JOLIET – Nicolaos “Nick” Kourlesis came to the United States at the age of 22 with 42 cents in his pocket and skilled as a tailor.
When he died June 17 at age 69, he owned a variety of businesses and commercial properties.
These included all seven locations of Central Cleaners in Joliet, Shorewood, Palos Heights and Lockport. Nick also was co-owner of Crest Hill Lanes and Keglers Bar and Grill, which he bought in 2002 and revitalized, said his son, Chris Kourlesis of Plainfield.
“That’s what he would do,” Chris said. “He would take property or business that had been sitting unoccupied for 10 years and turn it into something. He was just very confident. He would set a goal, go forward and make it successful.”
Nick’s biggest regret was that he didn’t attend college. Chris said that’s why Nick, of Plainfield, stressed education for Chris and his brother, Jon. As compensation, Nick worked continually and always improved himself. Chris said his mother, Debra, always knew her husband would provide.
Chris said father-son time didn’t mean outings to athletic events. Instead, Nick took his sons with him to check out possible property acquisitions.
He taught them how to handle various business situations. He showed them how to treat employees with respect.
“He was my boss, my mentor and my best friend,” Chris said.
Longtime employee Debra Pandy said Nick was like family.
In 1976, Nick purchased Central Cleaners in Joliet. Debra, who was hired there in 1974, worked for Nick as his office manager until his death.
Debra said Nick valued his employees and gave them plenty of freedom to do their jobs. He also took care of them, which she always appreciated.
“He was very good about finding people he could trust,” Debra said. “He wasn’t prejudiced; he could just see a decent person in anybody. He knew people he could depend on to keep things rolling for him.”
Debra feels it was Nick’s background as a tailor, coupled with an innovative free spirit, that inspired him to leave Greece and become a business owner in the U.S.
Nick did not mind taking risks if he believed in a project, she said. He wasn’t a rule breaker, she added, but he did have his own ideas.
In short, Diane admired the way Nick lived his life.
“He wanted to make a better life for himself,” Debra said. “He was very adventurous and very brave. He would have an idea to do something and then figure out all the details. Even to the end, he was talking about wanting to do this and wanting to do that.”
But Nick experienced challenges, too.
For instance, his Central Cleaners store on Cass Street burned down in December 1978, two months after his oldest son was born.
Of course, Nick had insurance, Debra said, but that didn’t solve every problem.
In the end, however, Nick always took care of his responsibilities to his family, his employees and his customers.
“It was a very difficult time,” Debra said. “Everybody’s property was gone and they wanted him to settle up with them. He opened a plant out in Shorewood at that time to make sure he had income coming in.”
About 10 years ago, Nick started transitioning his two sons into his businesses, although Nick still was very active in their operations.
“He was very proud of his boys and his businesses. I just think he had a lot more to do,” Debra said. “I think he got shorted a little. Who knows what would have happened?”
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