In the present political climate where so much controversy swirls around the topic of immigration, we often seem to forget that the United States is a nation composed entirely of immigrants and the contributions made to this nation by immigrants from all over the world. This week's Echo will be the story of one immigrant family's contributions to our community on the occasion of the family's return to the local business community after an absence of nearly three decades.

In our history, we have gone through "phases" of immigration where most of those coming to our shores were leaving a particular country or region of the world. Of course the earliest immigration came largely from England and other parts of Northern and Western Europe, most notably the Irish immigration of the 1840s during the Potato Famine. Later, we saw an influx of Eastern European residents coming to our country. In the early years of the 20th century many of the new Americans came from Southern Europe. It was in that era that our story begins.

The little village of Peramos was one of a group of communities in a unique situation. Although the town was located in modern Turkey (originally Asia Minor and at the time we are discussing a province of the Ottoman Empire), the residents of the town were Greek. In fact the Greek families living in Peramos had been there before there was a Turkey - back in the days when Greece under the leadership of Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world including Asia Minor - so while this was their ancestral home, these Grecians did not feel welcome because of the great antipathy between Greeks and Turks.

By 1914, as World War I was erupting, things got even worse for the Greek residents as they faced the prospect of being forced to fight for the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Those years were the beginning of the end of this Greek community, as eventually, in the early 1920s, all Greeks would be ordered to leave the village.

Before that time came, three brothers from Peramos joined the many residents of their area who made the voyage to the United States, to start their lives over in the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave." It is hard for most of us to imagine taking such a leap of faith. Leaving the familiar to strike out for a land where we don't even speak the language. These brothers were not deterred and made their voyage.

They arrived at the famed immigration depot on Ellis Island and there began the process of becoming citizens. One of the brothers chose to stay in New York City, but the other two made their way South. After a while they reached the place that would become home, Minden, by 1921. These two men were the Kirkikis brothers - Constantine and Sortirios- and the name Kirkikis would become so familiar to Minden residents over the years since. The topic of this column will be Constantine "Gust" Kirkikis and his descendants and their contributions to our town.

Gust Kirkikis, in partnership with another Greek immigrant, Pete Kalpakis, first opened a cafe on Main Street in Minden; however, within a brief time Gust Kirkikis opened his own business, the Minden Café. It would be located on "Back Street" (South Broadway for those of you who aren't quite so old) in Minden for more than four decades. (Kaplakis also remained in Minden operating restaurants for many years.)

The Minden Café, with its location behind the Webster Parish Courthouse, was in the middle of the "action" in Minden throughout the heart of the 20th century. Workers at the courthouse and law enforcement officers from throughout the area were frequent visitors to the restaurant and Gust became their friend. In addition to the "front" dining room, there was an additional dining room in the rear for black residents, in those years when segregation barred serving racially mixed clientele in the same dining facility. Beyond that, the upstairs of the building was used to rent out rooms.

By the time of his death, on March 16, 1964, Gust Kirkikis was a fixture on the Minden scene and a vital and productive member of our community. After his death, his widow, Malamo Papanastas Kirkikis, would continue to reside in Minden until her death in 1985. But the impact of this couple's lives would continue through their children. Gust and Malamo had four children: Steve (later a Dr. in Shreveport), Thalia, Pauline and the next character in our story of the family, Achillea G. "Ike" Kirkikis.

Ike Kirkikis was born here in Minden on August 10. 1926, the first member of the family to be born a United States citizen (although both of his parents were proud naturalized citizens.) He was educated in the local schools and graduated from Minden High School in 1943 (starting a family trend with the "3" years - Ike's brother Steve would graduate from MHS in 1953 and Ike's son, Stan, would graduate from MHS in 1973.) Those were the years of World War II and Ike was soon serving his country in the United States Army. He was a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division, the only U. S. Airborne Division to serve in the Pacific Theater. This unit was scheduled to be among the first to see action in Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan. Of course that invasion never took place because of the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Japan, but as Ike's son Stan Kirkikis told me, "If that invasion had taken place, I wouldn't be here, because Dad would not have survived the war."

But happily, Ike did return and enrolled as a student at Louisiana Tech, where he met and married a Ruston girl, Virginia Reese. Ike began to work for his father-in-law in his propane business in Ruston, but soon recognized the time was right to come back home to Minden. He returned and set up his own business in Minden: Economy Propane. The business would thrive over the next thirty years the green trucks of Economy Propane and the white tanks with the green letters would become familiar sights in the local countryside.

Beyond his business success, Ike Kirkikis became one of the most respected civic leaders in our town. He was a member of the Minden Chamber of Commerce, the Minden Evening Lions Club and most notably, the Wiley-Pevy Post of the American Legion. Ike founded the American Legion Color Guard that added so much dignity and patriotism to local ceremonies over the years. He served four terms on the Webster Parish Police Jury and was proud to say that he always kept the interests of the people at heart and was truly a public servant.

After heart surgery, in 1981, Ike Kirkikis decided to retire and sold his propane business. This ended an era of over 60 years of the Kirkikis family operating a local business. And although Ike continued to be a vital part of our town until his death in December 2004, there was a hole in our local business scene without this family that had meant so much to our town.

Ike and Virginia had two sons, Stan Achillea Kirkikis and John Achillea Kirkikis (notice the Greek practice of carrying forward names through the generations) who became successful in other parts of Louisiana. John is a Gastroenterologist in Alexandria and Stan, after a career as a chemist, began a new business as a financial adviser. Stan married my classmate from the MHS Class of 1976, Cindy Kelley, (daughter of Van and Therez Kelley of Minden) and reared his family in Ruston.

As Stan's business prospered, his son, Achillea Constantine Kirkikis soon followed his Dad into the investments business. Achillea Constantine is better known by a name familiar to local residents, "Ike." Clearly, tradition means a lot to the Kirkikis family and as such, it was no surprise that tradition would eventually win out. Not too long ago, Ike approached his Dad and said, "It's time we bring the Kirkikis family business back to Minden." Like his Grandfather and namesake nearly sixty years before, Ike sensed it was time to come back to Minden. Stan agreed and so they began to make this dream happen.

Next week, HBW Insurance and Financial Services will hold its Grand Opening in what we "old timers" know as the Lunsford's Downtowner Building at 801 Broadway. I'm quite sure that the "first" Ike Kirkikis had a cup of coffee along the line in the building either during the Lunsford's time or the years of Thad's Cafe. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Kirkikis family is back on the local business scene, ironically for a family that's introduction to the local community was in the restaurant business, they are located in a building that for most of its history was a restaurant. But they don't "do" food; they do financial counseling, investments and insurance. Ike runs the business, along with help from his dad, Stan, and Office Manager Shanda Rowe.

So, if things seem to be "more right' downtown - that is if it really is Downtown Minden behind all those movie sets - it's because a 27-year hole in our local "family" has been filled as the Kirkikis family has returned to business in Minden.