Thelma Nopoulos

Thelma’s Story

Thelma Jean Soteros was born September 26, 1931, in Wilton, Iowa. She was the daughter of Peter and Hazel Mildred (Camp) Soteros and was one of seven children born to this union. Thelma’s father was a Greek immigrant who came from Legaga, Pylos, Greece and her mother was from Moscow, Iowa.

Both being Greek, Peter Soteros and Gus Nopoulos became friends. Through this friendship Gus became acquainted with the Soteros children. For whatever reason, Gus arranged for Thelma to come to work for the Nopoulos Family in 1940 when she was 8 years old. Thelma would stay during the week, helping Frankie Nopoulos around their apartment doing domestic work. Gus and Frankie had a bed made for Thelma on the back porch of their residence. At this time the Nopoulos Family lived on the second floor of the three-story Ross Building just north of the Candy Kitchen across the alley. When she was ten, Gus Nopoulos said she could work at the Candy Kitchen. Thelma often recounted how her job at the Candy Kitchen came about… Gus reached out taking both of her hands and looked them over. He let go and said, “You have small hands, perfect for washing soda glasses.” She started washing dishes for ten cents an hour on Wednesday and Saturday nights. At the time, no one could have predicted what an important role she would serve in the life of the Candy Kitchen for the next 73 years.

Tragically, Thelma’s father died on March 26, 1945, when she was 13 years old. Peter Soteros and Julius Arp were working on a four-man section crew for the Rock Island Railroad. This crew was working on a portion of the railroad along the southwest of Wilton when an west bound train struck, and killed both men instantly. Her father’s death affected her deeply. She would often proudly, tell the story of her father and his work on the railroad as a section foreman and his friendship with Gus Nopoulos. Her father’s spirit seemed always to penetrate everything she did in her efforts to promote the Candy Kitchen or helping to put Wilton on the map. Anything she took on, she did with passion and commitment!

After, her father’s death, Gus Nopoulos helped look out for the Soteros Family by giving all of the Soteros children employment at the Candy Kitchen or work on one of his farms. Thelma continued to work at the Candy Kitchen and by this time was entering high school. Thelma proved herself to be a good basketball player making the Wilton High School team when she was a sophomore. The Wilton Girls’ Basketball team coached by Ray Tyler went on to play in the Iowa High School Girls’ Basketball Tournament in 1948, where they placed second. Incidentally, the record for the Wilton Girls’ 1948 season was 36 wins and 1 loss.

When Thelma started working at the Candy Kitchen, George Nopoulos took little notice of her romantically since she was a few years younger than him. George went off to war, served his country, returning in 1946 and took over ownership of the shop in 1947. Thelma worked at the Candy Kitchen all this time, but it was during her high school years when George began to take notice. George and Thelma’s fathers had hoped these two would eventually get together and as the story goes; sparks began to fly behind the soda fountain and the dream of two Greek immigrants became a reality when George and Thelma were married on October 30, 1949.

After marriage, it was business as usual, but they did find time to start a family when their first child, Gus George was born in 1951, second son, Peter Gus was born in 1953, only daughter, Margaret Mildred was born in 1954 and youngest child and son, Nicolaus George was born in 1957.
Thelma was a tireless promotor of the Candy Kitchen and her hometown, Wilton, Iowa. She was tenacious and charming in her work to put both on the map. Upon entering the Candy Kitchen, you would often find her dressed in a signature red blouse and cameo brooch. She was quick with ‘Hello’ and “…make sure to sign our guest book!” Her love of her life’s work was obvious as she entertained customers with the stories of Gus Nopoulos, her father and the Candy Kitchen.

Thelma also loved to make things happen, whether it was raising money for United Way, selling Poppies for the American Legion, promoting a politician, or celebrating a milestone for Gus Nopoulos and or the Candy Kitchen… whatever it was, she loved it!

When planning and organizing events, it was never enough for Thelma. The tables had to have tablecloths and centerpieces and streamers down the center of the tables and streamers strung across the Candy Kitchen interior, wall to wall. There also had to be a banner exclaiming the details of the event and press releases to newspapers, radio and television not to mention, help to serve the cake and ice cream and and and… If you helped Thelma at any activity, you know she was all about the ‘AND.’ Thelma was always thinking of how she could make whatever she was involved with bigger, better and perfect. She was a perfectionist!

