At the home of Dionysis Gendis in Melbourne, a hundred years of life have not dulled his vigour.

I find him in the garden, hanging clothes after the recent downpour, while Ioanna, his wife, prepares our coffee.

“It comes down to two things”, Gendis begins. “Healthy living and love. That’s what keeps a person going.”

But there is also one defining trait that sets the Corfiot centenarian apart. A firm confidence that things would work out is consistent throughout the journey he narrates to Neos Kosmos.

From his carefree childhood in Corfu to the challenges of war and his eventual move to Australia, he faced every turn head-on, not shying away from what he wanted or what he believed was fair.

Whether it was slipping a note to Queen Frederica for help in securing a passage to Australia, or persuading the Italian captain of the Castel Felice in Port Melbourne, to return to Greece a girl, who desperately refused to disembark and meet the man she was matched to marry.

Photo: Supplied

But let’s start from the beginning.

Dionysis (Denis) Gendis was born in the town of Corfu on January 25, 1924.

“My mother and father, Konstantinos and Alexandra Gergis, eloped. They never told us why. Both were from Palasa of Chimara in Northern Epirus. They ran away and got married in Corfu.”

This likely explains why his father registered him with the surname Gendis, instead of Gergis, when he was born.

“My childhood years were wonderful. School and games, and a loving family. I was very fit for my age. And if I didn’t grow tall, it was because during the years of occupation I had nothing to eat. I loved sport from a young age. To play, to jump, to play soccer. I even made javelins out of wood.”

His father sold bottled water from Kardaki, a famous spring outside of town, while his mother was a much loved governess on the island.

In their tight-knit neighbourhood, Kantouni, everyone knew each other, and Gendis remembers the endless summers when all the children would go together for a swim in the sea.

Dionysis Gendis celebrating his 100th birthday in Oakleigh. Photo: Supplied

He was dealt the first harsh blow at 12, when his father suddenly died. Two years later, abandoning his dream of becoming an athlete, he made his way to Athens to learn a trade so he could support his mother and sister.

He attended the Sivitanideios School of Arts and Crafts and lived at the Iosifoglio Boarding House in Nea Smyrni, where he settled happily, making friends with the older children and discovering his favourite sport, basketball.

“I learned a lot, because I was obsessed with having older friends than myself. That is, someone who knew more, and especially when it came to sports.”

But it was not to last. As soon as World War II broke out, Gendis, then sixteen, returned to Corfu.

“At first, our lives did not change much. But when the Italians arrived on the island, any aid we had was cut off and we had to find a way to support each other. But eventually they tried to help people with soup kitchens, and especially the children. They gave us food when we were starving.”

Dennis with ioanna dancing. Photo: Supplied

It was when the Germans came, that Gendis felt real hunger.

The families from the city sent their children to the villages to scour for a potato, an onion. With the constant bombing from the planes, many sought refuge in the town’s two fortresses.

“There were no bathrooms, no toilets. And the lice!”

But in these desperate conditions he miraculously escaped death.

Next to where they camped in the fortress, German soldiers had set up a designated area for communal meals which had taps for washing dishes.

“We were starving. I told my mother I would go out and see if they would give us something to eat. Despite her pleas, I cautiously went and saw twelve soldiers in a line washing their pots and plates. I gestured that I was hungry, touching the tin pot of the nearest soldier and offering to wash it in exchange for food.

An outing with Ioanna, in Greece. Photo: Supplied

His boldness was swiftly met with a kick, and thin as he was, he was sent flying, which as it turned out, saved his life. He landed head-down into a pile of hay beside the soldiers, at the very moment a warplane gunned them down, killing all twelve of them instantly.

“I rose to my feet and I was like a ghost. In shock and completely covered in sulphur. It was a miracle.”

There are many things that have scarred him from those years. He recalls the harrowing scenes of his Jewish neighbours rounded up in the main square, put on ships, only to have them bombed. Or when, to retaliate against the Italians, the Germans threw officers alive in sacks of sugar, into the harbour, to die a horrible death.

Many of the children he taught still remember him. They even tried to stop him from leaving and going to Australia. Photo: Supplied

But the war finally ended, and slowly, life begins to smile again on the young Corfiot.

Cycling around the island delivering letters and parcels, Gendis starts to dream again. He enrols at the gymnasium and along with work, he trains for his diploma and gathers other kids to teach them basketball.

“Nobody knew basketball back then so I started to get people together to form the first basketball team of Corfu. We would play against the English sailors who would invite us for a game.”

“He seemed to us like a man from another planet. He taught us athletics, sports, how to play music, he read us the newspapers, and taught us basketball,” one of the children from the Paidopolis of Ziro said about Gendis. Photo: Supplied

He was also captain of the water polo team.

“We beat all six islands in the Ionian and got into a tournament in Athens to play against Panathinaikos.”

But that was all cut short when the Civil War broke out. Children who were orphaned, or destitute, or whose parents were imprisoned, were taken into Children’s Homes, known as the Paidopolis’ of Queen Frederica.

With Gendis’s experience as a scout before the war, and then as an athlete, he was asked, along with two other Corfiots, Andreas Matzavinos and Christos Gerekos, to help care for these children that were brought to the Childrens’ Home Achilleion in Corfu.

