Ray Duckler: Local runner running Boston Marathon in the name of Concord’s Louie Smirnioudis
Gary Sloper is raising money to run the Boston Marathon in honor of Louis Smirnioudis.
It’s your turn, Louie.
After years of feeding the hungry at your restaurant, and instilling impeccable values in your three boys, and utilizing a lunch-pail work ethic to build your business and your reputation, and thinking of everyone but yourself, how about letting people pamper you for a change?
Let them fluff your pillows. Let them bring you your slippers. Let them cushion the blow, now that you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Lord knows you’ve earned it, Louie. That’s why Gary Sloper Jr. is running the Boston Marathon in your name.
As in Smirnioudis.
It sounds and is Greek, while representing, at least around here, caring.
“I ask if I can do something and he says, ‘No, no, no, I’m all set,’ ” says Sloper, who graduated from Bishop Brady High in 1994 and lives in Londonderry with his wife and two young daughters. “That’s
why I wanted to do this run, to get the awareness out there. If I had asked him about doing it, he would have told me, ‘No, don’t put the focus on me.’ ”
Yep, that’s Louie Smirnioudis.
Problem is, Louie does things that grab attention, beg for attention, deserve attention.
Everything we hear about Louie leads to adjectives like courageous, tough, gentle, warm.
His latest challenge is cancer, diagnosed last summer. The popular owner of the Windmill Restaurant, where each Thanksgiving he serves free turkey dinners to people down on their luck, was visiting family in Greece with his wife, Sophia, when a cough just wouldn’t quit.
He and his family did their turkey gig this past November, despite Louie’s illness, but things got worse around Christmas, when fluid in his lungs and a bleeding ulcer meant overnight stays at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
He’s back on his feet, feeling stronger, and says, “I go to the Windmill for morning coffee and I see the old group. Then I come home and go for a walk to get my breathing better. Two months ago I couldn’t talk to you for even two minutes.”
And more than 40 years ago, he couldn’t speak even one word of English. He came here on a cargo ship as a teen, the son of a farmer who balled up newspapers into a soccer ball, rode a donkey instead of a bicycle and took the wrong bus once he got to this country, thinking he was going to New York City.
The Big Apple’s loss is our gain.
“Here’s a guy not asking for anything back,” said Sloper’s father, Gary Sr. “I always admired him because of what he gave back to the community.”
Time for the Sloper boys to re-enter our story. The elder was a state trooper, retiring in 2003. Sloper Sr. met Louie at the old Veano’s restaurant and grew close as a regular customer at the Windmill.
And when the younger Sloper, a hockey star at Bishop Brady, came in with Dad for lunch, Louie’s little boys looked up to him. They wanted to know what he knew about hockey.
“As I got older in high school I remember seeing his kids coming over to me,” the younger Sloper said. “They’d come over from peeling potatoes or whatever and ask about hockey and always said hi and they were nice boys.”
Louie’s boys went on to captain the football and hockey teams at Brady. And the two families became lifelong allies. Sloper Jr.’s sister, Trish, who’s 19 and has Down syndrome, works for Louie as a hostess. And Sloper Jr. once asked Louie about hosting a party for his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to charge you,’ and I said, ‘Of course you’re going to charge us,’ ” Sloper said. “You had to argue with him to take money.”
So when Sloper Jr. heard that Louie had cancer, during a birthday party last summer for Sloper’s youngest girl, then 3, the news hit hard. “Out of anyone in the world,” Sloper said, “this happens to the greatest guy in the world.”
And after finishing his first marathon and raising $3,000 for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society in a half marathon, both last year, Sloper Jr.’s next project is raising money to benefit Dana-Farber.
He told Louie at the hospital in January, after Louie had lost 30 pounds, after he had slept in his living room for weeks because walking up the stairs at his house was like climbing Mount Everest. He told Louie he would run the Boston Marathon and seek sponsorship in his friend’s name.
Louie, the gentle bear, cried.
“He’s a proud man,” Sloper Jr. said, “and knowing him, he probably didn’t want to show me he was weak and vulnerable at that point.”
Fast forward, and Louie feels better. He’s home, he’s gained 15 pounds and Sloper Sr. says, “When you see him now, he has that bounce in his step.”
He’ll find out test results next week, information that will reveal if the tumor on his lung has grown and if the cancer has spread. Meanwhile, Sloper Jr. will raise money, hoping to reach $8,000 by race day. He’s raised $3,200 thus far, inspired by the guy who cooks turkeys for others each November.
“He came to the U.S. and he didn’t have much,” Sloper said, “but he just keeps giving back.”
Your turn, Louie.