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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Nashua Motor Express family moves on

Dean Shalhoup

We kids thought we were pretty clever back in the day of New Hampshire’s seasonal “scenic” and “photoscenic” license plates, especially when we got to show off to the uninitiated among us.

For instance, I might point to a car and declare, “He lives somewhere near Concord,” and await the inevitable, “How do you know?” “See the ‘M’ and ‘E’ on his license plate? That means Merrimack County, where Concord is,” I’d proudly submit. ...

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We kids thought we were pretty clever back in the day of New Hampshire’s seasonal “scenic” and “photoscenic” license plates, especially when we got to show off to the uninitiated among us.

For instance, I might point to a car and declare, “He lives somewhere near Concord,” and await the inevitable, “How do you know?” “See the ‘M’ and ‘E’ on his license plate? That means Merrimack County, where Concord is,” I’d proudly submit.

The wheels would start to turn. But I’d usually interrupt: “Yep, that’s why we see so many ‘H’s,’ ‘I’s’ and ‘L’s’ around here … get it? Hillsborough County?”

But county designations aside, it’s a particular vanity plate that I’ve been thinking a lot about this week, one that is so dyed-in-the-wool Nashua that anyone older than 50 who doesn’t recognize it instantly isn’t a true Nashuan.

That would be “NMX,” a loose acronym for the Juris family’s Nashua Motor Express, whose executive and sales cars’ plates all bore the three letters followed by a dash and its own number.

The news this week that the venerable trucking firm, equal parts family-run and family-oriented since Greek immigrant Philip Michael began shuttling beef to Boston in 1922, is taking a whole new direction brought to mind not only those classic NMX plates, but also fond memories of one of 20th-century Nashua’s most active and philanthropic families.

Nancy and Diana Juris were in grade school when their parents, George and Alpy Juris, moved Nashua Motor Express from Vine Street out to the hinterlands of Nashua – “the Milford Road” – where they put up a brand new building in the midst of chicken coops and henhouses.

“There was Charron’s, Berthiaume’s and us,” Nancy Juris, now Nancy Pappo, said of their closest neighbors, both of which were poultry farms.

“We had about 3 acres. … It was just a little, two-lane road,” she said of Amherst Street, then alternately called Amherst Road and Milford Road.

Pappo, who was 7 when her father opened the new, sprawling facility in spring 1960, remembers skipping through the oak trees that lined Amherst Street to visit kindly Mrs. Berthiaume across the way.

“It seemed like such a vast piece of property back then,” Pappo said, glancing out the office window that paints a far different picture than it did half a century ago.

“We’d run across the street to Berthiaume’s and go around with her feeding the chickens,” she said of the farm’s owner.

Turnpike Plaza, Ruby Tuesday, Burger King, the Sundale condominiums and a few other buildings sit on the old farm today.

“I remember there was a small pond where Papa Gino’s is,” Pappo added, gesturing through streams of traffic toward the restaurant that fronts Turnpike Plaza.

Philip Michael – it’s a good bet he anglicized his name, a common strategy among young immigrants wanting to “sound American” to ease the assimilation process – was 14 when he arrived in Nashua from the Macedonia region of Greece. It was 1906, and the factories were thriving; young Philip chose the shoe industry.

In his 20s, he met and soon married a young woman and fellow Greek immigrant named Kyriakoula, whose nickname was Carrie. Big things began to happen in 1922: Philip turned 30 and left the factory to start his own beef-delivery business, and he and Carrie welcomed their second daughter, who would go by Alpy.

With World War I behind us and the Great Depression still pretty far off, Philip Michael seems to have rolled the dice at just the right time, founding the first incarnations of Nashua Motor Express early in America’s Roaring ’20s.

Michael filled his first truck, a used Dodge, with beef and by-products at local packing houses and made daily deliveries to Boston. In warm weather, he had no time to dilly-dally; without refrigeration, meat had a brief shelf life.

The Michaels ran the business out of their 73 Palm St. home, eventually moving at least the truck garage to Vine Street after they found property that included several garages.

“The drivers would still go to Palm Street to punch in, then walk over to get their trucks,” said Diana Juris, Pappo’s sister and fellow co-owner.

At day’s end, she said, it wasn’t uncommon for Philip Michael to share shots of Metaxa – a sipping liqueur favored by Greeks – with his drivers.

Nor did they want for vegetables.

“My grandmother gave them all sorts of things from her garden, and sometimes fed them meals,” Diana Juris said. “It was so much like a big family.”

If Nashua Motor Express needs yet another tried-and-true Nashua component, consider this: After helping her father throughout her teens, Alpy Michael became a hostess and cashier at The Priscilla Tearoom, the iconic mid-20th-century downtown hangout. One of her co-workers was a young soda jerk named George Juris. Who had eyes for whom at first is unclear, but the hostess and soda jerk became husband and wife.

When Philip Michael died in 1952, George and Alpy Juris took the reins and continued what Michael started, growing the business truck by truck until it became clear they needed more space.

Lots has changed in 92 years, but what has never wavered is the firm’s family philosophy. Once a driver, mechanic, salesman or office worker was hired, he or she was there for good. The loyalty and respect were reciprocal, Diana Juris said.

“When the Teamsters had strikes, our drivers told them they didn’t want to picket,” she said. “But the union told them they had to, so they picketed – at night, across the street, where few could even see them.”

Alpy Juris and her daughters carried on the business after George Juris died of a heart attack in 1979. The sisters continued after their mother’s death in 2002.

Even when the sisters, along with Nancy’s husband, Joe Pappo, delivered the news this week that Nashua Motor Express was giving way to Nashua Logistics, the employees, though staring layoffs in the face, thanked the Pappos and Juris for making their workplace so welcoming for so many years.

“A couple of them told us, ‘I always felt very comfortable working here. … This is like home to us,’” Nancy Pappo said. “It kind of made this change that much tougher for us, because we all cared so much about each other.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443
or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).