In Memoriam: Greek-American diner owner Harry Korines (1938-2023)

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Harry Korines
Harry Korines.

The Greek-American community mourns the loss of Harry Korines, who was a giant in the New York restaurant and diner community.

In November 1954 a young man from Greece, filled with many dreams and aspirations, emigrated to the United States. He was 15 years old and his name was Haralambos Demetrios Korines, but everyone would affectionately call him “Harry.” His journey had taken him 4,900 plus miles, from his beloved Kalivia, a small village a few miles south of Sparta, to New York, USA, which was the golden land of endless opportunities.

Harry loved his native Greece very much, but life there, during Harry’s formative years was very difficult, and almost catastrophic. In 1939, the river running through the middle of his village flooded and the family was lucky to have escaped with their lives. Moments before the violent torrents swept their home away, Harry’s mother had grabbed her eleven month old son and fled up a mountainside, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Homeless, the family began living in the vacant house left by his uncle who had previously emigrated to America. Soon after in 1940, Greece was attacked by the Axis forces. Despite fighting valiantly for many months, and handing the Axis powers their first defeat, the country was eventually occupied by the Nazis. The occupation proved a harsh experience, with much hunger and heartache for young Harry.

After the end of World War II, Greece suffered a brutal and bitter civil war. Despite the democratic forces proving victorious, life after the war in Greece was arduous at best, the country having endured thirteen years of severe conflict. Having faced fascists, floods and famine, the family decided to sell all they had and set a course for a new life in their new country, the USA.

Teenaged Harry wondered with somewhat hesitant trepidation what this new life in America would bring. Luckily, he was not alone on this journey. With him came his beloved father and mother, Demetri and Yarifalia, and his three beautiful sisters Maria, Vasiliki, and Irene. Harry and his family would soon make Wantagh, New York their new home, living in a modest apartment on Railroad Avenue provided by his father’s brother, his Uncle Nicko. The new immigrant family quickly settled into their new American apartment and within months, Harry and his sisters were attending Wantagh High School.

It did not take long before Harry could speak, read and write English, his new second language. Although Harry loved this new experience, his real love was music. He would listen to the popular songs of the day playing on the radio, quickly learning the lyrics and English in the process, and join in, singing with all his heart and expressive voice. Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Kazantzidis, Mitropanos, Dionysiou – English or Greek, Harry sang them all. In fact, he would sing every chance he could find, day in and day out throughout his lifetime.

In 1960, tragedy struck the family again, as Harry’s father Demetri was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He succumbed to the disease soon after, leaving young 22 year old Harry, the patriarch of the family, a position he held until his passing, some 62 years later. Leaving school to go to work to support his mother and sisters, Harry worked various jobs until landing a job as a short order cook.

This new job was a perfect match. Harry loved people and he loved making food for them to enjoy. Harry started working in various restaurants, working long and strenuous hours for many days on end to support his family. Eventually he yearned to return to his homeland, if only to visit.

It was with this earnest desire to see his cherished Greece again, that Harry returned to his beloved village of Kalivia in 1963. And on a fateful walk one cool August evening, Harry experienced the most significant event of his lifetime, one that dominated and changed his fate forever.

Harry encountered an exceedingly beautiful young lady while she was coming out of a church. It was love at first site for Harry. Harry acted quickly. Asking the locals, Harry learned that her name was “Maria” and that she was the daughter of the village priest. She was in all respects the girl of his dreams. They were married two weeks later on Panagia’s, the day of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, at the same church that they had first met.

Harry and his wife, Maria
Harry and his wife, Maria

Returning home to America, Harry was soon back on the job, working long hours to support his new bride. God blessed his labors and in 1964, Harry and his brother in laws; Nick Matthews and Chris Psihos opened their first diner, the Golden Coach Diner in East Rockaway, New York. Harry’s brother in laws were also incredibly hard working and tenacious individuals.

They had all emigrated from Greece looking for a better life. Eventually, each one of them would live the American dream, own their own thriving diner, becoming successful and prosperous businessmen with wonderful families of their own. Living in close proximity to each other, his sisters’ families, mother and Harry’s immediate family would share the challenges and triumphs of daily life as one extended family.

