For decades he ran a popcorn and peanut cart right outside the most famous house in America.
Over the years, Stefanos “Steve” Vasilakos became a Washington DC landmark and a fierce patriot for his native Greece, as well as his adopted United States.
Vasilakos sold hot peanuts and popcorn to Presidents William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding. But his best customer was President Calvin Coolidge, who came to buy peanuts, munch and talk to the street vendor almost every day.
Coolidge referred to Vasilakos as his “contact man” with the American people.
In 1929, Vasilakos famously told the press that President Herbert Hoover was the only president in 20 years who didn’t eat peanuts.
“President Hoover is a nice-a man,” Steve said in his heavily broken English. “But he never buy a peanut. He only come here in his auto. I say ‘Hello’ and he go on.”
Numerous times during his decades on the street, Vasilakos became a traffic hazard, forcing police to eject him from his location.
But soon enough, the famous peanut vendor would be rescued by famous occupants of the White House.
Presidents Coolidge, Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt all intervened, allowing Vasilakos to stay put.
During World War I he advertised that, on certain weeks, he would donate all of his proceeds to the American Red Cross, making him one of the most generous donors to that charity.
Vasilakos’ gesture also set a precedent for millions of Americans regarding virtues such as philanthropy and patriotism.
When Italy invaded Greece in 1940 Vasilakos donated an entire week’s proceeds, “one hundred and one dollar,” to the Greek War Relief Association which sent aid to the people of Greece.
A year later he and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) launched a campaign to sell more than $50 million in war bonds for the American war effort. Vasilakos offered a free bag of peanuts with every bond he sold. Some might have called it a bad business move, but he considered it a civic duty to support his adopted nation.
Vasilakos began his war bond drive on October 28, 1942, the second anniversary of Italy’s invasion of his native Greece, with the slogan “Make a monkey out of Mussolini.”
Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was his first customer and Vasilakos quickly became a household name throughout the nation. Newspapers portrayed his fierce patriotism as an example of what all Americans should be.
Vasilakos emigrated to the US in 1910 from the mountain village of Ligereas in Laconia, close to Sparta, leaving behind a wife and three sons whom he never returned to visit.
He passed away penniless on February 28, 1943. Among the flowers at his grave at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Washington DC were sprays of red carnations sent by President and Mrs. Roosevelt.
After Vasilakos’ death, no other peanut concession opened White House grounds.
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