Archdeacon: Remembering a teacher, coach who ‘touched thousands of kids’ lives'

“It’s kind of a fairy tale in a way,” Vanessa Demetriades said softly.

Even though it too could be described as such, she was not referring to the way George – her Greek-born husband of 60 years, the man known to so many here simply as “Mr. D” – turned a barebones club soccer team at Northmont High School into one of the elite programs in the state.

Under Demetriades – who coached Northmont for 16 years – the Thunderbolts were a perennial power.

In 1978, they he became the first Dayton-area team to win a state soccer title and, a decade later, the 1988 team did it again, going 25-0 and ending up rated No 3 in the nation.

In all, his teams went 276-43-18 and outscored their opposition 1,519-304.

Twenty-three players won All-Ohio honors, several went on to become successful high school and college coaches themselves and he ended up in both the Ohio High School Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame and the Northmont Athletic Hall of Fame.

But that’s not what Vanessa was talking about the other afternoon. Nor was it how her husband launched the SAY youth soccer program in the area or how, after he’d retired from Northmont, he then went to the University of Dayton for a quarter of a century, assisting the men’s team for three seasons before joining forces with women’s head coach Mike Tucker for 22 years as the Flyers became a regional power.

Granted all this does make for quite a fairy tale, especially when you add in Demetriades’s 32 years as a biology teacher at Northmont and how, as Robin Spiller, the former Thunderbolts coach, athletics director and, before that, a student in Demetriades’s class, said:

“George touched thousands of kids' lives over the years, for sure.”

But what Vanessa was reflecting on was how her 85-year-old husband – who died last Sunday and whose visitation will be held today at Kindred Funeral Home in Englewood from 4-7 p.m. – got to America from Greece in the first place.

Now that’s a fairy tale that rivals anything penned by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.

Demetriades was born in Kilkis, Greece and grew up in Salonika.

“He had very loving parents, but they were Old World,” Vanessa said. “His younger years were during the War and right after and they weren’t easy. The family didn’t have a lot.”

But then came a chance meeting with two U.S Marines who were serving on the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea that was assigned to the Mediterranean Sea.

“They were in Salonika trying to buy something, but they couldn’t understand the shop keeper,” Vanessa said. "George could do a little English and he helped interpret. He liked them and asked if they’d like to come back that evening and go to a party with him.

"They did and he became friends with one of the guys, who in turn wrote to his aunt back in the States, telling her about the wonderful Greek boy he had met.

"After that she started corresponding with George and she asked, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’

“And he just threw it out there: ‘Well, I’d love to come to the States.’”

Vanessa started to laugh, still incredulous after all these years.

She told how the woman – a widow named Katherine McMelis who lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a small town 58 miles east of Pittsburgh that is home of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then known as the State Teachers College of Indiana – befriended him:

“She got George a scholarship to the college and she got him a job and she told him he could stay at her home rent free if he shoveled snow and did other chores,” Vanessa said.

Demetriades came to America in 1955 aboard the Italian ocean liner, the SS Andrea Doria, which just a year later would collide with the MS Stockholm and sink off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

By then Demetriades was ensconced in college and working as an usher at a local theater.

“He had come to this country with the intention of studying to be a doctor, but he didn’t have the finances to do that, so he became a teacher,” Vanessa said.

"And not too terribly long ago we were talking and he said, ‘I think I made the right choice.’

“He was right. He loved young people and especially teaching them. He always believed they could be the best they could be if they were just challenged.”

Impact on students, players

Vanessa Smucker was a State Teachers College student from Somerset, Pa. when she was introduced to Demetriades by a mutual friend.

“The day I met him I already had a date,” she laughed. "He kept trying to persuade me to break it and go out with him and I thought, ‘Well, you’re a pretty pushy guy!’

"I didn’t break the date, but he called me a day or so later and I thought he was intriguing, so I said, ‘OK, I’m free today.’

“And I guess we just found out we were meant for each other.”

