John Glimis Pappas
West Point, 1966
Be Thou At Peace
Posted by John (Jack) Zehren on February 18, 2014:
After checking room and roommate assignments in the Orderly Room of Division 54 in the lost fifties ... the most remote and almost forgotten barracks of West Point... I trudged up the stairs to room 5554, which was indeed the most remote and most lost of the lost fifties. Who was John Pappas? After two years of classes and summer training I had never run across him, but he was now my roommate.
On this sultry day in late August of 1964, I had just returned from pre-season football camp at Camp Buckner, so I was a day or two behind in the move--in process for our Cow Year (Junior Year). After the four flights of stairs I took a breath and opened the door to my new home for the semester and my new friend for a lifetime. There was John Glimis Pappas, Class of 66, comfortably sprawled on his bed and securely enveloped under his brownboy.
Immediately, all pretenses were gone and John offered a handshake and a warm smile. I found out he was very Greek and from Tenafly, New Jersey ... just about the first real community you come to when driving south from West Point. I found out his dad owned and ran the Boulevard Diner in Union City, and his mother made the best baklava west of Athens. I also sensed right away that his priorities were family, friends, and then down the list, the required protocol of West Point. And so, the kid from New Jersey and the kid from Minnesota, separated by 6 days of age, embarked on a very special journey for the next half century.
Our class of 1966 was the first class at West Point to be shuffled after our Yearling Year (Sophomore Year), and through this process we were all reassigned to new companies rather than staying with the classmates that had weathered the first two years together. As such, the existing comradely was broken-up and replaced by new faces and to-be-forged friendships. To accelerate this re-forging, a group of like-spirited classmates of Company D-4 soon decided to impart nicknames by fiat rather than wait for the natural process. Thus, John Pappas became "Sappas", and I became "Wren", and "Rooster", "Crow", "Snork", "Tyro", and "Fox" all evolved in a single afternoon. Collectively we became the "Zoo", and soon after we were joined by "Mule", "Toad", "Crate", Muff", and "Chugger" in our world of the Lost Fifties.
In the fall of 1964, as we settled into the routine of classes and protocol, the Zoo was evolving into a closely aligned group of classmates. At the very heart of the Zoo was Sappas. His family home in Tenafly was the weekend retreat for the Zoo, and his mother, Helen, had a new group of sons who would show up at all hours after weekend forays into New York City. His father, Glimis, also had a group of new and hungry sons who were always welcome at the Boulevard Diner.
The rigors of West Point were extreme, and for the Zoo relief came in the form of nightly handball, occasional movies, and bouts of good-humored conversation and frequent rough-housing in a member's room. Sappas was always there, front and center. He never missed an hour on the handball court, nor did he ever miss a movie. He was never too busy or too stressed with other priorities ... his Zoo buddies came first. He did, however, fall asleep ... sometimes in lectures and sometimes in movies. On a most memorable occasion he awoke to the house lights of the theater, sitting alone, looking sheepishly over his shoulder, at 200 cadets who had crept to the rear of the theater to watch his awakening. He broke into a huge smile and placed his hand on his forehead ... he could laugh at himself better than he could laugh at others.
As a friend, Sappas was the steady sounding board and faithful advisor. He shared his friend's ups and downs and never left a conversation without granting a pat on the shoulder and an encouraging word. This became paramount during our Firstie Year (Senior Year) when, by some strange act, Sappas, Wren, and Snork became roommates. But tragedy struck Snork while on a foray he took during our First Class Trip to visit military installations around the country ... a little thing about stuffing his bed after hours to rendezvous with the local populace. Snork received the maximum "slug" the Academy could dole out ... he was confined to our room in the lost fifties for four months with 88 hours on the area (walking back and forth in full dress uniform with his rifle every weekend). This during his senior year when his classmates were finally being granted a glimmer of weekend freedom. Rising to the need, Sappas was there to console, to encourage, to advise, to force his close friend Snork to make it through ... and he did.
Although a West Point Cadet, Sappas never expressed a self-vision for a specific role or lifetime ambition in the military. He did his job, learned his skills, and worked toward graduation. He found outlets in rugby and rare weekend diversions. In the process, Sappas and most of the Zoo became members of the Rocket Society, and in fact, orchestrated a coup of leadership to gain control of the organization ... enlisting plebes to cast votes during the Club election. The goal...to schedule a mid-winter trip to Fort Bliss, Texas, home of the Air Defense Artillery Missile School and an associated weekend in Juarez, Mexico. Perhaps it was the sunshine, perhaps it was the tequila, but during that trip Sappas decided to join the Air Defense Artillery upon graduation ... joining Snork, Rooster, and Wren in that decision. Sometime later he decided to fly planes rather than shoot them down.
For Sappas, graduation in June of 1966 meant a shiny new maroon corvette. It was his ultimate machine and he loved it. It transported him to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Ranger School; then to Fort Bliss, Texas, for Air Defense Officer School; and finally to his first duty station with Hawk Missiles just south of Miami, Florida, where he again joined Snork in defending the US from the Cuban air threat...and they were successful.
Sappas' service and bravery in Vietnam as a Bird Dog pilot (a small Cessna fixed wing plane) are well documented by the Army in his award citations. With his typical determination and attention to detail, Sappas learned what it took to be effective and to make a difference...not to merely put in his time. He evolved new methods of air reconnaissance and taught new pilots to use his effective techniques. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Vietnam.
After serving six years on active duty in the Army, Sappas opted for a different path. He chose Harvard Business School, and as usual, he was successful in earning his Master of Business degree, along with his Zoo buddy, Fox. He honed his skills at Goldman Sacs in New York after graduation. But then his family ties and Greek heritage gained priority, and he went back to New Jersey to work with his parents and brothers to expand and enhance the family restaurant business. Most Zoo members were in a similar metamorphosis from our military experience to professional careers in law, business, architecture, medicine, and dentistry. During this time, Sappas also met Stella, and they married and had three exceptional children, Gregory, Jason, and Diana.
With our post graduate degrees completed, our professional careers underway, and our young families growing, we made sure that our paths still crossed at Zoo reunions and individual family vacations. Sappas was often the instigator of the reunions. Favorite times included the Sappas Family visit to the Wren ranch in Colorado ... seeing John on horseback and hiking into the high country. The Zoo grew up, a bit, but could still wail with Jerry Jeff Walker at a honky-tonk in Vail, Colorado, and crash our way down the slopes at Beaver Creek. We went to the Final Four in Dallas, smelled the surf at Rosemary Beach, ate steaks at Ditka's in Chicago, tubed the rapids in Texas hill country, and splashed the waves at Lyford Cay. Sometimes the time passed a bit too much between the reunions, but the moment we were back together the time apart dissolved to nothing. Brotherhood is a word overused, but indeed Sappas and the Zoo understood its true meaning, and Sappas was at the heart of it all.