Nick Mathews, an ebullient Greek-born restaurateur whose love for America led him to prosperity in Yorktown, Va., and a major role in the nation's Bicentennial Celebration there two years ago, died April 14 of a heart attack. He was 82.
A native of the isle of Karpathos, Dr. Mathews immigrated to New York in 1920 and spent his first years after arrival working as a coal miner and chef before settling in the sleepy historic town of Yorktown in 1944.
"I want to be American citizen," he told an interviewer later, "so what better place to live than here where independence is won?"
With borrowed money, he and his wife, the former Maria Pappamihalopoulou of Sparta, opened a lunch counter across from a ferry landing on the York River.
As nearby Williamsburg blossomed in the postwar years under the impact of Rockefeller-funded restoration, the lunch counter evolved into Nick's Famous Seafood Pavillion, now a 450-seat dining mecca festooned with fountains, Nubian statues and such specialties as lobster Dien Bien Phu.
Tourists lined up by the hundreds to get in, and Dr. Mathews, who often appeared embarrassed by his success, showered them with apologies, complimentary dishes and sometimes entire free meals.
As the restaurant grew, Dr. Mathews used its profits to buy property within the crowded limits of Yorktown and in the rural surrounding counties. One 25-acre parcel adjoined the battlefield where Cornwallis surrendered, and Dr. Mathews looked forward with anticipation to the American bicentennial.
"In 1981," he used to say repeatedly, "Yorktown going to be the eyeball of the world."
What he and his wife had in mind, however, was not cashing in on the bicentennial but helping to pay for it, in gratitude for what America had given them.
When he found that politicians and developers in adjoining Newport News were talking of engineering the occasion for profit, he went before the General Assembly in Richmond, pleading near tears with dumbfounded legislators to be allowed to donate his 25 acres--worth an estimated $500,000--for the Yorktown Victory Center.
But there would be a string attached, he said. The center to be built there could have no souvenir shops or other commercial features: it was to be a shrine to the American Revolution.
When the gift was finally accepted, officials of nearby Christopher Newport College awarded the couple honorary doctorates. Dr. Mathews, who never finished high school, was so proud he used the title Doctor whenever he could.
Today a bronze plaque at the victory center reads: "This bicentennial memorial honoring the victory at Yorktown is offered as a lasting symbol of patriotism and gratitude by Drs. Nicholas and Mary Mathews. To you from failing hands we pass the torch. Be it yours and hold it high."
In addition to the land for the victory center, Dr. Mathews had earlier donated $180,000 for a victory monment on the Yorktown waterfront. And when Dr. Mathews died, he was still at it: en route by plane to Pascagoula, Miss., where his wife had been chosen by the Navy to christen a new cruiser--the USS Yorktown.