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History > Oral History > Les Kepreotis

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submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015

Les Kepreotis

Leslie Kepreotis was born on the 25th of March 1912 in the village of Kypriotianika, Kythera and passed away in Prince of Wales Hospital, after suffering from two heart attacks in his home in Maroubra, on the 8th of November 1977. He was 65 years old.

He was born in the family home on Kythera with a midwife and was the second youngest of a large family of seven; Nick, George, Peter, Les, Stamatoula, Gene, Bessie. He is survived by his wife Doreen Kepreotis and sons Victor, Peter, Steven and Paul.

His parents were Vretos, ‘Mikros Bretos’ Kepreotis and Katerina Kepreotis. They came out to Australia to visit for the first time just before the Second World War. ‘Mikros Bretos’ was his father’s nickname because his cousin had the same Christian name and from the same village but he was older, so to make it less confusing for everyone they assigned him the nickname of ‘Mikros Bretos’. Les himself was also of shortish appearance, about 5’6, and quite thin. He was also very active through his work. The family home for the Kepreotis’ is in Kypriotianika, right at the top of the village. When the bulk of the family left, the only one to stay home was Les’ brother George. They remained behind initially to look after their parents and then tried to fix the family home (patriko spiti) from its dilapidated state after their parents died , with great success. All the siblings of Les’ family were born there. It had a kitchen, bathroom area and a couple of bedrooms; as well as a backyard with a well. The Majority of siblings left there before the Second World War and they all came to Australia in search of a better life for themselves and the family units they were to create. They were spread as far and wide as Wollongong, Penrith, Roseville, Artarmon, Brighton-Le-Sands and down to Kiama. He eventually married and settled in Maroubra in 1949. They were all in NSW but not that close and therefore there were only the occasional family get-togethers. Transport was not as readily available to the general public as it is these days. The family would congregate more for functions such as; funerals, weddings, Christmas and Easter celebrations.

However, Les’ brother George and family went and lived in the neighbouring village of Aloizianika. Now only Vrettos and his wife Elvira live there when they return from Pireaus/Athens.

Growing up, Les always had a talent for singing and music in general. While he was young in Kythera he used to sing at the churches and they wanted him to become a priest. But his eldest sister got married and came to Australia where she had three kids. Unfortunately her husband died quite young so his family sent Les out to Australia at the age of 15 to help to look after his sister Stamatoula. She had married an Aroney (Cousin to Nicholas Aroney), and Les helped her raise her two sons Victor and Theo; and her daughter Helen. They lived in Nowra. While he was there he learnt to play the violin from the nuns. They taught him a left-handed-style of playing because he was naturally left-handed, but he was made to write with his right hand at school. He was also able to refine his singing in Nowra. He was then enlisted into the army as a non-naturalised soldier, where he was called up to do duty in the supply depots. He was stationed in Werris Creek where he became a Corporal. His brother George was naturalised and saw combat at El Alamein in the Middle East. They did not allow the ethnics to fight because they feared disloyalty (that they maybe like the Italians and aligned with the Germans). They were placed in Werris Creek for the duration of the war and they were able to mix with the community frequently. This is where he first met his wife-to-be Doreen, as her family owned a restaurant outside the train station at Werris Creek, which was in a prime position as it was once a crossroads for all interstate trains. She would see them nearly every night. They would have concerts and dances in which the soldiers all attended. There was once a particular concert where he sang the national anthems for the entire supply depot, highlighting his ability to sing and entertain.

Les was considered quite intelligent amongst his family and peers, often referred to as the brains behind all his business ventures. However he never went to school here in Australia and had a very limited education in Kythera. He missed his vocation, so it was a big thing for him to have all four of his sons continue through all forms of education and become successful. His hobbies included playing the violin and gardening on his day off from work. He worked six solid days a week and would take Mondays off.

His wife and second son used to do a jigsaw puzzle some nights to get young Peter through his severe asthma and keep his mind off it. They would leave the last piece for him when he got home from work.

It was often a task for the boys to stay up to see their father as he worked such long and arduous hours. He would take the kids to the Kytherian picnics and dances. We used the facilities of the Hellenic Club and the first Kythera House, in Regent Street, Chippendale, where we had the first engagement of first born son, Victor. He was also a key member of a gathering of mates; Charlie Aroney, Jack Tzannes, Peter Notaras (Doreen’s brother- in-law) and Mr Castrission, on Sundays where they would visit each other’s garden and have a coffee and a chat. It was an unofficial competition where they would rate the others gardens. Les’ was in many ways one of the best ones in that group, not just for variety that he incorporated, but in layout and structure and how aesthetically pleasing his garden was. It was often considered the most organised, decretive, of good quality, systematic and ordered. A truly magnificent achievement and a credit to his intelligent mind and dedication. Differing to the Greek perivolia in that sense.

