Mary George (nee Courounes) has held on tightly to her Greek heritage while living in Seattle, Washington, almost her entire life. She and her husband Harry have experienced the best of both Greek and American lifestyles.
Mary’s father Nicholas was born in 1895 on the island of Leros in the Dodecanese islands of Greece. He originally travelled to America in 1920 and returned to Greece five years later to “find a good mate.” Through mutual friends, he met Irene Papageorgiou, also a Lerian, born in 1897 and they were married in Leros on December 5, 1925. Their first child, Mary, was born on October 2, 1926, and came to Seattle as a baby. Mary’s grandmother was comfortable sending her daughter and granddaughter to Seattle as the grandmother’s brother, Diamantis (Diamond) Nicon, was established there. Life in Seattle was very difficult at the time and Nicholas was fortunate to find a job at the Brother’s Lunch which was owned by his patriotes (countrymen). Eventually he opened his own restaurant called the Fremont Café on North 34th Street in Seattle.
Initially the family lived with an uncle, Mike Cheredes, until they moved across the street for a few years. The Courounes family then purchased their home at 132 NW 83rd St. A number of Greeks lived in the same Greenwood neighborhood including the Kiafas, Therson, Pappas and Chigaras families. Mary’s two brothers, Jerry and Marco, were born in Seattle in 1930 and 1935 respectively. Her mother, Irene, was very quiet and well-educated and, while Nicholas was definitely the head of the family, Irene held her place quite well. Irene spoke very little English and her children accommodated her by speaking only Greek at home. At the same time Mary and her siblings were expected to master both Greek and English and Mary improved her Greek reading and writing skills under the tutelage of dascalo (teacher) Constantine Milonopoulos. As a child Mary found life a bit problematic as her family was occasionally stigmatized as Greeks, even being called “dirty Greeks.” Eventually, this problem diminished as their interactions with non-Greeks increased over the years.
Seattle was the home for many from Leros, several of whom were the first Greeks settlers there. The presence of those early families was the reason that many more immigrants came from the small island. Nicholas Courounes organized a Lerian organization prior to World War II which lasted for several years. Name days (the day on which the name of a person’s baptismal saint is recognized) at the Courounes home would draw many Lerian visitors. Mary recalls her father saying that “we (Greeks) used to be much closer but now that we have a few bucks we are not so close.” While neither good nor bad, it was simply a sign of success and assimilation into a new country.
The George (Georgapolos) family operated the Leland Hotel in Seattle. Their son Harry (Haralambos) George and Mary were childhood friends whose relationship evolved into marriage on October 1, 1950. A pharmacist and chemical engineer, he worked at the Medical Dental Building and then spent 26 years at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. Mary and Harry raised three sons, Nick (an attorney) who was born in 1952, Geoffrey in 1955 (an accountant who died tragically in 2011) and Evan (a doctor) in 1960. Mary and Harry have four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Mary graduated from Ballard High School in 1945 and attended the University of Washington for a short period of time. She was active in the Maids of Athena, the young women’s auxiliary of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association). And, with strong academic studies in both Greek and English, she used her experience in preparing legal documents for Greek immigrants. This was a “never-ending” task as many immigrants had to prove that they entered the country legally. Mary prepared the documents in her own home and worked with a number of lawyers. During this time she worked extensively with Thomas Lentgis, a very active AHEPAN who founded the Maids organization, and together they helped many of their countrymen become United States citizens.
When their sons began college, a second family salary was needed and Mary considered returning to work at Seattle First National Bank (now Bank of America) where she had worked previously. Instead she accepted a position with the City of Seattle in its purchasing department. Eventually, Mary became the senior administrator of the department and retired after 21 years, having worked under three mayoral administrations: Wes Uhlman, Charles Royer and Norm Rice. She is proud to say she was the only person in the department that was not sued by a supplier.
With several first cousins in Greece, Mary maintains close contact by phone and by mail. Her first trip back to Greece was with her son Nick at his graduation from college. Since then she has made several trips to visit not only Leros but other parts of Greece. In 2000 she attended a reunion in Seattle with many Lerians and their descendants. She values the language and culture which her parents passed on to her but recognizes the declining appreciation of those factors with ensuing generations.
Mary believes that the most important thing she has passed on to her children and grandchildren is to be proud of their heritage. When asked if she used her Greek name, Maria, she replied in a calm, measured voice, “No, it has always been Mary” and her place has always been in America.By John and Joann Nicon (February 11, 2015) PHOTOS
1 Mary and Harry George, 2014
2 Irene and Nick Courounes, 1930s
3 Brother’s Lunch, Cokinakis and Cokis brothers, (proprietor unknown) circa 1930
4 Nick and Irene Courounes, 1950
5 Nick, Mary and Irene Courounes, circa 1930
6 Family (l-r) rear: Marco Courounes, Jerry Courounes, Anetta Spiro, Nicky Courounes; front: Nick Courounes, Irene Courounes, Jenny Milonopoulos, Constantine Milonopoulos, 1950s
7 Harry George, 1943
8 Mary, 1950
9 Harry and Mary engagement, Nick Courounes at far left, Harry and Mary at far right, others unknown, 1950
10 Mary and Harry wedding, 1950
11 Mary and Harry, 1952
12 Geoffrey, Evan, Mary and Nick George, 1963
13 Lerian reunion, Seattle, (l-r) Mary, Theodora Geokezas, Vivian Williamson, Mary Economou, 2000
14 Harry and Mary, 2010
Photos 1 and 13 by John Nicon; 3 from A History of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and Her People; all others from George family collection SOURCES
Interview by John and Joann Nicon, July 2014