Worth the distance: Working couple in campus dining balance life away from Greece

By Mikayla Ostendorf

At 4 a.m., 72-year-old Dimitris Yfantis showers and then wakes up his wife Maria, age 70, 30 minutes later. By 5:20 a.m., they are in the car traveling to campus for another day of work in the campus dining halls.

Dimitris, a kitchen helper at Bromley Hall, whistles as he walks across the cafeteria, cleaning counter tops, setting the salad bar and replacing napkins. He stops at tables to greet students by name and takes the time to ask how their day is.

Dimitris and Maria both work five days a week. After seven and a half hours, Dimitris picks up Maria after her 6 a.m.-to-2:30 p.m. shift at Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall. Maria then heads to Champaign’s Christie Clinic to clean from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m., as Dimitris goes to Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church to tidy the church around 7 p.m.

“Our minds are just continuously thinking and being busy, and I think it’s wonderful for our age,” Maria said.

Dimitris and Maria enjoy the social aspect of their jobs and say they do not plan on retiring for three years. Dimitris said every year brings new friends. 

“Dimitris is one of the guys if you leave him in the middle of the desert, he will find friends,” Maria said. “He likes to have friends around him.”

Although Dimitris is not fluent in English, he still manages to make conversation and connections with the students, said Kristi Hogan, a Bromley front desk worker. 

“(The residents) all love him. He’s a good ambassador for employees to the students,” Hogan said.

In Dimitris’ early years as a Bromley employee, he worked in the food line where he was told to dish only one serving per resident; however, he could not resist serving two spoonfuls, which earned him praise from hungry students on Facebook: “If you want to eat good, go to Dimitris’ line.” 

Dallas Donahue, freshman in ACES, said she met Dimitris when he took the time to ask how her day was.

“He has a very positive attitude about everything. It’s always nice to see him — he lightens the mood if you’re having a bad day,” Donahue said. “He’s the friendliest employee.”

Stephanie Kuhns, a Bromley Hall cafeteria employee, recalled seeing Maria around Bromley when Maria came to bake.

For Easter, Maria always prepares homemade dough and uses Bromley Hall ovens to bake 20 dishes of tsoureki, a Greek sweet bread similar to Hawaiian bread. She leaves one or two loaves for the workers, donates some to the church, and then keeps the rest at home. Maria enjoys praying at church, a habit of faith she finds comfort in after losing her first husband and her daughter in the last 40 years. Maria and Dimitris are thankful to Bromley Hall and to the University for allowing them time off to travel to Greece for their daughter when she was struggling with leukemia. 

“She’s very outgoing. She’s extremely nice,” Kuhns said. “I would say the same thing about Dimitris — he’s extremely personable and outgoing, and cares a lot about other people.”

The Yfantis have met many friends through the church, whom they cook traditional Greek foods for. They are able to keep their Greek culture alive this way; Dimitris loves tiropitas, or a cheese-egg mix wrapped in phyllo dough, and Maria enjoys pastitsio, a Greek baked pasta dish. Still, during each summer, they are reunited with their family and friends in Greece.

Maria originally is from Milia, Greece, and Dimitris grew up in Avoros. Maria moved to the U.S. in 1966 to meet her brother in Chicago.

“We were kind of poor (in Greece), and I chose to come to America for a better life, which I think I got,” Maria said. 

In America, she met her first husband, and they started a family with three children. However, her husband died due to an aneurism while driving. Seeking a fresh start, Maria moved back to Greece in 1977. It is there that her brothers introduced her to their friend, Dimitris, in 1977.

“I liked her, and I saw that we could communicate together nicely – and she’s beautiful,” Dimitris said.

They were married at a monastery in Pandali, a suburb of Athens, in 1982.

Maria’s son Kostas decided to attend the University of Illinois in 1992. Two years later, Maria followed Kostas back to the U.S. She settled in Champaign and found work at Bromley Hall and Christie Clinic. Dimitris visited them in 1995 and moved to the U.S. to join them in 1997.

The Yfantis have traveled to California, Las Vegas and Arizona. Dimitris most enjoyed the trip to California, yet he misses the weather, the sun and the sea of Greece.

“I cannot find that (Greek) water anywhere else,” Dimitris said.

Maria also misses Greece, where their daughter, son-in-law and 7-year-old grandson live. Every year during their trip, they choose a new Greek island to visit and celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in August.

“Greece has a different beauty — we have the sea, the weather is better in Greece. Definitely the life is a little bit better,” Maria said. “But over here, the difference (is that you have) more convenient things, more money because you have work.”

Mikayla can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Dimitris Yfantis grew up in Agora. Yfantis grew up in Avoros, not Agora. The Daily Illini regrets the error.