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Father Vieron’s long, lovely farewell from his front porch in Memphis

Father Nicholas Vieron dressed for Fourth of July lawn visitors. (Photo by Paul Vieron)

In the final six months of Father V’s blessedly long and loquacious life, the coronavirus pandemic and his frail body conspired to confine him to his home.

But the old Greek priest, as Rev. Nicholas Vieron called himself for at least the past three decades, was never one to be confined.

So in late March, Father V’s son, Paul, turned their front yard into a socially-distanced sidewalk cafe, furnished with strategically placed ribbons, lawn chairs, umbrellas, fans and misters.

From a wheelchair on the front porch, weather and health permitting, the affable, indomitable Father V welcomed dozens of well-wishers from various persuasions and parts of town.

“This stupid thing on the lawn,” he called it, affectionately, a bit embarrassed by all the fuss, but even more grateful for it.

Those of us who were blessed to be part of it, and who knew him affectionately and admiringly as Father V, were only grateful.

“It was a wonderful way to say goodbye,” said Tina Liollio, who was 8 when Father V came to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis in 1955. “His death has touched so many, but that’s because he blessed so many people for so long.”

Whether you were a member of his family or his parish, a former student in his Adult Greek Class or a fellow clergy person, neighbor or passerby, Greek Orthodox or other, Father V made you feel special.

“Nobody modeled God’s love for all humanity better than Father Vieron,” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, one of the many who made a “reservation” at the Vieron Taverna.

Paul Vieron handled the “reservations” and all of the arrangements. He made sure visits were scheduled and uncrowded. He checked to see that visitors had plenty of shade and refreshments. He experimented with ways to help his father hear everyone from a safe distance.

They tried hand-held microphones from a karaoke machine, walkie-talkies, Facetime, even a bullhorn with varying degrees of success. He finally got his dad a set of “major league headphones” and had visitors call his cell number.

Paul would sit patiently next to his father, repeating questions he didn’t hear, reminding visitors to speak up, and inviting them to get a bottle of water or a snack from the cooler.

Over the past six months, Father V and his son Paul welcomed dozens of well-wishers to their makeshift front yard cafe. (Photo by David Waters)

Sometimes, Father V would be holding notes he’d made of topics he wanted to discuss, everything from faith to football, from your mother’s health to your child’s wedding.

His 94 years had fogged his memory and confounded his elegant handwriting, so he’d apologize for not being able to read or remember what he’d written.

It didn’t matter. We all had plenty of memories to share, and he had plenty of stories to tell.

Father V loved to tell stories about his papou, his grandfather, Paul Metaxas, a Greek immigrant and peanut vendor in New Orleans.

“When six o’clock in the evening came around, I would hear his familiar cough, clearing his throat, as he pulled his push cart into our backyard from a day on the corner of Canal and Front streets,” he’d say. “I would get excited for I knew it meant that soon I would be hearing another story – stories that have stayed with me to this very day.”

No matter how many times he talked about his papou, or his father or mother, or his beloved Bess, his wife of 69 years who died three years ago, or their sons Lee and Paul, he always lit up. And he always teared up.

“I think he died broken-hearted,” said Dr. Stephanie Poplos, who visited the taverna on the lawn several times with her husband, daughter and son. “He missed his wife. We miss him. My daughter, Constance, said Father V was her Memphis papou. I think everyone felt that way.”

Father V had four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and countless honorary grandchildren.

“Father V seemed to have an endless capacity for making the people in his life feel uniquely special,” said Rachel Cheek, who met Father V when she took what turned out to be his final Greek class in 2019. “And there were so many people.”

Paul called the visits his father’s “parea parties.” Parea is a Greek word that doesn’t have an English equivalent. It’s a group of friends who get together purely to enjoy each other’s company.

Father V’s parea was larger than most.

“There were very few days with no visitors,” Paul said. “He saw a lot more people than he would have otherwise in the pandemic. People kept coming.”

People he’d known for decades. People he’d baptized or married. People he’d taught to say the “Pater Imon,” the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. People who just happened to be walking down the street.

“In mid-sentence, he would wave and speak as if from a pulpit to greet his neighbors as they walked past,” Poplos said. “It was like a kafeneío in Greece. You’d sit and talk for awhile, then you’d get up and someone else would come and sit and talk for awhile. What a nice thing to be able to do.”

Greek hospitality, embodied by the word xenia or guest-friendship, is even more legendary than Southern hospitality. Father V, born in New Orleans, the son of Greek immigrants, was an expert in both.

His visitors left with some small token of his affection – a piece of candy, a small bouquet of flowers, a lapel pin with the Greek word for Christ, copies of his famously corny jokes.

“On one visit, he discovered that my daughter likes comics, so Paul started saving those for us,” Cheek said. “They are always so gracious and kind.”

The opposite of xenia is xenophobia, “stranger fearing.” Father V feared not.

Nicholas, Stephanie, Constance, and Ted Poplos (left to right) stopped by Father V's front porch several times. (Photo by Paul Vieron)
Nicholas, Stephanie, Constance, and Ted Poplos (left to right) stopped by Father V’s front porch several times. (Photo by Paul Vieron)

He proudly flew the red-white-and-blue American flag at his house, and always above the blue-and-white Greek flag. But as he learned the different backgrounds of his visitors, he’d ask Paul to add other flags.

Over the course of the past six months, his front porch, festooned with about two dozen tiny flags, looked like the plaza of the United Nations.

“His warmth extended to all he met,” said Rabbi Harry Danziger, a fellow panelist on the local TV show, “What is Your Faith?” “He was outspoken in defending the belief that God has room for all of us in God’s house and God’s heart.”

Father V, whose stature in the community towered over his smallish frame, believed in a big God. He summoned the dignity in each of us because he saw divinity in all of us.

“Our Lord claimed, ‘I am The Alpha and the Omega,’ ‘The Bread of Life,’ ‘The Way,’ ‘The Good Shepherd.’ But it was only after He claimed, ‘I am the Light of the World,’ that He pointed to us and said, ‘And you are the light of the world; let your light so shine,’” he once wrote in a letter to The Commercial Appeal. “We are lights, needed in time of hurt and despair, so that instead of cussing the darkness we may light a candle.”

That light is what drew people to Father V from all parts of town and all walks of life.

Memphis Greek Orthodox Priest, 93-year-old Father Nicholas Vieron, kissed the hand of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo during a blessing before the start of the game at the FedEx Forum in Memphis Jan. 16, 2019. (Courtesy of Karen Focht)

A week before he began receiving home hospice care, 10 days before he died, Father V called to invite my wife and me to visit him and Paul again on the lawn. “Before I check out, I want one more visit on the lawn,” he said on the phone.

It wasn’t the first time he’d said something like that. He’d been talking for months about his inevitable farewell. But this time he seemed and sounded sure of it.

“I’m ready to take that step,” he told us when we arrived. He looked down at the steps on his porch, but that wasn’t the step he was talking about. “I’m ready to see Bess. And I’m ready to relieve this man,” he said as he pointed to his son. “He has been so good to me.”

Father V teared up as he lit up. “Please forgive me. I get emotional. Everyone has been so good to me,” said the man who was so good to everyone for so long.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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