A Life's Story

February 05, 2022

Connected and dedicated

Jim Pappas was truly a man about town — and beyond

By: Geoff Kirbyson

Jim Pappas’s family is going to have one gigantic problem when COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed to the point where they can schedule a celebration of life service — where on earth are they going to find a venue that’s big enough?

“We’ll probably have to rent out the Bombers’ stadium to fit the number of people he knew,” says his daughter, Alex.

The entrepreneur, fashionista, restaurateur, fraternity brother, radio host and man about town knew most of Winnipeg, it seemed, and even if he didn’t know you, there was a good chance he touched your life in some way anyway.

SUPPLIED Chris Pappas, Barbra Pappas, James Pappas, Alex Pappas

Pappas passed away suddenly at age 79 in November, leaving behind his wife and best friend, Barbra, son Christopher (wife Diane, sons Benjamin and Matthew), his daughter Alex (wife Lisa, daughters Audrey and Georgia), his brother Chrys (wife Kaye), nephews Geoffrey, Todd and Jonathan, and niece Elizabeth, cousins Barbara, Melanie, and Stephanie, great aunt Becky, and other cousins. He was predeceased by his mother Isabel and father Bill, aunts Chryse, Sophie, Evelyn, Mary and uncle Leo Kelekis, all of whom were tremendously important loves and influences in his life.

Susan Skinner met Pappas at the University of Manitoba in 1965, a fortuitous meeting that led to a friendship of more than a half-century.

“We just clicked and became good friends. He was like my brother. I didn’t have a brother so he was my chosen brother,” she says.

“He was always involved. He connected the dots. He connected people constantly. He knew a million people.”

As a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, Pappas was a regular matchmaker for many of its events.

“Jimmy used to be the guy people would say to, ‘Greek, I don’t have a date. Can you get me a liner?’ Jimmy and I both lined people up. Sometimes they ended up getting married,” she says.

Skinner had a front row seat — although she didn’t know it at the time — to Pappas’s eventual marriage.

Early in their careers, she and Pappas both worked at Eaton’s as buyers and one of the young women working for him was Barbra.

“Jimmy got engaged to her after dating for two weeks. That was shocking to all us. Nobody knew who Barbra was. They would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the end of February. How wonderful is that? He was totally devoted to her and they had a wonderful relationship. Nobody said it would ever work and it did!” she says.

Chris says his dad’s social life was of the utmost importance to him.

“He was the most extroverted person I’ve ever known, that anyone has ever known. He made friends with everybody, like with people at the restaurant. He even helped kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’d work at the restaurant and he’d go to their high school graduations,” Chris says.

Jim and Barbra were unsuccessful at conceiving children on their own but were very proud to have adopted Chris and Alex, and threw themselves into creating a fun and loving family.

“My dad was my guy,” Alex says. “He was the guy that I went to. He was my everything. He and my mom took on two kids at a later stage in life, in their 40s, which shows their dedication to us. I could always rely on him. When I was 17 or 18, he’d tell us not to drink and drive. And when you needed a ride, my friends and I always called him. He was a stand-up guy.”

Chris is quick to agree.

“He was always there for us,” he says. “He was the most loving dad you could ever imagine. He wouldn’t hold back his feelings. He regularly told me how much he loved me, my sister and my mom. I use that as an inspiration for me and my kids.”

Unlike many dads, though, Pappas didn’t spend a lot of time in hockey rinks. Instead, he’d be in theatres.

“My parents were artsy. We did tap dancing and other dance classes. His ultimate dream was to have a couple of Broadway stars in the family. That was making the NHL for him. He performed with us. In Anne of Green Gables at the Winnipeg School of Performing Arts, he played Matthew, the father figure, and I played Gilbert, the boy Anne ends up loving,” Chris says.

Pappas practised what he preached, too. When his kids studied dance, he took tap dancing lessons.

He was often seen at C. Kelekis Restaurant, the famous Main Street eatery run by his aunt Mary, doing pretty much everything from greeting people at the door, serving and bussing tables, and flipping burgers.

“Kelekis was a huge part of our lives as kids,” Chris says. “We’d go to the restaurant at least one day a week to have dinner. Some weeks, we’d go two or three nights. I would kill to have a Yale burger again and some fries.”

Growing up in the restaurant industry, Alex always had a job she could go to and she always had everything she needed. She knows it could have been very different.

“My birth mom chose my parents. She had seven different options to choose from. She chose wisely,” she says.

Pappas didn’t always make things easy, though. When his kids’ friends would call the house looking for Chris or Alex, he would say, “there’s nobody here by those names” and hang up. Then the friends would have to dial again and ask for Christopher and Alexandra.

A big part of Pappas’s life in recent years was his Monday afternoon radio show on nostalgia station CJNU called A Class Act. He spun primarily music from the 1940s and 1950s and shared his memories of music, cinema and theatre.

“It started out on a whim. ‘Hey Jim, you know so much about radio, you should have a radio show.’ He threw himself into it, like he did with everything. He had a bit of an ego. He loved having people hear his voice. He always wanted me to listen to him,” Chris says.

Pappas was a very proud graduate of Kelvin High School and was co-chair of the 100th anniversary committee, which organized the school’s centennial in 2012. Along with friend Richard Bracken, he presented scholarships funded from the school’s 75th anniversary at every June graduation ceremony.

“Not a lot of schools reach their 100th birthday,” he said in the run-up to the reunion. “That’s a long time.”

He said part of Kelvin’s status, success and longevity had been due to strength in numbers. “As a war child, our class when we reached Grade 10 was one of the biggest in the city.”

“It’s a big school with big sports teams. It’s a big outlet for students with very diverse backgrounds to get to a higher level,” he said. “We’ve produced lots of doctors and lawyers.”

Pappas and Barbra also taught cooking lessons through the City of Winnipeg leisure guide for about 10 years.

“My parents loved to cook and this was a chance for them to teach others how to have dinner parties. They cooked everything. They had a huge set of recipes,” Chris says.

Pappas’s absence is felt far beyond the Perimeter Highway.

While doing her Canada Post route recently in Port Coquitlam, B.C., Alex said hello to a couple while delivering their mail. She told them she was from Winnipeg and asked if they knew Kelekis Restaurant.

“Are you serious? We knew Jimmy! We knew the Kelekis sisters, too,” they said.

“That’s my dad,” Alex says. “The sheer amount of messages I’ve got since he passed away, from TikTok to Facebook — he’s known in the U.S. and around the world.”