Another habit of his, albeit a bad one, was that he would consume more than a packet of cigarettes a day, a fact which his family acknowledge led to his early death at the age of sixty-five. It probably started when he went into the Army and got addicted but it also was his way of dealing with the various tragedies that his family experienced, whilst also coping with the frantic work life that he created for himself. He spoke English more than Greek to his children around the house; although he was Greek born. Due to the fact that he worked on Sundays till his early 50’s, he couldn’t attend church services. In the last fourteen years of his life in the Maroubra Fish Shop his day off in the garden was Sunday.

Although Les was not keen on athletics, he was an avid dancer and had more than just an ear for music. He loved his Greek heritage and was certainly proud of where he came from. But he never was able to and not willing to go back to Kythera. Since he knew it hadn’t changed from the island of painful memories that he had left all those years ago.

In his younger years in Australia when they had birthday parties or get-togethers, he would play the violin, providing the musical entertainment and those in attendance would dance a kalamatiano or some other traditional dance especially if someone else was playing the piano. He was always involved in one way or another with the music and entertainment side of gatherings and is often remember by relatives and friends alike for his unique ability.

As a boy Les was known to help his family around the house and in the horafia, tending to the animals and maintaining the fields that the family owned. After he was sent to Australia as a boy, he helped his sister, Stamatoula, probably in Nowra, to maintain her household before moving to Wollongong and then Penrith in Sydney with his brother, Nick and eventually getting into partnership with his old friend from the army days, Charles Aroney; and fellow Kytherians Nicholas Anthony Aroney and Captain Zarakosta. They opened a Chicken Grill in George Street in the City, with the building acting as a multi-functional business. It also had a reception venue above the shop called the Coronet. Les was considered the brains behind the partnerships. Charlie Aroney, his koumbaro, was the brawns. He worked so hard all his life that he missed all his kid’s presentation evenings and sporting events. Work superseded his family life. He of course was certainly a great provider for his family, which allowed his sons to complete all forms of education and pursue careers in fields that he could not, however it was perhaps at the sacrifice of other things.

The building was eventually sold, with the landlord forcing their hands by increasing the rent by a staggering 300%, and so naturally the partnership dissolved. He stayed in close contact with one partner Charlie Aroney, his best mate from the army, and opened a milk bar/ café inside Wynyard and then St James’ station. The business savvy pair capitalised on all the passengers travelling to and from work in the mornings and afternoons that would pass through to get to the trains. After that venture ran its course, they opened a fish shop in Maroubra about 1963 on the northern side of Maroubra Bay Road as you head to the beach. The fish shop to start off with was doing really well but things changed dramatically after December 1966 when Pope Paul V1 announced that the Catholics could eat meat on Fridays. Before that, seafood was their only option and so the business was thriving enough to support the two families. It became more difficult after that and it took its toll on Les. He then had to work doubly hard to break even and so on his only day off on Sundays, he could be found tending to his beloved garden whilst the kids were at school. He bought the house in Maroubra in 1949 and married Doreen on September 11th 1949.

There was never much time to travel between the business that Les opened and ran, with his work hours often superseding time spent away from work. The whole family went on one short holiday to Port Macquarie eleven years after his marriage to Doreen. He was too busy working to discuss any of this. He was truly of the old school breed where working hard was the ethos of the time and that was what it took to be a good provider.

“He was never here to plan anything,” his wife Doreen claimed, remembering him as a workaholic.

Migration was not really a choice for Les, as he was sent out to help his sister and her family. Her husband passed away at a young age and she was left to look after three kids by herself; not an easy feat for anyone coupled with the fact she was herself a migrant trying to establish a life for her family on foreign shores. There was a significant age difference between his eldest sister and him of 20 years and he stayed with her till his nephews. Theo and Victor, graduated from university in Dentistry, which had an obvious impact on him as he advised his eldest son in becoming one. She was more or less like a mother to Les. Then he came down to live at Bondi and started the chicken grill (daytime-street level), which had the Coronet reception above in George Street, Sydney. The Coronet catered for birthdays, engagements and weddings all of a night time. This meant that Les would often leave the house at five o’clock in the morning to first go to the market and then go from there to the shop and work till 11 o’clock at night. The hard working father would then sleep there a couple of hours and return to his house at around two in the morning to get a couple of hours more sleep, before leaving again at five and repeating this all over again. This, Doreen claims, is why the kids never saw him. He was a hard worker and only had Mondays off which he spent in the garden and unfortunately his four boys were at school.

