Thanos ‘had a huge impact’
Published 10:50 pm Thursday, May 30, 2013
John Thanos passed away on Tuesday at 91, but what he accomplished in his life as a promoter of local sports, a restaurateur and a veteran ensured that he left an indelible mark on the city of Suffolk.
“A friend of mine said, ‘A guy like John Thanos ought to never die,’ and he was exactly right,” G.S. Hobbs said.
Hobbs was a close friend of Thanos’ who knew him for almost 75 years.
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While a student at Suffolk High School, Thanos lettered in football, baseball, basketball, tennis, track and wrestling.
“He impressed me with his basketball skills, as much as anybody I ever saw,” Hobbs said.
“His best sport was football, and he had opportunities to go to college to play college football,” his son, Paul Thanos said. “At that time, he ended up not doing that, and then shortly after, he graduated in ‘41, and then he was drafted in the Army soon after that.”
John Thanos was a running back, played defense and was a kicker.
“He kicked the extra point when they beat Maury High School 7-6 in (1940),” he said. “That was significant because Maury was a new school and it was a lot bigger high school.”
High school was an early chapter in what Hobbs described as Thanos’ lifelong interest and support of sports.
His life in the United States was put on hold as he entered World War II in 1943.
“He was modest about his service, but he was also very proud of his service,” Paul Thanos said. “He was drafted, and he was part of the 83rd Infantry Division, and they went into Normandy about two weeks after the initial invasion on June 6.”
“As soon as they started moving through Normandy, they did encounter German counterattack and he was wounded in a hedgerow on the way to Carentan,” Paul Thanos said. “A German 88 shell … killed a sergeant right next to him … and my dad got wounded in the shoulder with shrapnel. He was able to make it back to a military hospital on foot, so he was able to walk back, even though he was wounded. And he ended up going back to England, was in a hospital, and then later he returned to France, but because of his wounds, he never went back to combat. He was a military policeman for the rest of the war in France and Belgium.”
When Thanos returned home from the war, he shared ownership of the Crystal Restaurant on West Washington Street. It had been a family business since 1932, with John Thanos’ father as owner.
The restaurant became a place of great importance in the city from the early 1930s until its closing in September 1988 as business people, attorneys and government officials were daily visitors. The list included former Suffolk mayor Andy Damiani and Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr.
“It was where a lot of deals were cut, a lot of discussions were made about local business,” Paul Thanos said. “A lot of discussions about the merger with Nansemond County in 1974.”
But John Thanos liked to talk about sports at the Crystal.
“He just knew so much about particularly Tidewater sports; all of the athletes from Tidewater, from (Clarence) ‘Ace’ Parker to Michael Vick,” Paul Thanos said.
He added that many great athletes visited the Crystal over the years, including hall of fame pitcher Bob Feller, Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions and Suffolk native and National Basketball Association player Rory Sparrow, to name a few.
Paul Thanos described how his father most affected local sports.
“He had a huge impact as a teenager, but I think more of the impact was later, and how he was in the middle of the sports scene in this area for so many generations, and promoting athletics and also his passion for golf,” he said.
“I think he did a lot for golf in Suffolk, and really promoting Suffolk as a destination for golf,” he said.
Larry Lewis, an employee of the Suffolk Golf Course, recalled playing around 100 rounds of golf with Thanos, who he said was an excellent golfer, a competitor, but was also gracious in defeat.
“All the guys out here thought the world of Johnny,” Lewis said.
“He had a personality and a warmness about him that was so genuine that I never in my life ever heard anybody say anything derogatory about John,” Hobbs said.