The man who made the most of shoe-making skills

FOREVER SMILING: Peter Nicolaou was happy in his work.
FOREVER SMILING: Peter Nicolaou was happy in his work.

Peter Nicolaou, a philanthropic Greek Cypriot shoemaker, sailed for New Zealand in 1952 from Cyprus with his older brother Andrew.

The younger brother took an early sabbatical from school in 1945 when the Mediterranean war years visited financially tough times upon the Nicolaou family.

He shifted away from his home village and began a cobbler's apprenticeship with his Uncle Savvas in Nicosia, learning the art of shoemaking. He was fascinated by his uncle's ability to transform leather skins hanging on the walls of a workshop into shoes.

From an early age, two of his biggest assets were his hands which he used to undertake most delicate, hand-stitching, shoe-making tasks for the remainder of his life.

One year in to his apprenticeship he returned to school in his home village and completed his studies before returning to Uncle Savvas' shop and completing his shoemaker's apprenticeship.

When he and brother Andrew arrived in Wellington, wearing home-made shoes, they moved in with their sister Andriane who had arrived four years earlier.

Peter Nicolaou set about making a career for himself as a shoemaker, starting at the Hannah's factory between Dixon and Ghuznee streets, where he worked for 18 months. He was determined to do well for himself in his chosen country and purchased a workshop in Moera in 1954.

Family had always been important to this third sibling from a family of eight and the young man with the high school education and the shoemaker's ticket from Cyprus was a foundation member of the burgeoning family shoe business. Shops were opened up in Kilbirnie (managed by brother-in-law Savvas Matsis), Wainuiomata (managed by Peter Nicolaou) and the Hutt Valley (managed by Andrew Nicolaou).

Peter Nicolaou was always the guy out the back who worked long hours repairing shoes once the front doors of the chain's retail outlets were closed at the end of the day.

The new migrants quickly became popular members of their respective communities. There was a real empathy between Greek, Maori and European New Zealanders following World War II, helped by the fact Greeks and Kiwis had fought side by side on the island of Crete and on the Greek mainland in 1941.

Mr Nicolaou was the centre of much goodwill and banter out the back in his Wainuiomata shop and was the guy who did the repair work for all the shops. As a man with big hands he understood people with huge and deformed feet who came to him to help solve their many footwear problems. Old people, those with flat feet, knock-knees and pigeon toes made a bee-line for his workshop.

In 1968 he returned to Cyprus where he met his wife Athanasia. The couple married there and returned to New Zealand in 1971 where they raised their family of three daughters Amalia, Marianna and Leonie.

From an early age his daughters accepted the fact their father worked around the clock. In their first year at school, for instance, the girls learnt the phone number for his workshop  684 807  off by heart.

In later years when the wider family divided the shoe shops, he still looked after the shoe needs of his special friends. In particular, the shoemaking perfectionist and former chainsmoker  he gave up smoking after undergoing a major heart operation two years ago  looked after many people from large, working-class families in Wainuiomata.

He saw in these people his own impoverished, proud upbringing in Cyprus. He did not talk about the philanthropic side to his personality, a trait which indicated he was never motivated by money.

On the family front he had the pleasure of walking his three daughters down the aisle. He took the job seriously and his daughters viewed him as the perfect stereotypical Gus Portokalos  the dad of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. They also jokingly referred to him as "Moera Pete  for comfortable feet". He took it all in good spirit and was always the generous host at family functions.

"Moera Pete" spent his life fixing things for others before he suffered a stroke in his second home  his Moera workshop  on June 9.

When he arrived in New Zealand 60 years ago he told immediate family members he intended to succeed.

Those who jammed into the small church of Saint Nektarios in Petone's Bay St for his funeral service on Thursday knew he had done just that.

Panayiotis Nicolaou Antoniou: b Palechori, Cyprus, March 5, 1933; m Athanasia, 3d; d Wellington, June 15, 2012, aged 79.

Sources: Nicolaou family, Maria Verivaki and John Petris.

Contact Tim Donoghue
General reporter

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