Eleni or “Nitsa” (the familiar of Elenitsa or little Eleni) Rockas (nee Rotous) was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington, on November 6, 1933. She is seen here holding her autobiography, “Reflections of an American-Greek Life,” which she completed in May of 2013. In her words: “Now that I am almost 80 years old, it is time to write a history of MY LIFE so that my children and grandchildren will understand their mother and yiayia (grandmother) and how she became what she is because of the history of her origins.”
The remainder of this exhibit is excerpted and transcribed from that autobiography and a video interview with Eleni in Seattle, Washington, on May 31, 2013. The material from the autobiography is presented here in the third person.
lt all began in Limni, on the island of Evia (also known as Euboea), Greece, where Eleni’s father, Andreas Nikolaos Rotous, was born on March 5, 1897. He was the third of six children born to Nikolaos Rotous and Kondelia Antoniou. Nikolaos grew up in Limni and finished the fifth grade. He spent many hours selling fresh fruit and vegetables from a cart he would haul around the village and surrounding areas. The family was very destitute, so his father decided that he should come to America “where the streets were paved with gold!” He had to mortgage his home to pay for the tickets. Nikolaos took his oldest son, Andreas, on his journey with him. On February 4, 1909, they left Piraeus, Greece, on a small steamship traveling past the island of Crete, the towns of Messinia and Kantania, Greece, Palermo, Sicily, and Napoli, Italy. There they boarded a larger ship named COMPANIA. It carried cattle on one side and passengers, including papou (grandfather) and Andreas on the other side; “talk about lice…there were plenty!” On May 6, 1909 they arrived in New York where they were kept in Castle Garden which preceded Ellis Island and is now a fort and national monument, located in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. They remained there for a few days for examination to make sure they carried no infectious diseases. From there they boarded a train and traveled for seven days before arriving in Beaumont, Texas, where they knew some Greeks. Since there were very few jobs there, they borrowed money to buy two one-way tickets to San Francisco, California. A massive fire had destroyed the city, so there were many jobs available to rebuild the city. Andreas held a number of jobs in San Francisco including grocery store work, selling newspapers and gum, kitchen work in a restaurant, at a canning company, delivering telegrams and in a glass factory.
When the Balkan wars were declared in 1912, Andreas returned to Greece and served in the military for a short time. He then returned home to Limni but became bored and left again for America in 1913. This time he went west and worked in Portland, Oregon, as a barber, a bus boy in the Benson Hotel and in a grocery store. In 1919 he moved to Raymond, Washington, then to Concrete, Washington, and finally to the Grays Harbor area in 1922 where he worked in a barber shop. In 1927 he purchased the Grays Harbor Grocery (later renamed the Grays Harbor Thrift Food Store) with his friend Alex Demetriou. In 1929, at the age of 32 he received a letter from his family in Limni telling him that it was time to marry and they had picked out a pretty girl from the village. Also, Andreas’ father was ill so it was necessary for him to return to Greece.
Eleni’s mother, Georgia Ioannis Zaniakou, was born on August 25, 1907. After her oldest sister, Katerini, was married it was time for the second daughter, Maria, to marry, so the families began making arrangements for Maria to marry Andreas. Andreas (anglicized to Andy) made it known to the villagers that he and his bride would move back to America immediately after the wedding as he had to return to the grocery store that he owned. Maria began contemplating this plan and told her family that she did not want to leave and live in America. She loved Greece and her village and wanted to stay there. Maria’s younger sister, Georgia was a very good pupil and also took private sewing classes from a teacher in Limni. She was a very adventuresome person and announced to her family that she wanted to become a school teacher. To do this she would have to move to Athens. Her father considered her plans but was worried about his youngest daughter, who was now 23 years old. How could she live away from her family in the large Greek capital? He decided she should stay in Limni. Georgia cried. Then the wedding plans for Maria went awry. Georgia, hearing all the commotion, stepped up and announced, “I will marry Andreas. I want to live in America.” Georgia considered this plan the best for her future.