The couple eventually married and had two sons, David and Alex, which has now led to four grandchildren, as well.

As for their 60-year marriage, Vanessa said being able to talk to each other was the key:

“There were times we had ups and downs – everybody does – but we respected each other and each other’s space.”

With a moment’s reflection, she made a tittering admission:

"I was just talking to my grandson. I told him there were times I got irritated with his grandfather. I never said it out loud – and I never told George – but there was a time or two where I thought:

“'Yeah the Andrea Doria – that ship sank a year too late!'”

Her joke, her laughter, were temporary tonic for the hurt that comes from losing your lifelong partner.

“He was a wonderful man,” she said later with quiet remembrance. “I’m just so proud of him.”

And she should be.

“There was not a better, classier guy than George,” Spiller said. "He was a class act in the classroom and as a coach.

“He was responsible for soccer in this community. If George hadn’t started soccer here, it still would have happened, but it would have been much later. And likely not with near the success.”

In the early 1970s she was a student in Demetriades' classroom at Northmont.

“He was strict and demanding, but the things he had us do in class – the note cards we kept, dissecting things, all that – it was close to a college class. And I used my notes from my anatomy class at Northmont in college.”

Mike Jewsikow was a student of Demetriades’ and later served as his assistant coach before taking over the Northmont girls team.

"When kids were making out their schedules in school, they were like. ‘You don’t want to get Mr. D! He’s tough!’

"There were no multiple guess questions on his tests, no True and False. It was fill in the blanks and you better spell the topic right or it was counted as wrong.

“But kids who went on to college after taking his class said they just breezed through their work. They all appreciated how he had prepared them.”

Mike Tucker – who became a good friend of Demetriades when they both coached at UD – saw that appreciation first hand:

“We’d go out to a restaurant and we’d run into his former students all the time. And I swear they all said the same thing: ‘You were the best teacher I had.’ They’d talk about how tough he was, but what a great teacher he was. And most of the time they said he ended up their favorite.”

Spiller agreed: “I can tell you there are doctors and nurses who have come back and said their passion for the biological sciences came from him.”

“The first time I coached against him I felt like a baby going against George Halas or Vince Lombardi,” he said. “He was a legend.”

But what most impressed Marrinan weren’t all the games that Demetriades won. It’s the victories his players registered within:

"With him, you didn’t just learn how to play soccer, you learned to do things the right way. You learned how to demand a little more of yourself than you ever had. Some of them may never have turned the corner they did were it not for George.

“He taught them when you dig deep, good things can happen.”

‘They all loved Coach D'

Tucker said Demetriades was "a great guy for our program and a tremendous sounding board for me. And he had an absolutely wonderful way of reading kids.

"It was probably from all those years in the classroom. He could tell when someone was having a bad day. He’d give them a hug and ask what was he matter.

“Our players, they all loved their Coach D, that’s for sure.”

That’s why so many former Flyers have reached out to Tucker now to share their thoughts about Demetriades.

It’s the same at Northmont and throughout the Dayton area soccer community. The stories are being retold about his superstitions – he’d turn his back on penalty kicks – his insistence that his team leave the field, the dressing room, the bus they rode on in cleaner condition than when they started.

And if a soccer ball got lost in the woods during practice, no one went home until it was found.

“Guys got to keeping an extra ball in their bags, just to make sure we ended up with the right count,” Jewsikow laughed.

On trick didn’t work though.

Northmont assistant AD Jim Smith chuckled as he recounted how, when Demetriades got on the officials and was about to get a yellow card, he’d point to Jewsikow and say it had been him: “Mike took plenty of yellow cards for him.”

Jewsikow laughed: “Yeah, that happened, but after awhile officials around here caught on. They’d come over and say, ‘Mike doesn’t sound like the guy who was yelling at us. He doesn’t have a Greek accent!’ So after a while, Coach D wasn’t able to get away with it.”

Some fairy tales are just too good to be true.

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