Despina Athans, whose life journey took her from a large working-class Greek-American family in Lewiston Maine to pursuits as wide and varied as corporate public relations, art and antiques collecting, medical office administration, personal finance, travel and gardening, died peacefully Sunday (Jan. 13) at her home near Pittsburgh. She was 90 years old.
“She absolutely lived life to the fullest,” said her daughter, Marego Athans McDyer, of Fox Chapel, PA. “Everyone who knew her says the same thing: she was feisty, exuberant, resilient and smart -- a true force. “
Born Despina Doukas and known as “Des,” Athans was one of nine children born to Greek immigrant parents, who moved their family to Portland (Maine) in the mid-1930s, when Athans was entering high school. The family had no money for higher education so college wasn’t considered until a teacher at Portland High School, spotting Athans’ potential, arranged a full scholarship at Bates College in Lewiston.
There, she excelled as a varsity debater, and became the first in her family to attend college, graduating in 1944 with a triple major in history, economics and government. She was particularly grateful to the English teacher who took an interest in her, Louise Dunham, and the College Club of Portland, now more than a century old, which raises money to send young women to college. For the rest of her life, she worked hard to promote the organization, which she credited for changing her life, as well as those of her younger siblings for whom college now seemed accessible.
After college, she moved to New York City, where she had a successful career in public relations. “I loved hearing her stories of travelling the country in the 1940s and 50s in first-class railroad cars with white-gloved waiters serving fabulous meals,” McDyer said.
In 1956, she married Dr. Sotiris A. Athans, an orthopedic surgeon, and settled in Wayne, NJ, where he became chief of orthopedic surgery at the Greater Patterson General Hospital. She ran his office. “He was all about the medicine and had no interest in the business side of things,” McDyer said. “She was a natural businesswoman so they made a great team.”
In the early years, they had little money but she had an eye for art and design, and taught herself to collect art and antiques. She also loved to travel, so once a year or so she insisted that they close the office, and the family went on trips to Europe, the Caribbean or the American West.
After Sotiris died of cancer in 1976, she moved with her daughter to nearby Montclair. She taught herself to invest money by reading The Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day. She reveled in Montclair’s vibrant cultural life, volunteering her time at the Montclair Art Museum and the Whole Theatre, and enjoying the town’s Garden Club and Cosmopolitan Club
In 1996, at age 74, she vowed to retire into a condo in Maine, but ended up in a waterfront ranch house on the rocky coast of Cape Elizabeth, overlooking the Atlantic. “I bought a view,” she told people, and spent the next decade enjoying her family, old and new friends and her native state of Maine before moving to Baltimore and most recently, Pittsburgh, to be close to her daughter and family.
“What fun Des was, such an original, such a powerhouse” said Mary Cole, a close family friend. “With everything she did, you could tell that she loved (her family) more than life -- and she loved life.”
Added Pam Garvey, another close friend: “Chutzpa. She had chutzpa.”
Surviving is her daughter, Marego Athans McDyer, her husband John and grandson Jack, of Fox Chapel, PA; her sister Aphrodite Roumell and her husband George Roumell, of Grosse Pointe Farms, MI; her nieces Andrea Dickson of Grosse Pointe Farms MI and Lisa Roumell of New York, and their families, and her nephews Andrew Doukas and William Doukas of Portland ME.
Visiting: Friday, January 18, 2013 from 7-9 pm at the Vander Plaat Funeral Home, www.vpfh.com, 257 Godwin Ave. Wyckoff, NJ. Funeral Service Saturday, January 19 at 10:30 am at St. Athanasios Greek Orthodox Church, 51 Paramus Rd. Paramus, NJ. Interment George Washington Memorial Park, Paramus. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, (please indicate 100% research) P.O. Box 96011, Washington, DC 20090-6011.
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