For more than 40 years, nearly every Greek wedding, funeral and baptism in Birmingham included music chanted by Angelos Petelos.
“He was there at every funeral,” said Toni Nordan, who learned to be a Greek chanter from Petelos. “If there was no one else there, Angelo was there.”
During that same time, nearly every Greek restaurant built in Birmingham was built by Petelos – from Niki’s West to Bright Star and the Fish Market – and he also oversaw the construction of the Colonial Chapel at American Village in Montevallo.
“He was a worker, a doer, more than a talker,” said the Rev. Paul Costopoulos, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity-Holy Cross.
“He would work hard at our Greek festival. You could always see him sweating over the barbecue pit, cooking the lamb with his brother Tony.”
Petelos, born on the island of Samos, Greece in 1935, died on Dec. 4. He was 78.
On construction sites, Petelos was known to turn over a five-gallon bucket, sit down, smoke a cigarette, and tell a story about his childhood in Greece, his service in the U.S. Army or his work as a pilot and as Alabama Wing commander for the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. He often led search and rescue efforts for downed planes.
“He loved flying, the freedom that came from flying,” Costopoulos said. “Angelo enjoyed life. He loved Greek dance. He played a bouzoouki and was in a Greek band. He loved his Greek heritage. He was a repository of Greek culture.”
A few years ago he returned to visit Samos. “He was obviously proud of the island,” Costopoulos said. “He always drove a pickup truck with a license plate that said ‘Samos’ on back of it.”
Petelos left Greece at 12. His father was in the Greek army, fighting the Nazis, was rescued by the British when his ship sank, then joined the U.S. Army. He sent for his wife and three surviving children including Angelos. One of the children had died of malnutrition.
Petelos’ mother had five more children in America. They moved to Birmingham in 1950. When his father died in 1962, Angelos took over Petelos Construction Co. and provided for his younger siblings, ages 9-13.
“As the oldest brother, he assumed the role of patriarch,” Costopoulos said. “He was faithful to family, his church, his country. He was definitely a patriot. Politically, he was an Archie Bunker. The Tea Party would have been proud. He adopted America as his country. He was first and foremost an American, but he was proud of his Greek heritage.”
He liked telling stories and arguing about politics.
“He was rough around the edges, but he had a sweetness about him,” said George Sarris, owner of The Fish Market. “You could argue with him, but you still liked him. I was more liberal than him. We had so many fights. He’d have a cup of coffee and come back.”
Petelos could be a salty character at times.
“He was by no means a saint; he liked partying, he would always smoke,” Costopoulos said.
“I used to joke with him,” Sarris said. “‘You exalt God on Sunday, then come Monday you take the Lord’s name in vain.’ He’d say he’s a sinner; he’s going to do better. That’s like all of us. Not many of us are saints.”
But the Greek Orthodox religious traditions were safe in his hands, and kept alive every Sunday morning. He rarely missed services.
“There are several of us he has taught in the traditional way to be a chanter,” Nordan said. “It was always men who did this. The head chanter before Angelo would not allow women to do it. I’m the third woman he has allowed to become a chanter. You have your head chanter who invites you to join him, then he teaches you these traditional melodies and hymns. He taught each of us how to sing these traditional hymns so we can pass on this legacy. All of the hymns are written in Greek. You are taught the traditional melodies; you have to learn it in Greek.”
While preserving the Greek liturgy, Petelos helped the congregation move more toward singing and chanting in English.
“Angelos was at the forefront of those who said our congregation is not Greek-speaking, so we have to use more English,” Nordan said. “Angelos realized spreading the word of Christ was more important than being traditional about the Greek words.”
Petelos’ youngest brother, Tony Petelos, former Hoover mayor and now Jefferson County manager, gets choked up talking about the last time he saw his brother in church at the chanter’s stand. He was no longer able to sing. He was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. “It’s hard to imagine going to church and looking up and not seeing him there,” Petelos said. “He had a beautiful voice. He lost his voice with cancer this time last year at Christmas.”
Petelos said his brother, who was married to wife Catherine for 52 years, was like a father to him.
“I was the youngest of five born in this country,” Petelos said. “He was a father figure to us. He bought us our first cars. He gave us jobs working construction, cleaning up sites. I was always watching Angelos and his work ethic.”
Despite protests from his carpenter, Angelos would hire many unskilled workers to help put them through college, Petelos said.
“He wanted to give them a chance to make money to continue their education,” he said. “He was a huge influence on young people through the Civil Air Patrol. He was the wing commander from 1993-98. He rebuilt the cadet program. He had a flight academy and 40 kids flew solo in civil airplanes. He had a huge influence on hundreds, if not more than 1,000 kids. He touched so many lives, in so many different ways.”