Illness takes Nick out of saintly role

Philanthropic hotel owner fed Hagerstown's hungry

December 24, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - For 17 years, the kitchen took no holiday, opening its doors at 6 a.m. on Christmas Day to prepare dozens of turkeys, hams, hundreds of pounds of mashed potatoes, gallons of gravy, countless pies and cakes.

By 10 a.m., the Four Points Sheraton would be packed with hundreds of volunteers and an out-the-door line of people waiting to eat that would grow to more than 1,000 of the city's needy or just plain lonely.

And Hagerstown's own St. Nick - Nick Giannaris, owner of the Sheraton and philanthropist - was there to oversee it all.

Christmas will be much quieter in Hagerstown this year. Giannaris has canceled "Christmas with Nick."

Now 69, Giannaris, a Greek immigrant who brought the skills he gained as a cook in the U.S. Army to Western Maryland four decades ago, is in failing health. He'll spend the holiday with family, including his six grandchildren, in Pennsylvania.

"Unfortunately, I'm getting old," he said. "I didn't care about the money or the costs, but I just can't do it anymore. I hope someone will come along and perhaps do it on a smaller scale."

There will be other places to get a Christmas meal - some churches and shelters often feed large groups, the local hospital is initiating a Christmas Eve dinner and it will double the number of meals it brings to shut-ins. But it's a safe bet there will not be an event like the one Giannaris began on a whim so many years ago.

A friend approached him back then and asked about arranging a Christmas meal for some of Hagerstown's poorer residents.

"I said, `You mean there are people who don't have enough to eat in this town?' He said, `Nick, you wouldn't believe it,'" Giannaris recalled.

That first year, they fed about 300 people. The event took off from there. Soon there were hundreds of volunteers, people who turned cooking and cleaning and serving others into their Christmas tradition. Last year, there were 1,700 meals served, toys for the children, carols on the piano and a visit from Santa Claus.

"It was special, no doubt about it," said Dan DiVito, director of the Washington County Gaming Office, who on Christmas could be found at the Sheraton. "I could walk into the kitchen and see a doctor making mashed potatoes. Here's a businessperson pouring iced tea and over in another section lawyers handing out toys. ... It reflects what Christmas really is all about."

"You did what was needed," said George F. Turner Sr., who owns a local taxi and van service and shuttled many people to the meal that first year and every year since. "If you had to shovel the pavement, you did. If you had to wash the dishes, you did. These folks, Lord, they did whatever you asked of them. We had everyone from panhandlers to, I'm sure, millionaires."

The day meant as much to the volunteers as to those they were helping. It was like a big reunion, with the same folks coming back each Christmas morning. And even in a small city like Hagerstown, sometimes it was their only chance to catch up with one another.

"Many of them are probably scratching their heads like I am. Now what do I do on Christmas Day?" said Ed Lough, who has been with Giannaris on Dec. 25 since the beginning. "We never realized how many people in the community would volunteer their time on Christmas Day. I learned just how much of a giving community I live in."

The tradition of giving was instilled in Giannaris from an early age. Growing up in the Greek countryside, he remembers his mother preparing a Christmas feast and then bringing plates to neighbors she knew didn't have enough to eat. He came to the United States as a teen-ager with very little, and after serving in the Army and taking a wife in Greece, he found Hagerstown.

Giannaris was able to open a restaurant, Nick's Airport Inn, which he says was the first in Maryland to serve broiled crab cakes, in 1961. He added the Sheraton to his holdings in 1980.

He was always generous to his adopted hometown. Before starting the Christmas dinner, he would sponsor an "Evening with Nick," a fund-raiser that brought in about $500,000 a year for charities. He has been involved in a safety program for second-graders and provided seed money for a local chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He has been talking lately about helping to start a soup kitchen.

"I think Mr. Giannaris' generosity to our community has really made him a legend here in Washington County," said David A. Engle, director of the county's Department of Social Services.

"This man, he's an inspiration to me," Turner said. "I know he's an inspiration to a lot of people. He's done so much in this community, it's unimaginable."

For his part, Giannaris said, "We have a lot of good people in this town who do a lot of good things. I just do a small part of it. ... The more I give, I think, the more God gives me."

He was found to have Parkinson's disease last year and thought about giving up the event a year ago. "I didn't have the heart to do it," he said.

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