Sam T. Godelas, who ran Athenian Candle Co., Greektown’s oldest business, dead at 97
The oldest child in a Greek immigrant family, he dreamt of being a chemist, studying at IIT, but decided instead to work in the family business, founded in 1922.
Jean Paspalas, 91, clearly recalls the moment 75 years ago when a man arrived at her home with a government telegram and asked, “Are you alone?”
“I still remember him coming up the stairs,” she said.
He was bearing devastating news. Her brother Peter was missing in action in World War II. His ship, the SS Leopoldville, had been torpedoed by a German U-boat in the English Channel. He never came home.
Young Jean was only 16. That night, her parents Themistocles and Efthemia Godelas were at the movies, watching the newsreels that brought them world news. Her older brother Sam was out, too.
She called Sam, and he rushed home. When their parents returned, Sam broke the news.
“My brother told my father first, and my father — all hell broke loose,” she remembers. “My mother, she cried, she screamed. She never really got over it.”
Paspalas said she’s never forgotten how her older brother sped home to comfort her.
“I was the little sister, and he would watch over me,” she said. “Everybody should have a brother like Sam.”
Sam Godelas, the oldest child in a Greek immigrant family, had dreams of being a chemist and studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But he chose to work in the family business, Athenian Candle Co., founded in 1922.
“He sacrificed his professional career to stay in the family business,” said Mr. Godelas’ niece Helen Rubenstein, part of the third generation in the fourth-generation family-owned company. “Your parents come over, started a business, give your child the best life possible — and that’s what you do.”
Today, Athenian Candle continues to light up the corner of Halsted and Jackson in Greektown like a lantern. A vintage neon sign with a giant candle hangs outside.
Candles play a prominent role in Orthodox religious traditions, Rubenstein said: “We’re always, always burning candles.”
The company produces thousands of hand-dipped candles a week, from eight inches long to five feet high, shipping them to Orthodox churches and other customers throughout North America. It also offers icons, incense, rosaries, komboloi (Greek worry beads), wedding crowns, cemetery lamps and religious jewelry. It’s the oldest original business in Greektown, according to Rubenstein.
Mr. Godelas, who was 97, died July 7 at his Greektown home.
His father, from the Greek city of Thessaloniki, arrived in America in 1910 and served in the U.S. Army during World War I.
After establishing himself in the candle business, he “wrote to his parents in Greece,” his daughter said, “and said, ‘I’m ready to get married, and would you send me a nice girl from a nice family?’ ”
He traveled to New York City to await the boat that carried his bride-to-be. Efthemia arrived after a two-week journey and stayed with relatives. The couple soon married in New York and returned to Chicago.
His wife worked alongside him at the original site of Athenian Candle, 747 S. Halsted St. in the old Greek-flavored neighborhood known as the Delta.
At first, when he went on sales calls, “She was hoping no customers would come in because she didn’t know the language,” Jean Paspalas said.
But the family and their business thrived, their daughter said: “My father always said, ‘God bless America.’ ”
Sam, their first child, went to Dante grade school. “Right after school, we’d help with the candles,” his sister said.
Mr. Godelas attended Crane High School before entering IIT.
In taking on a larger role at Athenian Candle, his sister said, “His talent was calling the churches. He helped deliver. He would take care of the orders and the sales.”
He met future wife Angela Bourgikos when she was visiting her sister Helen, who lived in the apartments that his parents built over Athenian Candle. They were married from 1948 until her death in 1993.
With development coming, including new expressways and the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Godelas family moved the store from the original Greektown location to 300 S. Halsted St.
Mr. Godelas and his wife ran the company until 1982, when he sold it to his sister Jean and brother-in-law Thomas Paspalas, who continue to operate it with their children and grandchildren.
In retirement, Sam and Angela Godelas spent time in Clearwater, Florida, and took trips to the Caribbean, Europe and Las Vegas.
“He liked the slot machines,” his sister said, and also enjoyed golf and pheasant-hunting in South Dakota.
Mr. Godelas was buried at River Grove’s Elmwood Cemetery in a family plot with his wife, mother and father and a photo of his brother Peter.