It was because of her efforts, that the Candy Kitchen has been featured on national television broadcasts for NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS, as well as being featured on many local television stations from the Quad Cities, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and many affiliates from all over the country. Articles about the Candy Kitchen have been featured in newspapers from all over the United States including: The Quad City Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, The National Herold as well as many magazines and books including: Entrepreneur, Midwest Living, the Iowan, Historic Preservation, Americana Travel, Holiday, Our Iowa Magazine, Country Discoveries, Roadfood, Reader’s Digest’s Off the Beaten Path and Delta Airline’s Skyway Gourmet, to name a few. Just think… Thelma facilitated all this without the ease of the internet, social media and she never had a computer!

Thelma appreciated history and knew the historical significance of the Candy Kitchen. In 1991, she hired historian Jan Nash, who worked with George and Thelma on the application to have the Candy Kitchen placed on the Register of Historic Places. These efforts resulted in the Candy Kitchen being placed on the Register on January 7, 1993. All this, culminated in a grand celebration organized by Thelma to note this achievement, which was held at the Candy Kitchen on August 28, 1993. About this time, Thelma established the Heritage Room in the 1964 cement block addition of the Candy Kitchen, which was built on the footprint of the Candy Kitchen’s icehouse. This addition had previously been used for storage and housed a pool table and video games, which kids growing up in the late 70’s and 80’s enjoyed as part of their Candy Kitchen experience. This room was transformed into a place where Thelma could highlight the rich history of the Candy Kitchen, the railroad, and the town of Wilton, she had collected.

In 1994, Thelma spear-headed the creation of a two-year Wilton Calendar for 1995 and 1996. After the Wilton Calendar was completed, Thelma decided she would work on a history of Wilton.

During the work to have the Candy Kitchen placed on the Register of Historic Places, personal remembrances of the Candy Kitchen were recorded as part of the application process. Thelma took these stories and made these the basis of her first history titled, “Memories of Wilton Jct., Iowa, 1855 – 1996. This first history coincided with the 150th anniversary of Iowa’s Statehood and it was the foundation for Thelma’s second and final history entitled, “Our Town Speaks, Wilton, Iowa 1855 – 2005, A Compilation of History and Anthologies” © 2005. This history too coincided with a significant event, the 150th Anniversary of Wilton, Iowa, which was founded in 1855.

In 2003 the City of Wilton bestowed upon Thelma and George the honor of naming them the First Official Lifetime Ambassadors of the City of Wilton. Thelma was also very proud to have been long-time participants in the local Wilton School’s Partners in Education Program.
Thelma and George were married for 65 years and this entire time they worked together at the Candy Kitchen. When George died in 2015, Thelma decided to retire and made the difficult decision to close the Candy Kitchen. The closure was short-lived though, since good friends, Lynn and Brenda Ochiltree stepped forward to purchase the Candy Kitchen in November of 2015.

Thelma died Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at the Wilton Retirement Community. She was 88 years old. Thelma died during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Muscatine Journal ran an article about Thelma…

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic there can’t be any community celebrations of life, no coming together of people in their common grief. But about 8 o’clock the evening Nopoulos died, [Lynn] Ochiltree decided to go down to the Candy Kitchen – closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and turn on its bright neon sign. “It’s kind of a beacon in the night, ”Ochiltree said. “A sign of hope. She would have liked that.” [The neon remained lit for several days leading up to Thelma’s burial.]

The Candy Kitchen tradition continues today mostly because of Thelma’s tireless efforts to promote it. Her entire life was punctuated by it… her youth, her romance, her children, her love of Wilton… it was her place in the world. We are thankful for Thelma’s dedication and hard work to make the Candy Kitchen and Wilton well-known. Today, thousands of visitors from all over the United States (and foreign countries) make the Candy Kitchen a stop along their way. Thelma might have started out doing dishes at the Candy Kitchen for 10 cents an hour, but her legacy is priceless!