Bessie Zantopoulos has witnessed the transition of the Philadelphia Greek community from its’ early beginning and lived a life dedicated to its’ future. Poised, humble and well manured (at the age of 87), today she holds firmly to her lifelong convictions; church, family and community.
She was born Despina Vasiliades in Massillon, Ohio, on June 29th, 1929. She is the oldest of three daughters, from immigrant refugees that hail from the Pontos region of Ordu Turkey. Like many that came to America, her family followed the trail of relatives and countrymen, first as refugees to Greece, then as immigrants to America.
In Ohio, her family briefly settled in a large Pontian community that grew around the coal mining industry before moving to West Philadelphia. There, she and her family planted their roots and took part in a Greek community that straddled two Greek towns. One in “Olde City”, and the westward moving Greek community that would eventually make claim to the title, the Greeks of Upper Darby.
Her family was one of the founding members of the Pontian “Akritai of Philadelphia, America’s oldest Black Sea organization. A photograph of her Aunt Elpis, who launched the organization from her home, sits prominently at the entrance to the clubhouse of The Philadelphia Chapter, located in Upper Darby today.
“I was my daddy’s favorite, my sisters would say. I always made sure when he got home from a hard days work, I attended to him. I wanted to go on to college, but my parents wanted to marry me off to a cousin, they knew. So did what I was told”. At eighteen, she married George Zantopoulos, raised a son Nicholas, and started her life as homemaker in community.
Bessie has been a member of four Greek Orthodox churches. She was baptized at St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Philadelphia where her family was first members. She then joined the newly formed St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox church community of Upper Darby, where she became one of first Philoptochos presidents. Congressmen Bilirakis of Florida where she lived for 25 years, sighted her for her dedication to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church and the Greek community of Tarpon Springs.
Today, she is a member of the St. Luke’s Greek Orthodox community of Broomall, where she continues to work behind the scenes as a Philoptochos member. Bessie also participates in several philanthropic endeavors in our community and gives of her time to hospice.
Originally published on Cosmos Philly by Eleftherios Kostans. Video by Vasilis Keisoglou.