'Thelma was always there': Long-time owner of Wilton Candy Kitchen dies

Wilton, Iowa, lost its most-famous resident this week with the death of Thelma Nopoulos who, along with her husband George, was longtime operator of the landmark Wilton Candy Kitchen.

She died Wednesday at the Wilton Retirement Community at the age of 88.

Not only did Nopoulos help serve up ice cream seven days a week for decades, but she was a town booster, an Energizer bunny, a person who wouldn't take no for an answer. It probably isn't an exaggeration to say that everyone in the Muscatine County town of 3,000 knew who she was, said Lynn Ochiltree.

"That place has been a staple going on nine generations," Ochiltree said of the Candy Kitchen. Ochiltree and his wife bought the business in 2016 a year after George Nopoulos died at age 95.

"Thelma was tenacious and passionate about her love of Wilton and the Candy Kitchen, and it is because of that that both are on the map today," Ochiltree said.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building housing the Candy Kitchen dates to 1856. With its walnut booths, stamped metal ceiling and marble soda fountain counter, it has been written up in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Midwest Living, and has been a draw for celebrities and politicians.

The latter includes movie star Gregory Peck, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and politicians such as Mitt Romney when he was running for president, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach.

Former Quad-City Times columnist Bill Wundram loved writing about Nopoulos, often seen wearing a signature red blouse and cameo brooch. "Thelma is the most doing-est person anyone likely will meet," he proclaimed in 1998. "She is as non-stop as the Energizer bunny. She calls, calls, calls. She writes, writes, writes. Thelma Nopoulos doesn't accept no.

"Gov. Terry Branstand has said: 'You don't turn down Thelma. If she tells you to be there, you're there.'"

Ochiltree agrees.

"She wanted to get things done, if it was to promote the town or the Candy Kitchen. She had a way of soliciting others to being involved in things even if they didn't know they wanted to be involved."

He remembers that in the late 1990s, Nopoulos got the idea for a celebration she dubbed "A Wilton Town Meeting: A Global Connection" in which she invited mayors and others from towns named Wilton in other parts of the world — England, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Maine.

"Lots of people wondered what you would do that for," Ochiltree said. But Nopoulos saw it as a way to connect Wilton, Iowa, with the larger world and with its roots in Maine, as Wilton, Maine, is the town after which it was named.

"It was something she thought was important, that we connect to our heritage," he said.

'Thelma was always there': Long-time owner of Wilton Candy Kitchen dies

"She was a force to be reckoned with. She was interested, kind and generous. She made things happen. She was really special."

Becky Allgood, executive director of the Wilton Development Corp., remembers from her childhood that Nopoulos was very patriotic and would go all-out for the town's annual Memorial Day parade, dressing up in red, white and blue, and handing out small American flags and toffees.

"Thelma was always there," Allgood said. "That was a wonderful memory for me."

Nopoulos also liked to talk to people. "She always had people sign in (a registry book) when they came in (the Candy Kitchen). They came from all over the country, and she'd talk to them and find out about them."

Nopoulos took ice cream to funerals or gatherings, not because she was asked, but because she thought it would be a good thing to do, Allgood said.

And she was a member of the only Wilton girls basketball team that ever went to the state tournament, sometime in the late 1940s, Allgood said. Wilton got second.

Nopoulos began working in the Candy Kitchen as a dishwasher when she was 10. In time, she and George married and after he returned from military service during World War II, they took over ownership from George's dad, Gus, a Greek immigrant. She worked there 73 years.

"Every day is something new," Nopoulos said in a 2009 newspaper article about the business celebrating 100 years in the Nopoulos family. "Every day we serve happiness."

This past week has been particularly difficult for the Wilton community, as there have been at least four deaths, Allgood and Ochiltree said.

The Wilton Retirement Community has had an outbreak of COVID-19, with 21 confirmed cases. Sadness is piling up.

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, 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 a kind of beacon in the night," Ochiltree said. "A sign of hope. She would have liked that."

He intends to leave it on until she is buried.

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