earlier.
Determined to continue his studies, Capetanos enrolled at N.C. State University and took courses to improve his English. Scarcely four months went by before Capetanos -- a U.S. citizen by virtue of his father's status -- received another draft notice. This time it was from the U.S. government, which was embroiled in Korea.
Capetanos served two years, winding up at Fort Bragg.
There, he taught Greek to military officers.
When he got out, he went to work for his brother at the Raleigh Sandwich Shop, a hot dogs, pork chops, cuppa-joe kind of place a block from the State Capitol.
An education still beckoned, though, and Capetanos began his quest for a degree yet again, this time at UNC-Chapel Hill. He studied political science and graduated in 1958 with ambitions to join the State Department.
Meanwhile, he received a letter from his mother saying: "We have a nice girl for you."
In 1959, he returned to Greece to meet and marry Mitsa Xanthakos, and she returned to Raleigh with him.
But an ocean away, his parents were sick. In Raleigh, his brother had died. The sandwich shop was the family business. It was up to Capetanos to carry it on.
No one excluded
At its core, the business was, of course, about food. But there were opportunities for moral stands as well. The restaurant was a de facto meeting place for working-class whites and blacks at a time when the two races didn't mix in public. There was a partition with blacks and whites on either side, but they shared a jukebox.
"The cafe was, historically, the only place I know of where blacks and whites ate together in Raleigh," said Leon Capetanos, Christ Capetanos' nephew and John Capetanos' son.
Capetanos was happy he had been able to succeed in the restaurant business in America, but he regretted that he hadn't used his mind to pursue other avenues.
Once in a while, exhausted from work, he would muse aloud: "If I hadn't done this, where would my life have taken me?"
But he took comfort in the relationships he formed with his regular customers, in the free meals he quietly gave to people who could not afford to pay.
Homework from Dad
At home, Capetanos was like the mother in the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." He stressed education and trying new adventures. But he also resembled the father. Whenever he and his children rode in the car, he would test them. "What does this word mean? Where does it come from?
"We were always being quizzed," said his daughter, Toula Capetanos.
During summers, Toula and her brother, Louis, had homework from their father. He would leave assignments for them each morning before he went to work at 5 a.m. After the lunch rush, he would check on them and review their homework. Mistakes had to be corrected in front of him.
"It was miserable in the summertime," Toula Capetanos said.
Capetanos retired in 1989. The restaurant has been vacant for a decade, but change is afoot. A restoration of the building at 215 S. Wilmington St. could be completed within a year.
Christ Capetanos is survived by his wife, Mitsa, and two children.
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