Georgia and Andreas enjoyed a lovely wedding on February 1, 1930. All the relatives and many villagers attended the wedding and soon the newlywed couple left for their whirlwind honeymoon, traveling to many famous sites in Athens and taking photos at the Parthenon. Then on to the ship that sailed to New York. From there they travelled by train to Aberdeen where Andreas had bought a small home on Jefferson Street. Georgia settled in and began working alongside her husband at the grocery store. She attended school and learned the English language very quickly. She began sewing and made uniforms to wear at the store. Within a year Georgia was expecting a daughter, Kondelia, who was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Aberdeen on December 12, 1931. She was named after Andreas’ mother as is the custom in the Greek culture and her middle name was Andrea. Being a barber, her father gave her a boy’s haircut. (Did he really want a boy?) In the summer of 1932 Andy and Georgia planned a huge celebration at the Moose Hall in Aberdeen following Kondelia’s baptism.
The Greek Orthodox priest from Tacoma, Washington, was invited to perform the sacrament. Andy asked Aleko Demetriou, his best friend and partner in the grocery store, to be the godfather. A luncheon, prepared by the parents, was served to the 161 guests. Andy and some of his friends wore the AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) fez (hat) as they were very proud to be members.
Andy bought a larger home at 108 South Jefferson Street and the family lived there for 55 years until he died in 1987. The home had five rooms and a small yard: living room, dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms. The small yard was changed into a single car garage. Andy owned a panel truck which transported the family. There were only two front seats and the rest of the truck was used to transport groceries from the wholesale market to the grocery store.
When Eleni was born in 1933, it was Georgia’s turn to name the daughter after her mother, so this child was named Eleni and her middle name was also Andrea. This completed their family as two children were all they could afford. As a child Eleni went by the Americanized name of Helen and used that name until recently. Now, as Eleni, she feels very comfortable with her Greek name. Growing up, not all Greek parents in Aberdeen spoke English. Usually, the adults would speak in Greek and their children would answer in English. Eleni remembers the Ballasiotes, Collis, Doscanes and Chemeres families among the few Greeks they knew.
When Kondelia and Eleni became three and five years old respectively, they began dancing lessons. Every Saturday the lessons were held at the Odd Fellows Hall a few blocks away from the Rotous home. Eleni can still remember their excellent teacher and learning the five positions of the feet, arms and hands. Georgia loved making all of the lovely sparkly costumes her daughters wore at their recitals. When performing a solo in 1943, Eleni felt like she was on top of the world and, like Shirley Temple, loved playing to an audience. The sisters continued with tap dancing, Spanish dancing and acrobatics and Eleni continues to enjoy dancing to this day. Andy and Georgia also bought an ancient upright piano for the girls. To make sure that they learned their lessons, Georgia sat with them every day while they practiced. As they got older, Andy said that they couldn’t lug a piano around so they should learn to play another instrument. So, Eleni learned to play the violin and Kondelia the flute which they played in the Grays Harbor Symphony Orchestra while in high school. lt was a great way to spend their off hours when not attending school or working in the grocery store.
Kondelia and Eleni attended McDermott Elementary School for two years and St. Mary’s Catholic School through the 8th grade. All classes were taught by Dominican nuns dressed in long white cotton gowns. Eleni proudly recalls being the last student standing in a spelling bee after the others had misspelled their words. Because they we were now in a Catholic school they began attending the Catholic church. Prior to that time they attended the Church of God, an evangelistic, non-denominational church a few blocks from their house. At the Catholic church they participated in the masses and wore white dresses while parading around the church. However, they were not allowed to receive Holy Communion because they were not Catholic. During Greek Orthodox holy days the family would drive to Tacoma to attend St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. For one year the girls attended Fort Miller Junior High School and then entered Weatherwax High School. Graduation was a huge event in Eleni’s life. She had received top grades and was a member of the Honor Society all three years of high school.
While most children played in the summer months Andy thought it was a waste of valuable time. One summer Andy enrolled Eleni in Grays Harbor Business College to learn shorthand. The following summer she learned to type. In subsequent summers she volunteered in the laboratory and worked in the X-Ray department of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Aberdeen. Just being in the medical environment was exciting and she knew she wanted to study medicine.
