The Mickelis family suffered a one-two punch of devastation a few decades ago, when patriarch Nick Mickelis passed away in 1989 at the age of 68. Less than a year later, the Cleburne Cafeteria he began running in 1952 with wife Pat burned to the ground. All was lost, save a few of Nick Mickelis's prized paintings that had hung on the walls. But the Mickelis family wasn't down for long; Pat and their son, George, made sure those paintings were hung prominently when they reopened a newly built Cleburne Cafeteria just under four months later.
On May 12, Cleburne Cafeteria was set to celebrate its 75th anniversary, but fate had other plans. The cafeteria, now run by George and his wife Michelle, caught fire overnight and once again burned to ashes. According to Houston Fire Department District 28 Chief Bob Schlieter, the fire was reported just before midnight, but couldn't be contained in time. Despite the efforts of nearly 50 firefighters, the roof collapsed and Cleburne's was lost.
There's no word yet on what started the fire, though arson investigators are on the scene today. Local TV news cameras captured a devastated George Mickelis outside the charred remains of his family's restaurant, which had been preparing to host a 1940s-style big band in its parking lot in celebration of its grand opening in 1941.
Here, Mickelis found a silver lining amidst the ashes: a few of his father's original paintings, somehow saved once again—an indelible legacy of the man who arrived in America from Patmos, Greece with $2.50 in his pocket and would one day create a cafeteria to feed generations of Houstonians.
"I'm very, very thankful to see that," said Mickelis, regarding a soot-covered painting of an old man. "I mean it's a true prayer answered. Especially this painting of Barba Yianni." Knowing the Mickelis family, it won't be long before Uncle John will be hanging on their dining room wall once again.