Sam Treperinas has many stories to tell about his very successful 50-year career with the railroad and a busy retirement. For Sam and his wife Elly, the title of this exhibit is very appropriate for their experiences and success in life.
Seraphim Georgios Treperinas had his name changed by the clerks at Ellis Island when he arrived in the United States to Sam George Treperinas, no doubt in part because his first name was a long, relatively unknown foreign name which was not understood or appreciated at the time. He was born in 1933 in Hostia, in Central Greece. The town name has since been changed to Prodromos. His father, George, was a blacksmith who worked in his shop during the winters and gathered lumber in the mountains during the summers. George also had farmland with olive trees and vegetables which he worked by himself. He would take the olive oil and any other items he produced to Athens and sell them. From the early age of nine, Sam would often accompany his father and two uncles, help load the mules with lumber and bring them back into town. This work was especially important after the Nazi Germans burned the town in 1942-1943 and materials were needed to rebuild the homes and other buildings. In the blacksmith shop Sam would operate the bellows to stoke the fire while his father could make “anything you wanted.” Sam feels that there was no better man than his father.
Eleni Derdes, Sam’s mother, was from the same horio (village) and was one of five siblings, four sisters and a brother, the brother having died at an early age. Eleni’s father, (Sam’s maternal grandfather), Seraphim had come to the United States, worked in Spokane, Washington, where he built homes made of stone. One home there still has his name on it. Seraphim spent some time in Alaska and then went to Seattle, Washington, where he is buried in Washelli Cemetery.
Sam is the second of four siblings. His oldest sister, Dina, lives in Aliarto, Greece. In 1954 Sam brought his younger brother Dimitri (Jim) from Greece. Dimitri now lives in Havre, Montana. Sam’s youngest sister, Yianoula (Joanne), and her husband, George Lymberis, arrived in Havre in about 1968 and later moved to the Seattle area where they now live.
By 1941 people in Sam’s village were destitute and it was clear that there was no future for him there. His father sent him to Athens where he began working in a radio shop building and selling radios while he finished grade school. Then he sold shoe soles and laces for almost two years. He always enjoyed working with electrical equipment and his dream at the time was to become an electrical engineer. He applied for schooling but they “kicked him out” as he had no money. Then, a cousin suggested he pursue schooling to develop his sales skills. Again, he was rejected due to lack of funds.
Sam was about 14 years old when he met a man who worked in the Petrelona factory making spools for string and Sam offered to work without pay to prove his worth. He was successful and eventually operated the machine making the spools. Unfortunately, there was a water shortage at the time and water had to be stored in 55-gallon drums. Sam became ill after drinking the contaminated water and was hospitalized for a month. His father then took him back to the village. Once recovered, Sam worked in construction, rebuilding houses and even became a project engineer for the next three years. In 1949 he declined an opportunity to help build an airport on the island of Rhodes and instead took examinations for the Greek Navy. With up to 3,500 applicants and only 500 passing the tests, Sam was sure he qualified but his name was not on the list. When he inquired, he was told that for 15 lira he would be accepted. At that point, he knew Greece was no longer the place for him.
COMING TO HAVRE, MONTANA
Sam’s papou (grandfather) Seraphim Derdes was the nouno (godfather) of George Meras, and Sam’s father was the koumbaro (best man) for George Meras when he was married. George and his wife Stavroula Meras lived in Havre, Montana. When Sam’s father learned that Meras was planning to bring several of his nephews to Havre from Greece, Sam’s father encouraged him to bring Sam as well. Shortly thereafter, eighteen-year old Sam was on a 22-day sea voyage on the NEA ELLAS to New York. Speaking no English, he was fortunate to sit next to a Greek-American soldier who asked “Ellenas ese?” (are you Greek?). When Sam responded in appreciation, the man offered to help him on his trip and even arranged to have another Greek man assist him on the leg from Chicago, Illinois, to Havre. Very hungry the next morning, he was ready to eat some chicken which came in a soup (something he had never experienced) and it curbed his appetite. He arrived in Havre at 8:00 am on a Monday and was told to eat and take a bath quickly as Meras was taking him to town to see a doctor and buy some clothes. With hunger satisfied and medical approval, the newly-clothed Sam began working for the Great Northern Railroad the following Tuesday morning.
