After giving a lecture in Toronto years ago, Chicago author Harry Mark Petrakis was standing with wife Diana Petrakis when they were approached by one of the event’s organizers.
“You were the noted writer,” the organizer told Harry, “but now that you’re leaving, we’ll be missing Diana more.”
“That’s the kind of warmth she had,” Harry Mark Petrakis said of his wife of 73 years, warmth that imbued many of the female characters in his dozens of award-winning, best-selling novels and short stories.
“Nothing pretentious, a sweetness,” the author said. “There were always parts of her in the stories. My characters were parts of her.”
Diana Petrakis died of natural causes at home in Chesterton, Indiana, on Christmas Day at age 96.
She was born Diana Perparos, into an expansive extended Greek-American family in Hyde Park, where she attended services at the Greek Orthodox Church of Saints Constantine.
That’s where the author’s father, the Rev. Mark Petrakis, served as rector. It’s also where, according to family lore, a 10-year-old Diana pointed out Harry Mark across the pews to her sister and declared, “That’s the boy I’m going to marry.”
“We were children who grew up together,” the 95-year-old author said, and when they reconnected as teenagers, the spark was immediate.
“When she inhaled in one room, I exhaled in another,” he said.
They were wed in 1945, and while Harry Mark bounced around numerous odd jobs while trying to fashion a writing career in his free time, Diana took the lead raising their three sons.
“Through the tumultuous and erratic course of my writing journey, Diana looked after our family. In times of stress, she was our comfort,” he wrote earlier this year, to mark their 73rd anniversary. “I remain convinced that without her love and the way she held our family together, I would not have written a single story or book.”
Diana was an avid reader herself of numerous short-story writers, including Gladys Schmitt and William Faulkner. Besides sometimes working as a clerk and at secretarial jobs to supplement the family income, her literary eye also helped serve as the “sh– detector” that one of her favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, famously said was the most essential gift a writer could have.
“Diana had that ability with me. She knew me well enough to recognize when I began to put on a little pretentiousness.”
By the time his career took off, with two novels being nominated for National Book Awards — and after packing the family up to briefly move to Hollywood to turn his book “A Dream of Kings” into a movie — the couple eventually settled in Chesterton with a home overlooking Lake Michigan. It was the site of numerous holiday family gatherings — and the best place to get her famous baklava.
“Her generosity, lovely smile, and infectious laughter could be guaranteed to light up a room,” her son Mark said in an email.
In addition to her husband and son Mark, Petrakis is survived by sons John and Dean; grandchildren Alexis, Lucas and Adriana; great-granddaughter Mariana; and numerous nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.
A memorial service is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, with a Trisagion Service at 6:30 p.m. at Palos-Gaidas Funeral Home, 11028 Southwest Highway in Palos Hills. A church service will be held at 1 p.m. on Thursday at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 11025 S. Roberts Road in Palos Hills, followed by a 2:30 p.m. reception at Louie’s Chophouse, 4642 W. 103rd St. in Oak Lawn.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made in Diana Petrakis’ name to the National Hellenic Museum.
• Harry Mark Petrakis: Reflecting on a bully in later years
• Greeks’ triumphs, tragedies drive author Harry Mark Petrakis
• Cherished memories of libraries as repositories of knowledge
• Opinion: An audacious leap in pursuit of a dream