Gendis playing basketball at the Achilleion Children’s Home in Corfu. Photo: Supplied

For the next ten years, he worked in these institutions. The first two years in Corfu, and then in the Paidopolis of Ziros, in Epirus, where hundreds of children grew up under his care. He describes the beautiful green landscape and the organised children’s home, built by Swiss architects around Lake Ziros.

“Because I was also fatherless and had suffered – not only of hunger and war, but also psychologically because I had lost the support of my father – I understood and felt the pain of these children.”

Dionysis Gendis (left) cycling around Arta with a good friend, Takis Papathanasiou. Photo: Supplied

These were the first words he told the children when he met them.

“‘I’m not your teacher, I’m not your priest. I am not here to order you around. I’ll treat you as if I were your big brother, but I want you to listen to what I say to you from my heart’. I saw them upset and lost and promised them that I would try and help them with whatever problem they faced, as best as I could.”

Many of those boys remember him to this day. When Vassilis Sandris began recording the oral history of the Paidopolis of Ziros, he interviewed over 200 people who had spent their childhood there, and he said they all had something good to say about kyrio Nionio, as they called him.

“One of them said that ‘he seemed to us like a man from another planet. He taught us athletics, sports, how to play music, he read us the newspapers, and taught us basketball.’ One of these children, now a cardiologist, Christos Venetis, had said that he became a doctor thanks to Gendis,” Ioanna recalls.

In the 1950s, on the road to Arta from the Paidopolis of Ziro where he taught children athletics, basketball, soccer, and music. Photo: Supplied

Passionate as he was about sports, Gendis was captivated when he saw photographs and films of the Olympic Games in Melbourne, and soon a new dream took form. To leave for Australia. To see up close the marvellous sporting facilities he admired on film.

“I felt that I had given everything I had to give to these children.” But he also admits that in order to start a relationship with Ioanna, whom he had met and fallen in love with in the Paidopolis, the right thing to do was to leave from there first.

“I saw that Australia had sports, and without thinking that I didn’t know English and that I didn’t know anyone there, I thought I would go and see, and if I didn’t like it, I’d come back. I applied, but it was rejected because I didn’t have an invitation. Also, Australia was asking for factory workers, technicians, and I didn’t have the qualifications.”

One day when Queen Frederica came to visit the children, Gendis welcomed her and slipped her a note, in which he asked her to intervene so that he could travel Australia.

Gendis welcomes Queen Frederica. During one of her visits to the Paidopolis he slipped her a note asking for help in securing a passage to Australia. Photo: Supplied

Within six months the papers for his passage had arrived.

“When I told the children that I was leaving, they were very sad.”

On the morning he was passing through Philippiada on the bus to Athens, he saw that the whole Paidopolis was there, and the children blocked the road.

“I got off the bus and said goodbye to each one of them. The children were holding onto me, telling me ‘kyrie Nionio, we won’t let you go!'”

Many of them he met again in 1995 at a reunion they had organised in Greece.

The ship to Australia, the Italian Castel Felice, was full with young brides.

In Ioannina with colleagues. Gendis sits in the middle of the second row. Photo: Supplied


“We were only 3-4 men aboard. I remember one of the girls showing me a picture of the young man she was sent to marry. We arrived in Melbourne. As I started to disembark, I saw her staring at the pier and sobbing. She could see that the man waiting for her was not young as the man in the picture, but old. She was desperate not to get off the boat, but didn’t know what else to do.

I found the captain and explained to him in Italian what happened to the girl. He agreed to take her back on the condition that she would do some work on the boat so he could justify her return. And sure enough, the girl travelled back to Greece and I never saw her again.

“When I got off the boat in Melbourne it was close to Christmas 1958.”

And so begins the next chapter for Dionysis Gendis. Knowing no one, and with only two words of English, he would end up in Oakleigh, renting a room in the house of a Greek family. He found a job at General Motors where he quickly progressed with hard work and ingenuity.

Yet, in his mind, he always had Ioanna, whom he had left behind in Greece. When the time came and he decided that he liked Australia and would stay, he sent a letter to his sister asking her to find out if Ioanna was still single.

Cycling around Corfu. Photo: Supplied

Ioanna never forgot him.

“I knew I wouldn’t get married at all if it wasn’t to Dionysis,” Ioanna says. “The only mistake he made before he left, was not coming to see me. If he’d told me he was going to Australia I wouldn’t have stopped him. We would have had a good life in Greece. We didn’t have to emigrate. But I haven’t regretted it.”

Gendis didn’t find in Australia everything he dreamed of when he set out. The opportunity to get involved in sports and experience first-hand all the athletic events he had admired on screen. But he never regretted the new life he chose and feels very lucky that Ioanna was still single and eager to follow him.

His grandchildren and son traveled from the other side of the world to celebrate a century of life. Photo: Supplied

“From where I am now, looking back, if I had stayed in Greece, I don’t think I would have made it to a hundred. I say it with all my heart. With everything I see happening there… how they fight among themselves.”

Apart from the medical care and support we have, he continues, we have lived a peaceful life here, with our jobs, our friends.

“In Greece, whether you like it or not, you are always in the midst of people, having to get involved in constant social interaction. Here it’s calmer. Then the circle of friends we made… We met families who were like us, and our children grew up in this environment. With friends and meaningful relationships.”

Every Saturday they met their friends and danced at each other’s houses. Once a month, they had a party at home. On Sundays, they went for walks in the mountains, and in the summer afternoons, after work, they went to the sea.

“Luck was with me. Everything that came to me was good.”