By Maria Pappas
For 26 years, I have been blessed to represent the people of Cook County, the second most populous county in the nation. As Cook County Treasurer, a Cook County Commissioner and, before public office, a counseling psychologist and lawyer helping drug abuse victims and prison inmates, I am proud to have been in the position to help a great many people.
At the same time, I haven’t forgotten the people who helped me get where I am. One of those people was Chris Tomaras, who passed away last October due to esophageal cancer. Chris’ death was a devastating loss felt by the Greek-American community. Many of us gathered to pay homage to Chris at the annual PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation Gala on June 18 – a nonprofit he founded – by telling his story. To hear it is to know a paradox. He had several hard and tragic turns in his life, but remained a gentle soul. He grew up poor, immigrated to the United States with next to nothing, and had the door shut in his face countless times, but never said no to anyone who asked for help. He found wealth by innovating the restaurant business, then enthusiastically gave much of it away to help disadvantaged kids prepare for and attend college.
I first met Chris as one of my earliest supporters and biggest cheerleaders who encouraged me to run for office in 1990 believing it was a shame there were too few women on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. What stood out about Chris was his giving spirit; he never believed it was all about him. Few would have expected character like this from someone whose early life was marked by pain and deprivation.
As a child, Chris witnessed the death of his own mother during the Greek Civil War. After immigrating to America and settling in Birmingham, AL, he lived in a shuttered hotel with no running water, heat or air conditioning while working in a local restaurant. When he managed to save some money, a handful of bankruptcies stemming from bad business partners took much of it away. Later in life, he succumbed to a cancer that sapped the energy from an otherwise restless body.
If you met him, however, you would never know these awful things happened to him.
That’s because he kept things remarkably simple: he was grateful for what he had and never saw a setback as a reason to give up.
While in Birmingham, he showed up on time, worked hard, listened carefully to customers and learned the restaurant business. Showing mental toughness, Chris was able to see his early business setbacks as opportunities to start over, but as a smarter and stronger man. After marrying and moving to Chicago in 1962, he bought the Sports Corner bar across the street from Wrigley Field. Without fail, Chris could be found in the bar basement working on an idea: creating an efficient method to popularize the gyros sandwich. Chris doggedly worked through countless long nights of trial and error and eventually earned a patent for the equipment design of the “Kronomatic” – the vertical spit rotisserie machine now used to cook gyro meat. Up until that time, there was no efficient way to produce gyros with consistent quality in large volume. In 1975, Chris founded Kronos Foods and, over 20 years, became the “Gyro King of Chicago” selling, not only the Kronomatic, but gyro meat, pitas and other supplies to restaurants nationwide. Even after making the gyro a mainstream product and becoming wealthy for it, Chris’ true passion project was the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation and the hundreds of kids who, like Chris years ago, just needed a break to show their true potential.
There are many more Chris Tomarases out there across Chicago and throughout the nation, men and women who are African-American, Latino-American, Polish-American, you name it. One thing they have in common is that they believe, as one truism states, that the meaning of life is to find your gift and that the purpose of life is to give it away. At a time when many people feel let down by the political process, I am often reassured by people who exhibit this spirit. They remind us we are more similar than we realize, America is great because its people are good and good people do the right thing.
Maria Pappas is the Cook Country Treasurer.