Where most Greek families with long names shortened or Anglicized them, Greg Asimakoupoulos’ family did just the opposite. With Greek and Norwegian parents, his connections run deep with families in Seattle, Washington, and the northwest United States.
Gregory (Gregorio) Edwin Asimakoupoulos was born on April 18, 1952, in Moscow, Idaho, to Edwin and Star Smith. The Asimakoupoulos family changed the ancestral name to Smith after arriving in the United States. While he may use a Greek translation of his first name, it actually comes from the English and Irish ancestry of his maternal grandmother.
His papou (grandfather), Haralambos (Harry) Athanasios Asimakoupoulos was born on April 24, 1891, in the small village of Klima above the seaport of Monastiraki about ten kilometers east of Nafpaktos, Greece. Harry came to America through Ellis Island with his brother Tony when he was about 15 years old and somehow made his way to the west coast. Two older brothers, Jim and John remained in Greece.
Harry and his brother operated a shoe shine business in Seattle and then took the train to San Diego, California, while exploring the west coast. He then spent some time in Spokane, Washington, and, in 1907, in Lewiston, Idaho, along the Clearwater River. There he went to work for the Camas Prairie Railroad and became a section foreman on the Orofino to Lewiston run. When Greg visited Klima in 2016, he noticed how the geography of Lewiston would have reminded his papou of his home village in Greece. Harry’s father had died and his mother sent her two sons to the United States to improve their lives. They were unable to return to Greece before she also passed away. Harry did not keep the Asimakoupoulos name but chose Smith instead (possibly an interpretation of the Greek word asimi meaning silver), perhaps indicting that an ancestor was a silversmith.
Margaret Stradley Turley was Greg’s paternal grandmother. She was from rural Virginia and came to Lewiston to visit her half-sisters. She found her life in Lewiston much improved, met Harry Smith, this man with a dark complexion and heavy accent, and never returned to Virginia. Harry and Margaret were married around 1920 and had six children; Elaine, Bessie, Billy, Edwin and twins Louise (Wilson) and Lois (Robison). The Smith children were raised near the small town of Lapwai, Idaho, on the edge of the Nez Perce reservation.
Residing in rural Idaho kept the family some distance from the closest Greek Orthodox Church in Spokane, Washington, from where the priest would occasionally travel to visit his parishioners. Harry had been baptized Greek Orthodox but he and Margaret did not always follow the Orthodox traditions. With a desire to instill Christian values in his children and associations with other Christians in the area, Harry became a devout member in the First Assembly of God Church. He became a naturalized citizen in 1932 when he surrendered his Greek name and legally became Harry Smith. In 1957 Harry went back to Greece with his daughter Lois and spent a month in his village. It was the first time since leaving in 1906. Shortly after returning Harry died in August of 1957 when Greg was just five years old.
Greg’s father, Edwin, was born on March 14, 1926, in Arrow, Idaho. He and his brother Billy, while carrying the Smith name, always knew the real family name but saw it as a “family secret.” Edwin and Billy were Marines in World War II where Edwin served on a detachment on the battleship Missouri. One of Edwin’s proudest moments was when he appeared in a photograph, looking back toward the camera on September 2, 1945, the day General McArthur officiated at the surrender of the Japanese. A photographer, climbing a ladder for a better shot, dropped his camera and 19-year-old Edwin turned toward the sound at the same time another photographer took the photo.
Greg’s mother, Elsie Star Birkeland, was the youngest of three children born to a Norwegian immigrant and Norwegian-American woman. Gunder Birkeland was born in Sauda, Norway, in 1885. He and his four brothers came to the United States and settled in Kitsap County, Washington, just west of Seattle. They worked in the lumber industry and later in the Naval shipyards in Bremerton, Washington. Gunder was crippled with infantile polio and, with a hunchback, would shuffle along. However, this illness and deformity forged within him a desire to succeed and to be more than he appeared to be. He worked as a property manager and insurance broker, then as the general contractor for five homes built on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. Of the five brothers and two sisters, he lived the longest and died at the age of 90 as a self-made millionaire.
While Gunder’s son Benny was serving a Pentecostal Church in Lewiston, Idaho, he met Edwin Smith a pastor in Lapwai and suggested that Edwin might enjoy meeting Benny’s younger sister, Star. When Star visited her brother, she and Edwin had six dates and were married within eight months. Their marriage took place in the Queen Anne home on January 23, 1951.
In 1960, Gunder Birkeland, having established a successful business, took his three children and their spouses to Norway to celebrate his 75th birthday. Edwin and Star then broke off from the group to visit the family village in Greece. There Edwin met his uncle Dimitri who was overcome with joy to meet Haralambos’ son. This visit also gave Edwin an overwhelming sense of connection and love for his ancestors. Upon their return to the United States, Edwin met members of the Greek Mission Board of the Assemblies of God, an Evangelical group who wanted to raise money for an orphanage and bible school in Greece. Edwin accepted their offer, resigned his assignment with the church in Marysville, Washington to help but worried about providing an income for his family. Fortunately, Gunder offered a home on his property in Wenatchee, Washington, where Edwin could do his work while Star managed the properties. It was there that the Smiths became acquainted with the Valissarakos family, Jim and Lula, and Jim’s father Gus, who owned the Cashmere Café. (see ONE HUNDRED PIES FOR APPLE DAYS) In 1964 Edwin spent six months in Greece and learned about the relationship, between the Evangelicals and the Greek Orthodox which is not always congenial. He continued his Greek ministry work and never returned to a local church ministry. About the same time Alex Haley’s book, ROOTS was published Edwin considered changing his name back to the original Asimakoupoulos. On August 13, 1969, three weeks after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and about a week before the Woodstock festival, Edwin and his family appeared before the Chelan County judge and legally changed the name back to Asimakoupoulos. As a high school senior and working for KPU radio, Greg vividly remembers the event.
