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Giannaris' generosity touched many lives

September 28, 2010|By DAVE McMILLION
  • Longtime Hagerstown restaurateur and philanthropist Nick Giannaris acknowledges the applause from fellow Rotary Club of Long Meadows members after being presented with a plaque of appreciation during a dinner in his honor at Nick's Airport Inn on Sept. 8, 2008.
File photo,

Longtime local businessman and philanthropist Nick Giannaris, who died at his Hagerstown home Tuesday morning, was known for his work to help people in the community through efforts like "Christmas with Nick," a free holiday meal that lasted for 17 years.

But Giannaris' legacy goes beyond that, friends and family members said.

Giannaris taught other people how to give, said his good friend George Turner, who offered free taxi rides to the Christmas meal at Four Points Sheraton on Dual Highway, which Giannaris formerly owned.

Over time, so many people began volunteering at "Christmas with Nick" that there were almost as many volunteers as guests, Turner said.

The reason people helped is because they loved the experience, Turner said.

"I do not know of any other person in this community that has touched as many people as Nick Giannaris," Turner said.

Tess Tiches, Giannaris' daughter, said her father would sometimes pull money out of his pocket and give it to someone to help them pay rent.

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"It just says a lot (about) the man he was," Tiches said.

Giannaris died at his Hagerstown home after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago, Tiches said. He was 76.

Giannaris' story was one of a man who was dealt tough circumstances, but worked hard and built two businesses in town -- the Sheraton and the upscale Nick's Airport Inn near Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Giannaris was born in Greece. In 1940, the year he enrolled in primary school in his native village of Neohorian, Italian armies invaded his homeland, according to Herald-Mail archives.

The invasion was repulsed, but German armies blitzed across the land the following year, beginning an occupation that lasted until the end of World War II.

Giannaris said in an interview for the story that inflation was so bad at the time, his father couldn't earn anything by butchering and running a small store.

But there was a bright spot when Giannaris' uncle in far-off America told Giannaris about opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic. Giannaris then came to the U.S.

Giannaris bought the Sheraton in 1980 and owned it for about 26 years.

A majority of the employees at the Sheraton worked there the entire time that Giannaris operated it because they enjoyed working with Giannaris and his wife, Tiches said.

"It just says a lot for my parents," Tiches said.

Turner recalled how "Christmas with Nick" got started. Turner said Giannaris called him one day and asked Turner if he thought there were a lot of hungry people in the community. Turner said he believed there were.

Giannaris proposed the meal idea, saying he would feed everyone if Turner could get them there with his taxi service, Turner recalled.

The holiday meal fed hundreds every year.

"The dinner is for anybody who is lonely or who would like to share Christmas Day with someone else," Giannaris said in December 1989. "They don't have to be poor to come."

Giannaris became involved in other events, like "An Evening with Nick," which raised more than $500,000 for local charities, and Dream Come True, an organization that grants wishes to children who are seriously ill or have life-threatening diseases.

The Giannaris' first child, Maria, received a heart transplant in 1968. But the 5-year-old girl died and it was an experience that affected Giannaris and his wife, Tina, Tiches said.

Turner said he believes one of the reasons that Giannaris was so generous was because he wanted to give back for the care that was given to the daughter.

Tiches said her father also wanted to give back to the community for what he achieved in his life.

"They went through a lot of heartaches," Tiches said.

In 1990, a group of Giannaris' friends gathered in an attempt to raise $110,000 to help fund a possible heart transplant for an orphaned nephew of Giannaris' from Greece. George Christodoulou only had six months to a year to live without a heart transplant. He died in 1991.

Maryland Del. John P. Donoghue knew Giannaris while growing up in Hagerstown.

At a Rotary tribute to Giannaris two years ago, Donoghue said one of his favorite pictures in his Annapolis office shows Giannaris teaching him how to roll phyllo dough.

It was taken about 25 years ago, when Giannaris' "Evening With Nick" benefited the local American Cancer Society chapter, of which Donoghue was president.

"He was a wonderful man," Donoghue said. "He had a heart and soul of gold."

Donoghue recalled that Giannaris lived with his family above Nick's Airport Inn while launching the restaurant.

"He had a tremendous Greek work ethic," he said. "He worked extremely hard to make everything he touched successful."

Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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