He was released by the army supply depot in 1947 and was married by the end of 1949. The marriage was at the Coronet, which he was part owner of and he was thirty-seven years of age at the time. The date was the 11th of September 1949 and the couple had already bought the house in Maroubra before they got married. It wasn’t entirely finished at that time so they stayed with his sister for a couple of months, the same sister he came out to help as a fifteen year old boy. Back in those days one builder would come along and build a couple of houses of the same blue print in the area. This particular builder built three of the same houses in a row. It had a huge backyard which attracted Les to it straight away as his mind went to what he knew and loved, gardening. His children were a great highlight in his life, seeing them graduate from school and living to see his eldest son graduate from university and then get married. Unfortunately for Les, he passed away before he could witness his other sons reach the same level and then produce grandchildren. He was regarded amongst friends as a great musician and that was when he was most happy. You would catch him at his most jovial self when sitting around with everyone and playing the violin. And a bigger highlight for him, says his son Victor, would have been the accolades he received for his music and later in life his gardening. Doreen claims he would have been very proud of all his children and especially his grandkids going through university as well and being successful at school. It is just a shame his life was cut short before he could witness these achievements.

Les did experience a lot of difficulties in his sixty-five years of existence. His baby daughter dying at eight months old was something he never dealt with very well. Katerina was admitted to hospital on the Friday while he was at work but because work was so important to him he decided to instead go on his day off on Monday to visit her (because back in those days you could only go and visit one day a week). However, as it turned out, Monday was the day she was buried. He didn’t want to talk about it after that and almost acted as if it never happened, an old Greek mentality of shutting it out of your mind. This was not Doreen’s most preferred way of dealing with the tragedy which caused great tension between the two. He started smoking much more as a result and used it as a crutch to deal with the situation. Les also did not like visiting the cemetery; he really couldn’t take anything like that which made it difficult for them to deal with her death. There is no doubt in the minds of his family that this event had an enormous impact on the rest of his life.

Doreen: “Les died in November 1977 at the age of sixty-five after a second heart attack. I remember the boys saying goodbye to their father at home before leaving for a Kytherian Brotherhood Black and White fancy ball and then he passed out after they had left. I heard him collapse in the living room behind me as I sat in the TV room and ran to call the ambulance. The ambulance came and revived him in the house and worked on him on the way to Prince of Wales hospital. He was there for two weeks and we visited him every night. In between the two heart attacks he wasn’t looking after himself, didn’t take his tablets and the neighbour once said he saw him smoking out the back. I had to take over all the running around of the business, went to the fish markets etc. and therefore could not look after him at home and make sure he was doing the right stuff to recover. He eventually went back to work and one day coming back from the market he complained of a pain and then his health declined quite rapidly. He was in hospital there for a week but wasn’t allowed to come home. I remember saying goodbye one night not expecting anything to change and watched him get up to change the channel on the TV. He seemed fine both to the boys and myself; and in our minds he was recuperating. He died over night. We had said goodnight and I remember he tried to say something to me but he could not articulate it and it just came out as a mumble. I’ve always wondered what was it he wanted to say. The phone rang at about five in the morning, he died sometime after we left that night but the hospital did not say anything until the next morning. Supposedly he had an aortic aneurism. Steven picked up the phone and was told the bad news. Les passed away on the 8th of November and was buried at Botany cemetery on the 11th. After that, his interests and property had to be settled because he never had a will, another poor old Greek mentality that they didn’t want to jinx it; they thought they would die if they did in fact write a will before their time. He owed some money he had to pay back to his business partner that the family had to sort out as well as the property. It was a very difficult time for us. And that year we also had to pay probate, I really thought I was going to lose everything. This was when I had the second nervous breakdown.”

If he was looking down from above he would be happy with how his children and grandchildren progressed academically. He was a hard worker and a good provider for his family. He would have been the type that would have enjoyed his retirement. In the fifty years he was in Australia, left Kythera as a fifteen year old and died as a sixty-five year old, he never went back. But it was a big thing for him that he eventually wanted to go back. His family believe it was definitely something that he would have wanted to do before he died. He wanted to take his family back but he decided to focus on extending the house that year and leave it for a later date. He never made it. His son Victor got the impression that the island changed that much that there was nothing back there that he would have remembered. He would have been pleased that his son is the president of the Kytherian Association of Australia and so completely involved in its current form. Unfortunately for his wife and kids, he died at an age where he would have been thinking about retirement and which would have given him a much better opportunity to be involved in their lives; keeping in mind previous to that he worked all his life extremely hard to provide for his family. It is unfortunately a case of what may have been, for Les and his family.

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This oral history was taken in 2011 by Joshua Kepreotis and final edit in 2014.

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