For Eleni there was only one great university in her state, the University of Washington. She applied, was accepted and was excited to move to Seattle. She planned on doing well so she wouldn’t have to return to “old, dusty Aberdeen.” She performed very well and was admitted into the scholastic honor society. Basic medical sciences was Eleni’s major and she considered working toward a degree in medical technology. During her sophomore year she met a woman classmate who was going to apply for acceptance to medical school. The medical school at the University was very young. It had only been in existence for ten years. So, on a lark, Eleni decided to apply after her third year as an undergraduate not ever imagining she would be accepted. The medical school professors were young and open to women entering medical school at a time when few women even applied. In 1955 she was one of few women admitted with a class of mostly men.
After medical school Eleni began her internship at Sacramento County Hospital in Sacramento, California. She spent many long hours often in extremely hot temperatures with no air conditioning. Here she dealt with mentally retarded infants and toddlers, some with massive hydrocephalus and kept out of sight in very primitive back wards. She has seen many improvements in treatment of these children since that time. After finishing her rotating internship, Eleni was so tired that, instead of a residency, she took a full time job as a civilian physician at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento. It was like a vacation. Being a woman she did a lot of pediatrics and gynecology but also saw young recruits. In the video segment “Eleni Raises Blood Pressures” she tells the story of a young man whose blood pressure was elevated. She followed him and actually started him on a low-dose diuretic. One day when he was scheduled for an appointment with her she was ill and a male physician saw him. Guess what? His blood pressure was normal. He didn’t have hypertension at all. His blood pressure would rise when he would see Eleni verifying the fact that there certainly is a mind-body connection.
With more time to spare, Eleni was able to attend the Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento and became a member of the choir and president of the youth group. Her parents were determinedthat it was time to meet a nice young man. So they would drive to Sacramento from Aberdeen and take her to AHEPA conventions in various California cities. While Eleni was mingling, her father button-holed the Greek men and asked about the availability of bachelors. Andy was secretly developing a list for Eleni. One day her parents picked her up and told her they were going to Fresno. Eleni was not told the reason but upon arrival in downtown Fresno, Andy said, “Remember that young man you met at the AHEPA convention in Los Angeles named Chris Rockas? He is an attorney and his office is in the Security Bank Building. You will meet him again.” So when Eleni went to his office and introduced herself to his secretary Esther Beck (Chris was not there) she was welcomed, offered coffee and told that Esther would make some telephone calls to find him. Chris took Eleni to lunch and that evening the Rockas family had the Rotous family at their home for dinner. Ffrom then on Eleni and Chris were a couple in love. That occurred in the summer of 1960. By December they were engaged and the following April 16, 1961, they were married at the Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento. The arranged marriage has lasted 52 years. In medical school Eleni had been asked if she had children and would she work or stay at home. When their daughter Panagiota (Patti) Christina was born in 1963, Eleni took just six months off and when their son Andreas followed in 1966, she took only a few weeks away from her career.
Eleni’s pediatric residency was at Fresno County Hospital and was followed with a nine-year practice with another woman pediatrician, Dr. Nathalie Wolfe. When that office closed following Dr. Wolfe’s death, Eleni began a 29-year employment at the new Central Valley Regional Center (CVRC) in Fresno. She rotated between six counties performing evaluations on children and adults with developmental disabilities such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. Eventually she became medical director of the CVRC. As her children grew older, Eleni’s work hours increased and she began working closely with the genetics department at Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno. A very challenging aspect of this work has been determining the cause of the disability so counseling can be provided for the families.