Over the years, Edwin led congregations in Moscow, Hillsboro, Oregon, Marysville, Washington, and finally in Wenatchee. Edwin died on November 4, 2008, and Star, who turned 90 in January of 2017, lives in Wenatchee near her son Marc.
While many children of clergy might rebel against their parent’s teachings, Greg did not. Rather, he loved the involvement with the church and its congregations and believes he lived a charmed life. He spent his early years through the sixth grade in Marysville, Washington, and then completed high school in Wenatchee. Greg with his dark hair, and his brother Marc, with reddish hair, represented the Greek and Norwegian parts of their lives. He recalls his father being very supportive of little league baseball games and scouting activities. While not particularly athletic, Greg became somewhat proficient at bowling and played golf in high school.
There were a few Greek artifacts at home that reminded Edwin of his trip to Greece. There was a briki (small copper or stainless steel Turkish coffee maker) and Greg’s mother would often make kourambiethes (butter cookies covered with powdered sugar). There were always Greek olives available and Edwin was convinced that skordalia (garlic paste) was the savior for any adverse condition.
Writing has been important for Greg from the time he wrote his first poem at the age of nine. He considers himself an old-fashioned rhymer who loves to paint pictures with words. Since then, he has written 12 books, numerous newspaper and magazine articles and poems. In 1970 he finished high school in Wenatchee and attended Seattle Pacific University (SPU) where he studied speech, communications and Bible studies. It was there that he met Wendy Steven who would later become his wife.
Greg then attended Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, an interdenominational evangelical seminary. He was essentially a “freelance” seminarian rather than being sponsored by a specific church or denomination and needed to complete an internship to finish his seminary work. He returned to Seattle in 1978, worked for KIRO radio as a switchboard operator and knocked on doors of churches, seeking a sponsor. He was accepted at the small Interbay Covenant parish where his one-year obligation became a four-year stay and affirmed his commitment for preaching and pastoral care.
Wendy Steven reentered Greg’s life when he returned to Fuller to finish his seminary work and they were married in 1982. Her father has written 30 books and has also been a mentor for Greg’s writing. The couple spent the next year at the North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. They discovered Greek town in Chicago. Greg was then called to Crossroads Covenant Church in Concord, California where he again made Greek connections through an ecumenical clergy association and attended Greek festivals in the area. All three daughters were born in Concord: Kristin Nicole, Allison Joy and Lauren Star. In 1994 Greg accepted a call to a parish in Naperville, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.
In 2005 Greg’s father’s battle with cancer was impetus to move back to the Seattle area. He continued his service at the Covenant Church on Mercer Island where the family has resided since that time. In 2011 he was replaced by a younger person and spent some time with his brother Marc settling his father’s estate while considering his future. Surreptitiously, a friend retired from the chaplain position at the Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island and Greg assumed what has become “the best job I have ever had.”
In California, National Football League (NFL) coach Mike Holmgren became a friend of the family. Their friendship grew when Holmgren went to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and then became coach of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team. At the Chicago airport, while attending a pastoral conference, Greg encountered Greg Hersholt and Jane Shannon, two radio personalities from KOMO radio in Seattle. This began an 11-year relationship where Greg writes a poem which is read on the air every Friday preceding the Seahawks games – yet another application of his writing forte.
The change from Smith to Asimakoupoulos allowed Greg to celebrate his roots among his Scandinavian relatives and other friends. Although his Greek is limited to a few words and phrases, he has something that others may lack. He makes an interesting observation as to the understanding of Greek Orthodox icons, not as something to be worshiped but like those icons on a computer screen, they can “open a door” to the deeper understanding of what they represent.
Greg remembers his father saying kalo taxidi (have a safe trip) whenever he would travel and he says the same thing to his children on those occasions. At Easter, his family members greet each other with the Greek Christos anesti (Christ is risen) and alithos anesti (indeed he has risen). In 1978 he took a six-week course in historical geography studying in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Greece and met his father’s cousins in Athens. While he was embarrassed by using a few incorrect Greek words, the experience brought him even closer to the Greek side of his heritage.By John and Joann Nicon, July 2017 PHOTOS
1 Greg Asimakoupoulos, 2016
2 Haralambos Asimakoupoulos, circa 1921
3 Harry Smith, circa 1956
4 Harry and twin daughters, Lois and Louise, 1937
5 Harry Smith family, circa 1950s
6 Harry’s citizenship papers, 1931
7 Harry’s passport, 1955
8 Grandmother Margaret Turley Smith, 1982
9 Edwin in military, 1945
10 Edwin looking back, 1945
11 Edwin, circa 1963
12 Edwin, Greg and Marc, circa 1958
13 Name change article, 1979
14 Edwin and Star Smith, circa 2006
15 Greg, circa 1974
16 Greg and Wendy wedding, 1982
17 Greg and Marc, circa 2014
18 Greg in pastoral garb, 2008
19 Greg preaching, 2007
20 Greg’s writings
21 Greg and Wendy, 2015
22 Greg with Wendy and daughters Kristin and Lauren, 2016
23 Greg Asimakoupoulos family (l-r) Tim, Allison, Greg, Wendy, Lauren, Kristin, 2014
24 Name change plaque, 1969
Photo 1 by John Nicon; all others from Asimakoupoulos family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, November 2016