Ray Duckler: Despite cancer diagnosis, Windmill Restaurant owner still in business
Louie Smirnioudis, the owner of the Windmill Restaurant in Concord that is known for his free Thanksgiving dinners, was diagnosed with lung cancer this year. While he's taken a step back from a lot of the hands on operations of the business, he insists on not slowing down especially when it comes to providing to the community. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
First he paused, then cried.
Then it happened again and again.
“I thought I was strong, but I’m not,” said Windmill Restaurant owner Louie Smirnioudis, momentarily forgetting he’d come to this country from Greece as a penniless teen. “Wednesday will be better. The best news? They will find that the medication works and they say you live the rest of your life normal.”
Smirnioudis is sick, diagnosed with lung cancer last summer. The popular businessman, known for the free turkey dinners he hands out each Thanksgiving, was visiting family in Greece with his wife, Sophia, when a nagging cough turned out to be more than a nagging cough.
For now, things look pretty good. After two rounds of chemotherapy, then a switch to seemingly effective medication, Smirnioudis has all his hair, his bear-like frame and his jovial personality. His smile remains quick, his voice, with that famed Greek accent, bold.
He gets a little winded walking up stairs, but Smirnioudis is confident the worst is over, saying, “I don’t feel bad at all.”
He didn’t feel too badly last July, either. Except for that darn cough. He was back on the island of Chios, the fifth-largest of the Greek Islands, where people fish, farm and harvest fruits and vegetables. He was visiting in-laws, his sister and his mother.
That had been home to Smirnioudis, before he left
more than 40 years ago, at age 17, before he boarded a cargo ship with $37 in his pocket and a dream in his heart, and before he hopped a bus thinking he was heading to New York City but ended up in another place that began with “New.”
The Granite State.
He opened the Windmill 23 years ago and raised three boys, teaching them a work ethic as tough as the terrain from his homeland.
Now, back to that vacation, during the summer that changed his life.
Smirnioudis sipped coffee with a doctor, a friend of the family whom he’s known for 15 years. Smirnioudis coughed a couple of times, then he did it again. It was that simple.
“He told me that doesn’t sound like coughing from a cold,” Smirnioudis said. “He said to come to the hospital tomorrow morning.”
The X-ray showed a spot on Smirnioudis’s left lung. He cut his trip short by a month and went to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for a diagnosis four months ago. He’s been fighting the cancer ever since, once even breaking two ribs after a particularly violent cough. He said he’s been told the cancer has nothing to do with smoking, a habit Smirnioudis gave up 20 years ago.
Wednesday’s meeting with his doctor will reveal if the cancer has spread and if the tumor has shrunk. Smirnioudis uses an analogy when describing the disease he says he’s always feared.
“Cancer is like rust,” Smirnioudis says. “You got a beautiful car that you wash every day, but somewhere under there, you take care of it like a baby but you still have that rust spot.”
Meanwhile, after a short break, Smirnioudis is back at work. His sons work there, and yesterday his oldest, 25-year-old George, sat with his father while keeping an eye on the dining room. He looked like a rugged James Bond character, his jet-black hair pulled tightly back and his stubble a couple of days old.
He joked about his father telling the staff what to do, stuff they already knew. Then he got serious.
“It’s hard at first, because it’s such life-changing news, but we have a close family,” said George, who graduates with a physician assistant’s degree next year. “You stay optimistic. I told him, wake up and see how you feel. You feel great, you take advantage of that day.”
Smirnioudis feels strong enough to, once again, help those who need it. He and his staff will provide free turkey dinners, with all the fixings, at the Windmill on Thanksgiving. He’s been doing this since 1990.
He buys most of the turkeys, due for delivery next Monday, and other turkeys are donated by people who care.
He was asked if he ever considered canceling the event, because of his illness.
“No year off, no,” he said. “That would be 700 or 800 people going hungry. Nothing is going to change.”