Kahiouteas Named "Unsung Hero"
story & photos by Marjorie Turner Hollman, Bulletin Contributing WriterIf you’ve ever visited the Dairy Queen on North Main Street in Bellingham, you’ve probably seen the older woman behind the counter with the big smile on her face. Tina Kahiouteas (right) smiles at everyone who comes in, but she has a special place in her heart for the children. “I started having kids help me make their ice cream cones because I love kids.” In fact, she is so well-known for her love of children that, as she explained, newborns are brought there for a hug from Tina and perhaps their very first taste of ice cream, just a tiny bit on the lips of course.
Her niece Helen Orphanos, who works right alongside her, smiled as she listened to her beloved aunt talk about the early days of running the Dairy Queen store. “She’s always brought the children behind the counter,” Orphanos said. “When Dairy Queen was a walk-up window, families would hand their children through the window to Tina.”
This simple act, done repeatedly since Tina and her brother Andreas first opened Dairy Queen here in town forty years ago, has won the hearts of generations of Bellingham residents. In fact, when the Bellingham Business Association (BBA) solicited nominations for an “unsung hero” in the community, Tina’s name topped the list. At the June meeting of the BBA she became the first recipient of the recently renamed “Unsung Hero” award, at a meeting held at Lowell’s Restaurant in Mendon. (The award used to be called “Citizen of the Year.”)
Now in her 70s, Tina came to this country from Greece when she was a teenager, following in the footsteps of her twin sister. “I missed my sister so much when she was here and I was still in Greece” Tina explained. “We were one brain, one heart. She died twenty years ago, and I still miss her.” Her father borrowed money from the bank to send Tina to Canada. She then immigrated to America, working in factories in New York and Boston until she and her brother went into business, opening the Dairy Queen together in Bellingham.
Her nephew Ted Dimacopoulos now runs the business, but Tina is still behind the counter. “It’s been forty full years,” Tina said. “My customers call me ‘Smiley.’ I enjoy people and kids. I garden, I work here, then I go to bed.” She continued, “When I returned to Greece for a visit I was homesick.” And what was she missing? “Here,” she said, indicating the Dairy Queen store, where we met for this interview. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m up at 6 every morning in my garden next door; then at 10AM every morning I’m here at Dairy Queen. Working is my hobby. It’s a lot of work. And I don’t mind.”
This diminutive woman with the huge smile never had any children of her own, but through her work and her welcoming manner she has mothered a generation and more of area children. “When children come here, I ask them, ‘Are you going to come work here in my store?’ and sometimes they do!” Tina said. “Now they bring their own children here for ice cream. Kids are all the same to me. As soon as I hug them, I give them ice cream.”
Orphanos nodded in agreement. “The kids always come in and ask, ‘Where’s Tina?’ They’re disappointed if she’s not here.”
Orphanos and her brother Ted kept the unsung hero award secret from Tina until the award was announced at the BBA dinner. “I took Tina shopping—we always wear uniforms here so we don’t have much to wear,” Helen shrugged. “She’s been wanting to go to Lowell’s—she’s known Lydia Kotisanas, the owner of Lowell’s, for years. She was so excited to see Lydia, but had no idea she was going to be honored with the BBA Unsung Hero award.”
“I had no idea that I would be given this award,” Tina recalled. “It was the first time in my life that this has happened. I was so surprised!”
As we finished up our visit, a patron stopped and volunteered, “This is the most fun place in Bellingham.” Tina nodded and smiled, then headed to the counter to wait on her next customer. She was back to doing what she loves best—working, smiling, and serving up ice cream and other goodies to whoever walks in the door.