ASTORIA – Vasiliki Kassapidis, Bessie, as she is known people by those close to her, “unfolded” her life story to The National Herald at her home in Astoria. The table was full of photos. Black and white, in color, some in frames, with notes on the back, dates, cities, names. Memories of three generations. A whole life, spread out on a table. Beside her, as always, her husband Dr. Anastassios Kassapidis, a well-known surgeon in New York and beloved in the Greek community for many years.
Mrs. Kassapidis is a dynamic, smart, brave, hardworking, tireless woman. She has always stood by her family and especially her husband. It is no accident that they say that behind a successful man is a dynamic woman. She remembers everything in detail. Her stories are many and interesting.
She was born on November 23, 1927 in the city of Lynn in Massachusetts. Both of her parents were from Mytilene. Irene, her mother, arrived in America when she was 21 years old. It was in the 1920s, when the immigrants arrived on Ellis Island for a better life, for the American dream.
As her mother had told, the three weeks on the boat were the best of her life. Her father, Efstratis had come ten years earlier to America in 1910. The couple met and went to Boston, then Lynn, MA, where Bessie was born into the Tragelis family.
She had two brothers, Gregory, who was a lawyer and John, who was a doctor. Both served in World War II. Bessie had just graduated from school and worked at Harvard University Bookstore. She was an active member of the parish of the Annunciation in Boston. There, she met the late Archbishop Iakovos while he was the Dean of Annunciation Cathedral and worked with him for many years.
In the early 1950s, Bessie worked for John Kennedy’s campaign. “An unforgettable experience,” she told TNH.
She remembers their acquaintance and speaks with admiration for him. He was very friendly and wanted to know all who worked for his campaign and to talk to them. “He was communicative and wanted to talk to everyone,” recalls Mrs. Kassapidis.
In fact, she tells me that Kennedy wanted to date her and was going to ask permission from Iakovos. But her father did not let her go. “He must be a Greek,” he told her.
“It was a different time then,” she said. About Kennedy himself, she said, “He was a handsome man, but also a lady’s man. He also wore a lot of makeup because he often appeared on TV. And in the televised debate with Nixon, he looked fresh and younger, while Nixon looked older and tired.”
Indeed, she recalled when the Greek community in Boston had raised $10,000 for Kennedy’s campaign and later he responded to the act by donating $3,000 to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Mrs. Kassapidis organized many charity events in the area to donate money for the needs of the Greek community, to churches, and others.
Bessie’s father, Efstratis, had a restaurant, McBride’s, at Harvard Square, which was a popular hangout for the professors of the famed University. One of the shop regulars was also the brother of her future husband who was leaving Boston for Greece to arrange his immigration papers.
“When he was leaving for Greece, he went to my father and said, ‘My brother is coming from Greece, call him so he’s not all alone.’ So I met my husband Tasso,” Bessie told TNH.
“I had his phone number and said to my mother, ‘I have this young man’s phone number. Do you think he came from Greece yet? It’s been a long time. Should I call him? Well, let me call him to see what’s going on.’ So I called him and told him, ‘I’m so and so, I know your brother and called to see if you need anything.’
“And so we met. Then we talked every day for two hours on the phone,” she says, smiling. In November 1958, they married in Boston and moved to Brooklyn, as her husband Anastassios Kassapidis was working on his specialty as a surgeon at Wyckoff Heights Hospital, while Bessie worked as an assistant in the hospital’s emergency room, and for a while she worked at the Hunter College Library in Manhattan. The children came a bit later. In 1961, Sotiris was born, and a few years later Amalia.
The family moved to Astoria in 1964, where Dr. Kassapidis bought a house and opened his own medical office. Bessie is always at his side and helps him with stitches, sores, biopsies as she has the knowledge and experience from the emergency department at the hospital in Brooklyn. “He would call out, Bess, come down, I have some sewing.”
She remembers heroin users who visited the clinic in search of drugs like opium, and she had to politely turn them away. Her husband was afraid, and called to her again. “‘Come talk to them, I cannot.’ And I went, I was not afraid,” she told TNH.
In 1976, Archbishop Iakovos asked Mrs. Kassapidis to work at the Manhattan Cathedral School. Their acquaintance, went back to her time in Boston, and she was considered to be a trustworthy person, as there were issues with school administration, coercion, and political games. Mrs. Kassapidis then applied for the post of president of the school board and joined the council. She stayed in the position for two years.
She was the rock of the house and a pillar at the doctor’s office. Because in addition to the role of mother, wife, assistant, secretary, in 1984 she was also assigned to manage the buildings owned by the family in Flushing and Astoria. She rented out the apartments, supervised the buildings and the doormen in more than 200 apartments.
Once, she remembers, drug dealers who did not pay rent, caused a great deal of damage. “The FBI went several times to the building, broke the doors down to catch them. They broke the doors and we had to pay for them. I went to court to testify, I was not afraid. Once we found someone dead from a drug overdose in the building.”
She remembers a story again with a tenant who had a gun inside an apartment. She then called the FBI to come but “I was told ‘we cannot come if there are no shots fired. At that time, I thought to convince them to come and tell them that they threatened to blow up the building, as they were threatening us to do it anyway. So I managed to convince them and they came to the building.”
A decade after, her husband invested in shopping centers in Montreal, Canada. But the manager was not doing a good job there. So Mrs. Kassapidis took charge of managing the business in 1995 and for at least 12 years, she traveled the New York-Canada route. While there, she also learned French. It is at that time that her daughter gave birth to her first child, Sotiris.
She tells us that when her daughter was giving birth, she missed it, and then her husband said to her daughter, “Don’t tell her you gave birth because she would come down and leave Canada,” recalls Bessie. “At first I didn’t like it in Canada. I missed my family, my husband, my children, and my grandchildren. In the meantime, however, I liked what I was doing. I also got a dog for consolation and companionship.”
Mrs. Kassapidis was driving 200 miles a week from Canada to Windham, north of New York, and her husband was driving up from Astoria to meet her where they had a home.
There they met all the years that she was managing the malls in Canada. She drove at night, in the snow and rain, and she did not mind at all. “Youth. When you are young you don’t think about what could go wrong,” she told TNH, recalling the past.
Today, Mrs. Kassapidis, reflecting on her life, does not regret anything, she said. And if she could go back, she would do the same all over again.
Talking about her husband of sixty years, she says he is the love of her life, the companion of her life all these years. They created what they did through cooperation. Besides, she has contributed greatly to their success, always helping her husband in accomplishing the great things and the small.
She is proud and happy for her family and her four grandchildren, two from her son Sotiris, Vasiliki, named after her, and studying at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine to become a doctor, and Anastasis, studying at Hofstra Law School to become a lawyer.
The other two grandchildren are from her daughter Amalia Spireas. Sotiris studied pharmacy and is now working at the pharmaceutical company SigmaPharm Laboratories but is still considering becoming a lawyer. Dr. Spiros Spireas, the Kassapidis’ son-in-law, is the Chairman of the Board and CEO of the company. Granddaughter Mary is studying Pre Med, specializing in Chemistry.