WILTON, Iowa — George Nopoulos began working at the Wilton Candy Kitchen at age 6. His job was to wind up the record player. Years later, George supplied his own music by whistling and singing as he worked. It was there that he met his wife, Thelma, and it was in the back office where George proposed July 8, 1949.
The two ran the shop together until they closed last November because of concerns about slipping on ice.
George passed away Sunday, June 14, at the Wilton Retirement Community at the age of 95.
"The whole time he was there, he was talking about working here. This is a place of happiness. Our story is a love story," Thelma told the Muscatine Journal from the Candy Kitchen on Monday.
Thelma began working in the shop when she was 10.
"My father was from Greece, his father was from Greece. When you get two fathers from Europe, you get matchmaking. It worked for 65 years and we raised four children. George was a wonderful husband and a wonderful father," Thelma said.
The Wilton Candy Kitchen was originally founded by R. A. McIntire in 1860 but was purchased by Gus George Nopoulos in 1910, which was passed down to his son, George. Gus helped run the shop until his death at 92.
You'll find more than ice cream and sweet treats at the Wilton Candy Kitchen. Coca-Cola signs, framed photographs and autographed items line the walls of the old-fashioned ice cream and candy parlor. The marble tables and soda fountain bar are a blast from the past as customers are greeted with a window full of antique silver, ice cream scoops and cash registers.
Thelma said there have been people sign into the guest book from places she'd never even heard of before and that was best part of the job.
"We had people come in from all over the world. There was one day last summer when two couples from two different states came in to the soda fountain. They gave me their order and as I was fixing them, the one lady says, ‘Thelma, do you and your husband travel the states or perhaps to Europe for vacations?’ and the other lady says, ‘Why should they? The world comes to them,'" Thelma laughed. "That's a fact."
The whole family worked at the shop at some point in their lives.
"I worked my way through school here at this soda fountain. I started out working for 10 cents an hour," said Karen Fischlein, Thelma's sister, who lives Davenport. "We never stood idle. We had to shine the silver, shine the cigar case."
Fischlein said there were too many memories of George and the shop to share just one, but that meeting the people was best part about the job.
"And having Gus, the owner, teach me work ethics," Fischlein added.
Thelma and George's four children also helped out.
"They all worked here and were taught the Greek worth ethics, which helped their future. We are very proud of the children," Thelma said.
Through the years, the shop had visitors including Gov. Terry Branstad, model/actress Brooke Shields and actor Gregory Peck. George whipped up specialty "It's a boy" suckers to announce the gender of the governor's first child in 1984 and was re-visited by the governor in 2011.
Branstad said on Monday that he has made countless visits to the Wilton Candy Kitchen over the years and had first met the couple in 1978 when he was running for Lt. Governor.
“The Nopoulos’ have just been great citizens of Wilton. They’ve done a lot to promote the community as well," Branstad told the Journal. "George was just a very supportive and understanding husband."
The shop has been closed since November but will reopen in time for RAGBRAI near the end of July.
"We're really excited about RAGBRAI. This will be the third time RAGBRAI has stopped here. We'll have Whitey’s ice cream because George won’t be here to make it. They’re going to bring the refrigerated truck out. We may have free frozen malts for the [riders]," Thelma said.
Whether the shop closes or is sold after RAGBRAI, said Thelma, is up to God.
"It's an end of an era," Fischlein said, recalling George's whistling behind the soda fountain. "He didn't care if he served you or not, he wanted to entertain you."
Muscatine Journal News/Features Editor Peggy Senzarino contributed to this report.