Eleni’s retirement in 2004 was precipitated by her acceptance as a volunteer for the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. In addition to a very rewarding experience, she and her husband Chris were able to visit with multiple cousins in Athens and in Limni on the island of Evia. She has written a 24-page memoir of her daily experiences in Greece. In her retirement she spends time at the CVRC, reviewing charts of clients and writing in medical diagnoses. She has also served as chairman of the Regional Center Physician’s Organization. Through the Fresno-Madera Medical Society, she gives lectures to school children about obesity prevention and other health topics. She also makes presentations to organizations and senior centers about the signs and symptoms of a stroke. She has served as chairman of the Fresno-Madera Women Physicians. Every week she attends lectures at Children’s Hospital of Central California to maintain her knowledge of pediatrics. Once a year she attends a symposium on developmental pediatrics in San Francisco.
Eleni has maintained her Greek culture as past president of the Daughters of Penelope, the women’s affiliate of AHEPA, and as District chairman of the Daughter’s library project which she created. Each chapter has adopted a shelter for abused women who are provided with self-help and parenting books. Eleni has also engaged in other pursuits such as computer classes, monthly book club, travel, genealogy, camp physician and church activities including chairing the weekly greeting committee and choral singing. Being a member of the Fresno Community Chorale for nineteen years has allowed her to sing in yearly concerts in Fresno as well as trips to other countries. The Chorale has sung in France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Italy and China. Eleni also spends more time with her husband Chris, her two children and three grandchildren. Chris and Eleni have more time now to enjoy their home at Kings Beach in North Lake Tahoe.
Looking back, Eleni cannot remember being treated differently as a Greek in Aberdeen. She and her sister were very busy in their early years. As immigrants from a small island village with no chance to finish high school, her parents seemed to live their lives through their daughters. While she sometimes felt like two different people, one Greek and the other American, she has never forgotten her heritage and values the deep roots of her Greek culture. Her life has been exceptionally meaningful by being actively involved in AHEPA, the Daughters and her church. Just as her parents did not restrain her activities outside of the Greek community, she has supported her children in their life choices. Eleni wishes to be remembered as one who loves people and works for their mental and physical health and as a good mother who cares deeply about her children and grandchildren.By John and Joann Nicon, June 2013 PHOTOS
1 Eleni and her autobiography, 2013
2 Andreas Rotous, 1940
3 Andy and Georgia on their Athens honeymoon, 1931
4 Andy and Georgia 50th anniversary, 1981
5 Andy’s first grocery store (l-r) Georgia, Andy and helper, circa 1934
6-7 Kondelia’s baptism, 1932
8 AHEPA float in Aberdeen, Eleni and Kondelia standing upper right above Andy (in suit), 1936
9 Eleni at three months, 1933
10 Georgia, Eleni and Kondelia at Roosevelt Park in Aberdeen, circa 1935
11 Eleni and Kondelia as tap dancers, 1939
12 Kondelia and Eleni, circa 1939
13 Kondelia and Eleni, 1949
14 Rotous family (l-r) Andy, Georgia, Kondelia, Eleni, 1949
15 Aberdeen Daughters of Penelope (l-r) rear: Evelyn Martinson, Ann Kotros McGuire, Katina Dymas, Violet George, Opal Jenes, Helen Rillakis, Evangelia Diakos; center: Ann Zaymopoulos, Hilma McGee, Mary Kosopoulos, Katina Prassis, Frances Kotros, Gathel Ballow, Eustathia Mintzias; front: Kondelia Rotous (Secretary), Dena Chemeres, Margaret Lapinski, Georgia Rotous (President), Katina Ballasiotes, Helen Dallas, Margaret Bell, 1950s
16 Eleni at high school graduation, 1951
17 Eleni at medical school graduation, 1958
18 Eleni wedding newspaper article, 1961
19 Chris Rockas family (l-r) Eleni, Chris, Andreas, Panagiota (Patti), 1988
20 Eleni in Fresno-Madera Medical Society, 2002
21 Andreas Rockas, Bill Rockas and maternal grandmother, Linda Reavley, 2012
22 Patti McCloskey, Eleni, Nicole McCloskey, Chris, Grant McCloskey, 2010
Photo 1 by John Nicon; 18 The Aberdeen World; all others from Rotous and Rockas family collections SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, May 2013; Reflections of an American-Greek Life by Eleni Rotous Rockas, M.D., 2013