Beaumont Street branch of Newcastle Permanent in Hamilton celebrates 40th birthday, as does its favourite Greek-speaking employee

LASTING LEGACY: Newcastle Permanent teller Jenni Papanicolaou at the Hamilton branch where she has worked for four decades. Her first pay packet in 1978 was $75, which she said felt like winning lotto. Picture: Simone De Peak
LASTING LEGACY: Newcastle Permanent teller Jenni Papanicolaou at the Hamilton branch where she has worked for four decades. Her first pay packet in 1978 was $75, which she said felt like winning lotto. Picture: Simone De Peak

She wakes up at the same time, has the same morning coffee and walks the same five-minute walk to work everyday. 

It’s been the unvarying routine for 40 years of teller Jenni Papanicolaou at Newcastle Permanent’s Hamilton branch, which celebrates 40 years of serving the community on Thursday. 

No identification was required to open an account in 1978, any name could be used. Tellers were issued $40 floats for the day in “tins” and the branch was lined with wallpaper and chandeliers. 

Starting as a 17-year-old who “didn’t really want the job”, it’s been a long-stint inside the same building for Ms Papanicolaou who considers the branch’s regular customers part of her extended family. 

There from day dot, part of her role involved assisting many of the European migrants who used the local Hamilton branch. 

Australian-born but of Greek decent, Ms Papanicolaou was initially weary about taking on the multi-lingual position, having only spoke minimal Greek at home. 

“Many of our customers were Greek, Italian, and Macedonian, and it was a priority at the time to employ a bi-lingual staff to help customers,” Ms Papanicolaou said. 

“I educated my customers in the basics; they didn’t know how to complete the withdrawal form so they could get their money. I taught them how to fill in their name, where to put the amount, and where to sign.

“I had to go and get a dictionary and my parents got a tutor for me. I could speak Greek, but not what I had to do here.”

After three months in the job, her father sent her on a three-week holiday to Greece so she could learn the language fluently. 

The trip must have made an impact as she’s since returned “around 29 times” to visit her country of heritage. 

While many of the teller staff now rotate across branches during their employment, Ms Papanicolaou’s talents have been kept at the Beaumont Street branch. 

The people she helped in the ‘70s and ‘80s either still come into the branch and wait to be served so they can chat in Greek, or their children and grand-children are now the regular faces. 

An increasingly rare achievement of notching up four decades at the one employer, let alone in one role, Ms Papanicolaou said she never really considered doing anything else once she took the job. 

COMMUNITY FIRST: Jenni Papanicolaou has seen it all at the Hamilton branch. Picture: Simone De Peak.

COMMUNITY FIRST: Jenni Papanicolaou has seen it all at the Hamilton branch. Picture: Simone De Peak.

“I wanted to be a preschool or primary school teacher beforehand, but when I got here everything changed,” she said.  

“I loved it, if I didn't like it – I wouldn't be here. I really, really enjoy it. I wouldn't know what else to do, I'd never, ever worked anywhere else.”

Asked of the most significant events that have occurred during her career, she vividly recalls the 1989 Newcastle earthquake, of which Hamilton was the suburb hardest hit. 

“I was here, on Beaumont Street for the earthquake,” she said.

“A person died just across the street, which scared me. Every year I leave two little flowers on a pole just across the street to remember them.”

Another moment she doesn’t forget is the 2007 floods that ravaged the Hunter. While there was no damage to the branch, Ms Papanicolaou lost a treasure-trove of Newcastle Permanent mementos she had collected over the years. 

But as the star of a 1996 television commercial and many other company advertisements, Ms Papanicolaou’s legacy among her fellow employees appears destined to remain long after she’s gone. 

Not that she has plans of retiring anytime soon…

“Not until it’s time for me to go,” she said. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing, if I do leave I will need a plan. I’m too young to retire.”