You know you’re dealing with a venerable citizen in Diana Verykokakis when you discover that she immigrated to the United States before there was such thing as Ellis Island.
Arriving at the age of fourteen, Diana came to America via Crete, the daughter of an earlier immigrant who’d followed the path of so many European hopefuls, finding work in the Pennsylvania coal mines and saving enough money to bring a family across. Now ninety-three, Diana speaks with awe of the month-long ocean voyage, and of meeting her father for the first time—she was born two months after he’d first left Crete. A year later, she was matched with a much-older confectionary-shop owner in the sort of arranged marriage that was very common for first generation Greeks; it proved a disaster, which Diana mourns to this day. But her eventual divorce set in motion a set of circumstances which allowed her to meet, and eventually marry, the husband with whom she would share many successes, including three children and what many consider the Diamanto legacy, the purchase of the Laikon Café in Greektown in 1965.
This was an era before Greektown had come to symbolize the entrepreneurial and independent spirit of Detroit Greeks to the rest of the city; when Monroe Street was a loose collection of storefronts, some Greek-owned, many not. The Laikon became an instant hit; it’s collection of lamb-centered entrees and traditional Greek items, now a staple in a dozen such cafes in the district, became a tourist destination. Not only did the food become an instant draw, but the restaurant’s mascot, a Greek-speaking parrot named ‘Polly’ has found a place in Detroit folklore. “He used to swear in Greek,” laughs Diana. “Nobody got one over on that bird!”
Among her notable contributions, not only to the Greek community but to the city as a whole, was her long-term presidency of Cretan Ladies Society of Detroit. During her tenure, she took it upon herself to sponsor Despina Kartakis in her home—Despina, of course, is the Cretan woman so disfigured by Nazi bombs who came to Detroit in the early Sixties to receive treatment at Harper Hospital. Despina’s harrowing journey to recovery is found elsewhere in these pages.
In her twilight years, Diana Verykokakis has achieved what we all should aspire to: a deep sense of satisfaction and peace of mind. Well looked after by a loving family, doted upon by grandchildren and friends alike, Diana’s secret to an amazingly youthful appearance and outlook is simple: “I love everyone,” she says. “I have become the happiest woman alive.”