A few years after beginning his new business, Harry and Maria started their family with the birth of their first daughter Connie, followed years later by daughter Cynthia and son James. It was a beautiful family in all respects. There were many, many holidays and family events, birthdays, name days, and always church on his anniversary, August 15th, year in and year out. There were so many great cherished moments spent together. It was certainly a wonderful life. Harry knew this and enjoyed every single minute.

Harry’s business that he opened in 1980, the Golden Coach Diner of Huntington, grew and prospered. Interacting with customers was easy for Harry, he was just a real “people person”. Everyone who knew Harry, recognized the same thing; Harry was a prince of a man. He was always there for anyone that needed help. He truly enjoyed helping people with advice, money, or encouragement. Often, he would assist people with all three. Harry was a true benefactor to countless people who sought help from him. Helping others was just something Harry did. Perhaps it was the bad experiences he had faced at a tender young age, maybe it was his sensitivity to other people’s afflictions, but whatever the reason, Harry helped everyone.

He placed down payments for people to buy cars, to buy homes, to undertake medical procedures, to get out of credit jams or just to have extra money for the holidays. He just really loved people and got enjoyment out of simply helping someone. But most of all, Harry loved helping his revered Saint Demetrios Church, first in Freeport and then in Merrick. God had granted him prosperity, and for over sixty years, he was always there to offer help to his Church, in fact, he was always there for any church in need.

And God was always there to help him. In 1999, Harry’s kidneys failed because of excessive blood pressure. Things looked hopeless, until his beloved sister Irene donated one of her kidneys to her brother. The surgery was a complete success, with the surgeon commenting that it was probably the healthiest and best donor kidney he had ever seen. Because the donor was his sister, the match was much more compatible than most. The kidney served Harry for over 23 years, an unheard of achievement for a kidney transplant. Perhaps the tenuous nature of this situation helped him appreciate life a little more deeply.

However, no matter what his personal circumstances may have been, Harry was just fun to be with. He would sing and dance Greek “Zeibekiko” in the diner or at home at every opportunity. No moment was

spared. Hearing a good song would almost always illicit an immediate reaction. However, almost anything could trigger Harry’s performance. No one was ever really sure if he was performing for his impromptu audience, or if he was just singing and dancing for himself. No matter what, it was all directly from the heart, he was a true romantic for sure.

And so, ever the romantic, Harry would bring Maria back to the same church in Greece in which they were married to receive a blessing for their 50th wedding anniversary, jokingly promising to bring her back again for their 100th anniversary. Throughout his lifetime he would reference meeting his wife as “the day he won the lottery”.

So it was with great fanfare that during a recent anniversary he corralled the entire family, children, and grandchildren into the family living room to sing the Elvis song “Love Me Tender” to his beloved wife Maria. God blessed Harry and Maria, as they enjoyed 59 glorious years together with their lovely three children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Like many other Greek fathers, Harry loved his family. He was very proud of his children, the many accomplishments of his grandchildren and absolutely adored his infant great grandchildren.

Harry Korines lived his life to the fullest. Having started life impoverished in a small village in a war torn country, he rose above his personal circumstances and became a great son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather and family patriarch. He was smart, hardworking, a successful businessman and a role model for many. He was cherished, admired, respected, prized, and loved by his family, his friends and almost anyone who knew him. Harry Korines was a great man by any measure of the word. For certain, Harry Korines had won the lottery indeed.

And so, on January 11, 2023, Harry departed yet again, undertaking another journey. This time a journey to his God. As he had done so many years before, he left for a better place. His leaving has left his family and friends with an unfathomable and irreparable void. Despite this, we know that he will always be with us in our hearts. We will forever have those wonderful memories of him, the remembrance of his infectious smile, his calming presence, and his indomitable personality.

Harry was one of the most courageous and strongest men I have ever met in my life. It was a cold day on January 11th but I am confident that a line of angels were sent to lead him to paradise. May his memory be forever eternal.