Family discovers father, a Vietnam veteran, was more than their hero
By KEVIN ELLIS | Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C. | Published: August 13, 2016
GASTONIA, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Asked what he did during his 20-year military career, Michael Lekopites had a ready, unassuming answer.
"He would say, 'I worked in communications. I climbed telephone poles,'" said Holly Pickert of Belmont, the oldest of his three daughters.
And while his girls always knew their father had done more, it was enough that he was their protector, their guardian and, if needed, their shoulder to cry on.
"He had a tough exterior with a soft heart," Pickert said.
But last year, the three girls came to realize that Alzheimer's disease was about to steal their family history. No longer could their father tell them stories of his past, or sometimes even their own names. They could pick out pieces of his story but needed help in filling the gaps.
"As kids, you don't pay attention to that stuff," Pickert said.
They turned to U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry's office for help in getting the service medals their father had earned during an Army career that started in 1962 and would include two years in Vietnam.
"I've never awarded so many medals to one individual in my 12 years of Congress," McHenry said last week.
Some of Lekopites' medals were earned for acts of heroism that remain hidden from public knowledge, still labeled as classified material. McHenry said not even his status as a congressman can unlock the information.
At first glance, Lekopites may not have quite looked like a hero. He told people he was 5 foot 6, but was actually closer to 5 foot 4. He was always extremely fit but never tipped the scales past 150 pounds. He carried the nickname "little Greek man."
But sometimes strength gets measured by heart, as Lekopites proved on an August day in 1977.
Lekopites was working as an Army recruiter in Charlotte when he spied a police officer in trouble while walking on West Trade Street. Charlotte Police Officer J.N. Clark was attempting to arrest two men when one of them grabbed his service revolver and attempted to get it out of its holster while also hitting the officer in the head with a pistol he had on him.
Lekopites rushed over to help, his bravery possibly saving the officer's life.
"Sgt. Lekopites, you conspicuously distinguished yourself by being unarmed and going to the aid of a police officer in confrontation with an armed subject without regard to your own safety," former Charlotte Police Chief J.C. Goodman wrote in a letter awarding him the department's Certification of Appreciation award.
Some quotes never go stale.
"I knew something had to be done," Lekopites told a Charlotte reporter in 1977. "If he had gotten the revolver somebody would have been hurt, and it might have been an innocent bystander. But I'll say this, I'm just glad to be in the Army. At least here I know who the enemy is. Out there the police officer really has it rough. Sometimes he just doesn't know what's coming down."
Lekopites grew up near Buffalo, N.Y. He would meet his future wife of 50 years, Gail, while on a trip to Gastonia during military leave. They would have three daughters. Their middle child, Krystal Quiron, lives in Fort Mill, S.C., and the youngest, Traci Cleveland, in Clover, S.C. He would move to Gaston County to be close to his wife's family.
After retiring from the military, he worked about a dozen years combined for first the Gaston County Police Department and then the state prison in Dallas. He and his wife now both live in assisted living centers. Hospice has been called in to help care for Mr. Lekopites.
"He was never afraid of anything and he always wanted to protect the smaller person, the general person, the person who didn't deserve to have anything bad happen to them," Pickert said.
The daughters want their children to know who their "Papa" was and what he did, Pickert said.
"We've always known my dad was a hero. We don't need the medals to prove that," Pickert said.
McHenry presented the family with Lekopites' medals at his town hall meeting Thursday in Gaston County. The audience of more than 60 people honored his service with a standing ovation.
Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger followed the family outside the meeting. He told them he remembered Lekopites as a fine police officer, an honest and good man. He told them if they needed help, to just call.
"He's always been our hero," Pickert said. "But it's nice to hear someone else say, 'Thank you.'"