Doctor Keeps Heritage, Hard Work In Mind



Peter Michael Zonakis noticed that more patients have commented about the pictures of his father and grandfather in the waiting room than have asked him about his medical training.

"My patients find it interesting because it makes them think about their own family backgrounds," Zonakis said.


The watch Zonakis inherited reminds him of his roots. He also keeps pictures of the Gary Works Steel Mill to give him perspective if he is having a bad day. After high school he worked in the steel mill hooking very heavy chains around hot, 15-ton steel billetts. He was 38 before he told his parents what he actually did at the mill. He didn't want them to worry that he held such a dangerous job.

Many of the people he encounters in his practice as an ear, nose and throat specialist had families that were part of the western migration within the United States. He thinks theirs are whole different stories, but every bit as exciting and glamorous as his ancestors crossing the ocean from Europe.

"There is nothing necessarily unique about my family or my family's story. It is just the personification of America," Zonakis said. "Immigrants have been coming and still are coming. The challenge is to become part of mainstream America and to contribute in whatever way possible ...

"I did some research, as a lot of people have done, with the Ellis Island website. It turns out that my one grandfather entered the United States May 31, 1910. My other grandfather entered the U.S. in 1912 in the great wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe."

His mother's father, Peter Kappos (shortened from Kappogiannias), lived with Zonakis' family when he was a child, in fact, shared his room.

"One day he went to the Mayo Clinic for surgery and at 8 years old I lost my roommate."

He remembers his grandfather as a quiet man who didn't have to say much to command people's attention. One could tell his emotions by how his thin mustache looked.

He knew his grandfather Sam Tzounakis on his dad's side only through stories.

"The reason I wanted to be a doctor ... and it is kind of ironic ... my grandfather was a shoe repair person who worked on his feet and with his hands all day long during the Depression. Of course that affected my father. My father wanted to make sure that I would have an education that would keep me from ever doing that kind of stuff.

"The irony of it is that I make my living on my feet working with my hands ... the circle has come completely around.

"One of the few things that (Sam) had in his estate that he could pass on to his oldest son (Michael) was his gold pocket watch," Zonakis said.


Peter Zonakis with his father, Michael Sam Zonakis. "The Greek that I've learned has really been when I've traveled to Greece. My parents would speak Greek real fast at home as code, so the kids wouldn't understand," he said.

"When my father passed away the only thing I inherited from my father was that same gold pocket watch. The difference being that was the only thing that I needed from my father. It doesn't have a very high monetary value but it has a very high emotional value to me."

A note of pride filled his voice when Zonakis said that he never heard his father make any racial slurs. "Dad truly enjoyed everybody and derived great satisfaction from whoever he was with. It was a wonderful thing, because he could always be happy."

Zonakis picked up that trait. "You don't learn things like that in medical school. You pick that up in life and employ it as you go," he said.

Becoming a doctor was a way of becoming his own boss like his grandfather.

Zonakis was born in the Indiana University Medical Center, the same hospital from which he graduated from medical school.

A note of regret entered his voice, tempered with a little laugh, as he related that the hospital was closing down its obstetrics wing when he was going into that part of his medical training.

"It would have been neat to deliver a baby there," he said.

An Internet advertisement brought Zonakis and his wife, Barbara, to Payson.

"I always wanted to be in the Southwest, particularly Arizona," he said. "My wife and I came to visit and we fell in love."

Zonakis' father grew up in a small village on the eastern tip of Crete that looks very similar to Payson. "Imagine driving down to Round Valley and then having the ocean," Zonakis said. "That part of the island of Crete is supposedly the area that inspired the novel Zorba the Greek."

Zonakis' father shortened his surname so that phonetically it would make a little more sense. "The original name is a blending of a Turkish word that means "The young one." His forebears possibly immigrated to Greece from Turkey.

Many of the immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early 20th century migrated to the large cities either on the East coast or the industrial cities of the Midwest.

Sam Zonakis always kept track of Payson on the Roundup's website. He would rib his son when he knew more about what was going on in Payson than his son did.

The son learned from his father how to speak in public, how to deal with people and understand their needs. He learned about wine.

"My father pointed out to me once years ago, that on the TV show "Kojak," in Telly Savalas' office was a picture behind the desk of Savalas' father. It was always there on television for the world to see."

The pictures in Zonakis' waiting room pay similar tribute.


Name: Peter Zonakis

Occupation: Physician

Age: 54

Family: Barb and Cody

Birthplace: Indianapolis, Ind.

Inspiration: Apollo astronauts

Greatest feat: Avoiding getting shot while living in Detroit.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Hiking and teaching my border collie, Cody new tricks. He (Cody) becomes easy entertainment for our dinner guests.

The person I'd most like to meet in history is: John Lennon.

Dream vacation spot: All of Arizona.

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