Sam shares the sad story of George Meras’ six-year-old son who snuck into the back seat of Sam’s car and asked to go to work with Sam. Sam said he would take the boy for ice cream after work and the boy ran off to play. After work the boy was not to be found until he and another boy were found buried in the rubble of an old school building. Despite efforts to save him, the boy did not survive.
Elly Christophorou was born on November 4, 1939, also in the village of Hostia where everybody knew each other. Elly’s father, Stavros, died when she was 10 months old and she lost her mother, Margarita, when she was eight years old. Even at a young age Elly dreamed of going to the United States. There was a family in New York City that wanted to adopt Elly, but her thea (aunt) had promised to keep Elly in Greece. Still, she kept her hopes alive and the desire to go to the United States was stronger than any desire to get married and remain in Greece.
Sam had known Elly as a little girl when he left the village. In 1956 Sam knew he wanted to get married and his brother had told him “that’s the girl for you.” Sam contacted Elly’s caretaking aunt and, uncle for permission and while Elly had the desire to go to the United States, the only thing she knew about Sam was that he was the grandson of a man who was known for his drinking and ill-mannered disposition. In fact one time when Elly passed by the Treperinas home, the papou complained about the macaronia (spaghetti) his wife made and when he threw the pasta in anger it went between Elly’s legs as she passed the front door. Regardless, when Elly was about 15 years old, she and Sam began corresponding. When Sam made what was to be a surprise visit to Greece to see her, Elly’s theo (uncle) Louka had seen Sam’s name on the passenger manifest of the NEA ELLAS which was published in the newspaper and his “secret” was trumped when his and Elly’s family were at the port upon Sam’s arrival. Elly found that she and Sam were compatible and he would make a good husband. She agreed to the marriage and they were married in their village on September 29, 1957. When the ship arrived in the United States, Elly and Sam boarded the train and while passing through each city she would ask, “Is this where we will live?” Upon arriving in the small railroad town of Havre, Montana, she was disappointed as she was looking forward to the opportunities available in a larger city.
SAM’S RAILROAD CAREER
Sam couldn’t speak a word of English when he began work on the railroad. His sponsor, George Meras, worked in a different department and would visit Sam two or three times a day and interpret the foreman’s orders. Sam worked a few months as a laborer then as a helper with mechanical work in the shop for the next two-and-a-half years. After a four-year apprenticeship, he obtained his certificate as a journeyman Carman and worked in various departments. In addition to his full-time nightshift railroad work, he also worked part-time in the Chevrolet garage learning how to repair vehicles. Over the years, Sam became particularly proficient at repairing and rebuilding the air brakes on railroad cars, a skill that eventually brought him to the attention of Seattle’s InterBay railroad complex.
Sam enjoyed his work and life in Havre and even took private lessons twice a week to learn English. Their first two sons, George in 1959 and Steve in 1960, were born in Havre. In 1966 the family attended the wedding of Hariklia Meras in Seattle where Elly finally had her first experience in a large city. When Sam was later offered a job in Seattle but was reluctant to leave Havre, Elly said “we’re leaving or I’m going by myself.” In 1967, with Elly’s full endorsement, Sam began working the nightshift in Seattle on the railroad while driving a school bus during the day and cleaning two taverns in the Ballard neighborhood on weekends. Upon arriving in Seattle, the family lived with George Tourikis, a patrioti (countryman) and his family until the Treperinas family was able to move into their new home in unincorporated King County (now Shoreline, Washington). Sam and Elly’s third son, Luka, was born in 1970.
Elly continued to develop her sewing skills which included wedding dresses, suits and jackets while taking some English language classes at Shoreline Community College. She also received some help with the language from her oldest son, George. She learned even more from those for whom she made or altered clothing. She is grateful for the association with the wonderful people she met from wealthy backgrounds and learned from them that “the best wealth is your mind.”
