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Whidbey loses its favorite Greek son

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Tom Arhontas, a beloved South End man known as much for his iconic roadside gyros stand as the countless hours he devoted to his community, passed away suddenly last week.

It’s hard to imagine that a vibrant force like Arhontas could be brought to a sudden halt. So it came as a surprise that the man called “Tommy the Greek” by many, one who touched countless South Enders with his passion for life and zesty food, is gone.

Arhontas suffered several strokes followed by a fatal heart attack at the hospital where he died on Friday, May 9.

Even at age 78, Arhontas was busier than ever working, organizing, planning events and cooking up a storm.

“I used to call him my Energizer Bunny,” said Irma Arhontas, his wife of almost 30 years.

“He was the sparkplug and I was the break. He would plan three events at a time. We would come back from one and he would get ready for the next. I would say, ‘I’m still tired from the last.’”

For those who live or work on South Whidbey, it was hard not to know Arhontas.

Parents knew him as the school bus driver who picked up their children in the morning.

Many have eaten one of his signature gyros at Bayview. And others were among the hundreds of people who were in need at one time or another and Arhontas brought a turkey meal to their home on Thanksgiving.

Arhontas said her husband was a burst of energy to the end.

Even the night before he died, he had been in good spirits as they returned from an event at the Eagles where he had cooked for the crowd, she said. He complained about a little headache before he went to bed.

The next day his wife discovered he had a massive stroke.

She said her husband moved to Whidbey in 1995 — she followed a few years later — and he quickly became involved in the community.

“Tom was very involved in any community,” she said. “He never met a stranger.”

When he founded Tommy’s Gyros, he combined two of his passions: people and cooking. South Enders could get a tasty ethnic sandwich with a side of town talk or a good joke they had probably heard Arhontas tell a few times before.

Chef Arhontas, born to Greek parents, grew up in Chicago, Ill. where he learned the art of cooking at an uncle’s Greek-American restaurant.

On Whidbey Island, Arhontas’ food found a following in all age groups. And he was always glad to oblige.

Arhontas said her husband loved preparing his ethnic food on the island and started cooking for the students at Bayview School.

“We were so popular in this setting, we thought we should do it for ourselves and make some money with it,” she recalled. And so, Whidbey’s Greek food on wheels was born.

Later, as a bus driver for many South Whidbey High School sports teams, he would fill the empty bellies of the young athletes as well as feeding their self-esteem.

“When Tom took the baseball team to away games, the boys would come back to the bus after their game and Tom would frequently have hot, homemade spaghetti and garlic bread ready for them, which he had cooked earlier at home and warmed up by setting the pan on the engine of the bus,” said Lisa Hanna, a mother of one of the students.

And the students appreciated Arhontas’ kindness. Cross-country runner Erica Johnson remembered a time when Arhontas drove her team to a meet in Hoquiam and had a meal ready for them.

“He was such a cool guy,” she said.

“He was so nice; we all knew he really cared about us,” said student Lauren Sandri.

His death hit many people hard.

“He just cared about everyone. Once he helped another driver in financial straits during the holidays, cooking food and loaning money,” recalled Veronica Schmidt, transportation supervisor for the school district.

“He was a bit of a rebel, too,” she added. “He’d been warned not to feed the teams by previous supervisors because it seemed to put other drivers in a bad light. He kept on doing it, though.”

Schmidt said he’d go to games with his wife Irma even if he wasn’t working, so he could cheer the Falcons on.

“He loved those kids,” Schmidt said.

Arhontas was hired by the school district in September 1996 as an assistant mechanic, then took over as driver in 2001. For the last two years, he had been assigned an early-morning route taking special education pre-school children back and forth to school.

On Friday afternoon, the bus barn board that details the route schedules for the South Whidbey schools showed Route 18 as “Out of Service.”

That was Arhontas’ route.

Arhontas funeral is set for 5 p.m. today at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. Schmidt said his fellow drivers plan to attend, driving Bus Number 1.

“Tom’s bus,” Schmidt said.

As a bus driver, he was a fatherly figure for many, Hanna said, recalling a moment when all of America could have used a person like Arhontas for comfort.

“On Sept. 11, I was standing at the bus stop waiting to put my children on the bus that terrible morning after the planes hit the towers, unsure of the world and afraid for my children,” Hanna said. “Tom pulled his rig up to the stop, then put the bus in park and stepped down and hugged each child as they got on the bus, saying to them, ‘Now don’t you worry, everything is going to be OK.’

“He then looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you worry either, mama. We are taking good care of your babies for you today.’”

“I was so touched. It really put the kids at ease, and me, too. I will never forget Tommy for being there for my children on that terrible day,” Hanna said.

Being a rock under pressure may have been something he picked up in the Marine Corps. Arhontas was drafted in the 1950s and served in the Korean War.

“He was such a proud Marine,” his wife said.

That chapter of his past connected him to many other veterans on the island. He was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Clinton, the past commander of American Legion Post 141, and a member of the Eagles Aerie in Freeland, where he had recently started cooking his famous ethnic feasts. Arhontas was also a member of the local Marine Corps League.

He reached out to fellow, less fortunate veterans when he founded the Mobile Turkey Unit in 1999.

Each Thanksgiving, Arhontas and other volunteers brought turkey dinners to people across the island.

“He was a character,” said Dave Moulton of the Eagles club. “He was such a viable, energetic person. He was enjoyable to be around.”

Arhontas had recently started cooking regularly at the Eagles and had cooked up a “Big Fat Greek Feast” in April.

“The night of the Greek feast, he was out on the dance floor doing a Greek dance with Jim Cooley,” Moulton said.

He also challenged the belly dancer who performed that evening to a little dance off, his wife recalled.

“He got out there and danced with her for 30 minutes,” Arhontas said.

“Tom was one-of-a-kind. He was involved with the schools, he cooked at the Eagles club, he did the turkey brigade and he had his gyros truck,” Teddy Moulton said.

Arhontas had a refrigerator full of food ready to be cooked at the Eagles. Volunteers will cook it all and bring it over to his wife to have on hand after the funeral.

There will be a celebration of his life at 6 p.m. today at the Eagles Aerie on Highway 525 in Freeland following the funeral service.

As busy as Arhontas was, he always had time for his sweetheart Irma.

“When Tom worked at the bus run, he would come home and we would spend time together,” she said.

“I had a great time with him from our first date,” she recalled, adding they loved laughing and dancing together and he was very romantic.

Most recently, he had found a new reason to spend a little extra time at home. A neighbor’s cat gave birth to four kittens in Tom’s closet.

“Tom was the midwife,” she said. “He just loved them. One is called Daddy’s Girl.”

The couple met in 1969. He was a mechanic at a shop, but not just any mechanic.

“He was THE mechanic,” she said, recalling that she referred her boss to him when he was looking for an honest man who wouldn’t overcharge the doctor.

But the couple didn’t start dating until almost a decade later. Tom, who had been married previously, told Irma that he didn’t want to get married again — ever.

Not much later, he proposed to her at a Dairy Queen and they were married in December 1979. They spent the next 29 years together.

“I thought I would have him for five or 10 more years,” she said.

But at least, she added, he lived to the fullest.

“I loved my husband. I know God exists. I know that’s where he is,” she said.

“He loved people. How can you help being happy around somebody like that?”

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