Ron Pappas: an entrepreneur and an inspiration

The 25th anniversary of Pappy’s Pizza went by unnoticed at the Manchester restaurant in June, just as owner Ron Pappas has let other milestones in his life and career go by without fanfare. Pappas went into business a quarter of a century ago, literally unable to stand on his own two feet. So he has become an inspirational success on wheels.

Pappas, 60, was 21 and a junior at the University of New Hampshire when he was out on the town, driving while intoxicated. He lost control of the vehicle and met a tree on the side of the road, breaking his back in the process.

“It was devastating. It really was,” he says, recalling the day he heard the medical verdict. “One moment you’re active, you’re athletic, you’ve got the world ahead of you. You’re playing football, playing lacrosse, you’re having a hell of a time in school. You’re studying just enough to get by, I guess. Party time. And the next moment you’re in a wheelchair, you know. Bang! Just like that. Then you end up with a doctor just bluntly telling you you’ll spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. You’ll be a paraplegic.”

Pappas learned the hard way about the glass being still half full when it is half empty. He learned to appreciate the difference between being a paraplegic and being a quadriplegic.

“So it’s a blessing by God that I did have arms to do the things I do today,” he says. It is, in fact, by a blessing of God and the miracles of modern medicine that Pappas is even alive. He landed on the road in Durham with a broken back and was rushed to Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover. From there he was taken to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover for a series of operations. There followed long days and weeks and months of rehabilitation.

When he was able to return to the world of work after his accident, Pappas began substitute-teaching at Manchester Memorial High School, one of the few schools in the city at the time that had a ramp for wheelchairs. He returned to UNH to finish the coursework he needed to get his degree and taught full-time for about 10 years. One day, when school was canceled because of a snowstorm, he went with a friend to, of all places, Hampton Beach. He went to an auction and came away the owner of a three-story building, with a pub and a “chicken place” on the first floor.

“I thought after talking to people in the neighborhood that a pizza place would go very well there,” he says. “Pizza and subs and salads, that sort of thing.”

His father had owned Eagle Fruit, at the corner of Bridge and Elm streets in Manchester, and as a boy, Pappas had observed the life of a restaurateur.

“I liked to see him talking to the people coming in, and they would talk to him about sports, about politics, about family. And then when my injury hit and I was teaching at Memorial, I thought wouldn’t that be neat to have many people coming in and talking about various subjects and I could be in the center of that.”

He opened his pizzeria in May 1981 and had a number of well-wishers, including one of his former coaches who has since made a name and career for himself in New Hampshire politics.

“I washed dishes and bused tables for him that day,” says state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, who was a member of the Executive Council at the time and would run for governor the following year. Pappas neither forgets favors nor forsakes friends and to this day, he and D’Allesandro would likely fight, bleed and die for each other. “When you’ve got Ron Pappas for a friend, you’ve got a friend for life,” D’Allesandro says. “He’s supported me politically, and there’s a risk in that, because there are some people who don’t like me.”

The following year, he opened the Manchester restaurant where a gas station had been. Along with luncheon and evening meals, Pappas was soon serving breakfast, something unusual for a pizzeria. Yet Pappy’s breakfasts have often been voted the best in New Hampshire magazine’s annual “Best of” issue.

Then came Pappy’s Mobile Pizza van that showed up regularly at places like the city’s annual Riverfest celebration in Arms Park. Pappy’s was the first to cater at the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, and for many years had the exclusive food contract for both football and basketball games at the University of New Hampshire. But kidney dialysis in recent years has sapped his time and strength to the point where he doesn’t get around as much as he used to and he has sold both the Hampton restaurant and the mobile pizza van. But while his endurance may have declined, he can still outlast most starting pitchers in the major leagues.

The oldest of four siblings, Pappas relies heavily on his brother Scott, a cook at the Manchester restaurant, and his sister Kasha St. Jean, “my right hand lady from Day One.” For emotional and moral support, his wife Linda is his inspiration. “She literally wakes up each morning with a smile on her face and I love her for it,” he says. A smiley face is in the logo of Pappy’s Pizza.

He has received a long list of commendations, including the Courage to Change award for people who have overcome patterns of alcohol or drug abuse to have a positive impact on their communities. He is in both the Queen City and Central High School Hall of Fame and is well noted for his generous contributions in support of amateur athletics and other charitable causes.

The restaurant this year is sponsoring 10 athletic teams — down from a high of 20 years ago, but still considerable. The owner’s favorite is a team in a special Little League, called the Challenger League, for youngsters with disabilities. He enjoys seeing them play the game, with the name Pappy’s Pizza and the smiley face on their jerseys.

He is no longer able to speak at area high schools on the dangers of drinking and driving, though he continues to take heart from those who tell him they heard him years ago and were encouraged to avoid his nearly tragic mistake. His many friends and customers are similarly encouraged by a man who has outpushed, outhustled and outwheeled his troubles.

“He’s mentally the toughest man I’ve ever met,” says Stan Spirou, the longtime head basketball coach at Southern New Hampshire University. “The things he has endured, most people couldn’t survive. He’s true grit.”

“He’s built a business when no one thought he could do it,” says D’Allesandro. “He’s had more physical problems than anyone I know and he’s fought through every one of them. He loves his work, he loves working with people, he’s a real model people should look at. If he can do it, they should know it can be done.”

D’Allesandro could go on, but he prefers to sum up Ron Pappas with a brevity remarkable for a man in public life and almost unheard of in a senator. D’Allesandro needs but two words:

“The best.”

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