Eventually Sam was able to work full time during the day where he learned to operate the railroad cranes. When the main crane operator retired, Sam successfully bid on the job. This involved operating a mobile rail crane capable of lifting 250 tons. The mobile crane could run on rails or on the freeway. Sam would work in the Seattle shop and, when necessary, went to the derailment sites with the cranes. The mobile crane had a manual transmission with 16 gears and driving it over the Snoqualmie mountain pass to eastern Washington required unusual skills. On one occasion there was derailment on the Rock Island Bridge near Wenatchee, Washington, an old high wooden rail trestle over the Columbia River which was partially burned in the accident. Sam was the only one willing to operate the crane in that location and spent three days and nights sleeping in the cab of the crane. When the job was completed, he was told to drive the bulky machinery back to Seattle. He objected to the order and declined the offer of a lone tuna fish sandwich as he crossed the pass. Instead, he demanded a restful motel stay, shower and full breakfast for himself and his helper saying “safety first” rather than traveling in an exhausted condition.
On another derailment in Vancouver, Washington, 36 cars and three engines made their way into a lake with muck-like glue at the bottom of the lake. Sam spent five weeks on that job.
Sam finally retired from BNSF (Burlington Northern/Santa Fe) Railway Company in 2001 after 50 years of employment. During that time he was directly or indirectly responsible for finding railroad jobs for several other Greek men including his brother Jim Treperinas (in Havre, Montana), his brother-in-law George Lymberis, Pete Dikeakos, Nick Poulias, George Trapalis and Bill Lazarou. He also assisted numerous non-Greek friends in securing employment at the BNSF.
When Sam first arrived in Havre in 1951 he earned only $.75 per hour. At that time, many of his fellow employees did not like those from foreign countries and had no problem showing immigrants like Sam how they felt. There was one man who picked on Sam until Sam confronted the man. He was never bothered again. Despite these few unpleasant experiences, he made many good friends during his career and even more as he learned the language. He declined offers to become a foreman as he was paid from the time he left on a derailment job until he returned and made plenty of money that way. He is proud of the fact that he never had an accident during that time and that several have said “bring back Sam” after he retired.
Sam’s interest in becoming an electrical engineer has continued throughout his life and his knowledge grew considerably during his railroad career. In retirement, he built a second home at Blue Lake near Soap Lake, Washington, and began helping the volunteer maintenance person, Jim Mitalas, at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle. Whenever there was an electrical problem, Jim would call Sam. After Jim passed away, Sam increased his volunteer role by using his many skills. He has found a “third home” at St. Demetrios.By John and Joann Nicon, May, 2017 PHOTOS
1 Sam Treperinas, 2016
2 Village landmark rock Gouripiorilia adjacent to Elly’s one room home, date unknown
3 In the Greek mountains (l-r) Iranko, Stavro, Uncle, Elly, Vasili, Uncle Elia, circa 1947
4 Sponsors and family in Havre, Montana (l-r) rear; Pete Meras, Louis Kovanes, Stavroula Meras, George Meras, Sam Treperinas: front; John Meras, Georgia Maroulis, George Meras, Jr., 1951
5 Sam, 1953
6 Elly, 1954
7 Elly’s Aunt Asimo and Uncle Lukas in Hostia, Greece, 1957
8 Sam and Elly wedding photo – Hostia, Greece, 1957
9 George and Thelma Treperinas wedding photo, Seattle 1986 (l-r) Steve Treperinas, Sam Treperinas, Elly Treperinas, Thelma (nee Mykris) Treperinas, George Treperinas and Luka Treperinas
10 Great Northern apprenticeship certificate, 1959
11 Burlington Northern Railroad recognition letter, 1985
12 Burlington Northern inspection training certificate, 1989
13 Recognition certificate, April 2001
14 Sam’s BNSF 50-year recognition certificate, 2001
15 Sam and Elly, 2016
Photos 1 and 15 by John Nicon; all others from Treperinas family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, July 2016