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Koumantzelis Shared a Wild Road with Kerouac

November 12, 2018

This vintage photograph of Billy Koumantzelis, left, and his longtime pal, Beat author Jack Kerouac, hung in Koumantzelis home.

LOWELL -- Jack Kerouac was known for getting into trouble, sometimes harmless and other times a bit more serious involving fisticuffs.

If it wasn’t for William “Billy” Koumantzelis, it could have been a lot worse for the Beat Generation writer from Lowell.

In the 1960s, Koumantzelis became one of Kerouac’s closest friends in the Mill City. A former professional boxer and World War II veteran, Koumantzelis morphed into Kerouac’s bodyguard -- saving Kerouac from getting pummeled inside bars.

“He was very loyal to Jack,” Roger Brunelle, of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, recalled last week. “Jack meant a lot to him. He always had good things to say about Jack.

“He stayed loyal to Jack years after he died,” Brunelle added.

Koumantzelis died last month in Lowell. He was 92.

Paul Marion, a community historian, saw Koumantzelis at Kerouac festivals and events.

He was one of the last living people who was a close friend of Kerouac’s, Marion said.

“It was rare to have a first-person witness of the author,” Marion said. “He’d say how Jack was fascinating to listen to.”

Kerouac had been best friends with Koumantzelis’ brother John, who later died in World War II. Then Koumantzelis met Kerouac in 1962.

When the city rediscovered Kerouac decades after he died in 1969, it was great to have people around who knew Kerouac and could talk about what he was like, Marion said.

“He (Koumantzelis) was always very supportive of all of the efforts in the city to keep Kerouac’s legacy alive,” Marion said.

Kerouac was famous by the time Koumantzelis befriended him, and no longer drove himself around. His friends filled that role, including Koumantzelis.

“He was a kind person, always smiling,” Brunelle said.

Koumantzelis had six siblings. His parents from Greece came to America in 1909.

A graduate of Lowell High School, Koumantzelis served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He then worked as a heavy equipment operator at Fort Devens.

As a father of six children, Koumantzelis was passionate about youth sports. He was active in youth baseball and coached his sons in the Acre Youth Organization.

For many years, he was a member of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell -- heading there to box, swim, lift weights and socialize with friends. He was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his community service work there.

Joe Hungler, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell, said Koumantzelis was well-respected at the club.

“He really loved it here,” Hungler said.

Koumantzelis enjoyed the club so much that donations in his name can be made to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell, as well as to the American Cancer Society.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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