Steve and Anna Athan spent over 30 years combining hard work and his tailoring skills to achieve a successful career in Seattle, Washington. They share their stories of growing up on farms in Greece and their experiences in America.
Steve’s father, Demetrios Athanasopoulos, was from Platanos, Messenia, Greece, south of Kalamata in the Peloponnese. His mother, Sofia, was from Iklaina a half hour west of Kalamata. Demetrios and Sofia were farmers and, as Steve says with a sly grin, also operated a factory, a baby factory where they produced 10 children. Demetrios had no money. The children had no shoes. But, they survived with no outside assistance. Stavros (Steve) D. Athanasopoulos (Athan) was born in Platanos on May 1, 1936. Like many others, the family name was shortened in 1962 by Steve as it was hard for Americans to pronounce. The Athanasopoulos children from oldest to youngest are Thanasi, Steve, Stasia, Sapho, Nickolas, Vasili, Argeri, Stamati, Georgo and Evgenia. All the children ultimately moved to Seattle.
As a child, Steve was “allergic” to farming and when he was 13 years old, a neighbor was leaving the village for a better opportunity The neighbor convinced Steve’s parents to let him accompany her to Athens, Greece. Steve remembers the 12-hour drive from Platanos in a truck. From 1949 to 1955 he apprenticed as a tailor in Athens making very little money except for the tips he earned by delivering the finished goods to customers. Employment was plentiful and life for Steve was good in post-World War II Athens where he learned to design and alter clothes.
Meanwhile, his uncle, Nick Athan, had brought the oldest brother, Thanasi, to Seattle where Nick operated a restaurant. In 1956 Steve was drafted into the Greek military and was preparing to enter the Merchant Marines. At the same time, Nick had petitioned to bring Steve to Seattle. Steve boarded a new ship, sailed from Piraeus to Napoli, Italy, then on to New York and took the train to Seattle. The ship was the ill-fated ANDREA DORIA which sank on its return trip. Steve knew no English and worked at Nick’s restaurant 12 hours a day for $1.50 per day.
A year later he found a job at a dry cleaning shop, the 1010 First Avenue Cleaners, owned by Ike Schalum who was from Thessaloniki, Greece. Steve worked three days per week while attending English classes at Broadway High School (now Seattle Central College). In 1957 he also began working at Rosellini’s 410 restaurant helping the bartender. At the 410 cashew nuts were complimentary at the bar and Steve would eat them as he cleaned and washed glasses in the basement. At the same time, he would sip on Yianni to peraptisti (Johnny Walker whiskey) and was drunk at the end of his shift. During this time Steve was staying on the fifth floor of the Morrison Hotel with the bathroom three flights down where one had to stand in line.
Steve was happy when he was drafted into the United States Army. He was at Fort Ord, California, for basic training and, when tested for his specialty, was found to be qualified as an aircraft mechanic. His next station was Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he remained for only two months as no positions were available for this skill. He then applied to be a medic and spent three months in training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before his final assignment in dispensaries in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, Germany, for the remaining two years of his service. While in the Army, Steve was called “Mr. Banker” as he loaned money to his fellow soldiers at a high rate of interest. When he was discharged and returned to Seattle, he had a substantial amount of cash in his pocket.
Anna “Nitsa” Georgiou Chronopoulou was born on December 31, 1936, in Hora Trifilias, Messenia. Her parents altered her birth year to 1935 as they wanted her to begin school as early as possible. She had one brother, George. Her parents, Georgos (George) and Eleni, were leasing land from the Athanasopoulos family. Thus, she and Steve knew each other from an early age. Anna completed gymnasion (compulsory secondary education), obtained her diploma and was hoping to work as a public school teacher. With jobs hard to find, she took a position in a private school in Nafplio, Greece, for one year teaching kindergarten. During this time she was corresponding with Steve and tutoring his younger brother, Stamati, who needed help with his studies.
Steve’s father, Demetrios, would drive Anna to and from the tutoring sessions and one day asked “Nitsa” if she would answer a question. She responded with his nickname, “Kirie Mitso, if I know the answer, I will.” He wanted to know if she liked Steve and would consider marrying him. Anna replied that they were good friends, but she would have to ask her father and brother first. Kirie Mitso took her in his arms, told her not to worry as the rest was his job and, welcomed her to his family. The story is best told by Anna in the video Kirie Mitso Proposes for Steve. Anna had wanted to come to America and with her parent’s financial endorsement so she would not be a burden to the United States, Steve was able to bring her to Seattle to further her education. AnnA initially lived with her cousin, George Karanasi for three months. Anna and Steve were then married on November 7, 1962 and lived in a small apartment on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle.
THE CLOTHING BUSINESS
In 1960, with the money he saved in the Army, Steve was looking for a business in Seattle. He found Tom’s Café at Fourth and Virginia which he operated for two years. He was working 14 hours a day and was earning less than he had in the military. During this time, Anna was washing dishes at the restaurant while attending school. Steve sold the restaurant and began working at the Bon Marche (now Macy’s) tailoring and fitting which he did for four years. Steve almost lost his Bon Marche job when he told a customer the problem was not the clothing but the customer’s body shape.
Knowing he wanted to work for himself, he opened his first store, Steve Athans Men’s Shop, in West Seattle in 1963 and employed up to five people, including Chris Georgas who was his good friend and manager for the next 14 years. He opened a second store called Back Pocket in Burien, Washington. He also purchased the building in which the store was located but eventually sold it as the West Seattle store was more successful. With Anna’s help Steve Athans Mens Shop was a highly respected retail business in West Seattle until it closed in 1986. After a six-month hiatus and feeling too young to retire, Steve opened a downtown location on Sixth Avenue where he provided alterations and measured customers for custom-made suits which he then sent out for production. He and Anna were very busy for the next five years until his lease expired and the rent was to be doubled. With a very successful career behind him and some wise investments, Steve was able to retire at age 50 in 1986. Steve and Anna are comfortably retired in West Seattle, where they moved from the Magnolia area in 1974.
Anna and Steve have two daughters. The oldest, Eleni, is married to Peter Diamandopoulos. They have two children, George (after his paternal grandfather) and Anna (after her grandmother) and they live in Vancouver, British Columbia. Eleni is the Travel Sales Manager of Omega CarlsonWagonlit Travel. Sofia Athan lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is Executive Director of Business Development at Baskow and Associates which specializes in event planning, meeting and destination management services. Both daughters and grandchildren have been very active and involved in the Greek Orthodox Church and their local Greek community activities.
In retirement, Steve and Anna have been able to visit 37 states and spend time at their vacation home in Las Vegas. While valuing his Greek heritage, Steve was too busy with his business to be involved with AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association). However, both have remained very close to and active in their Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption. They are proud of passing their Greek heritage and language to their children. Their daughter, Eleni, came home crying on her first day at school because she did not understand the instructions given in English. Fortunately, the teacher credited Anna with teaching her children Greek and assured Anna that Eleni would quickly learn English, and she did.
Steve credits his willingness to work for very little pay and an interest in learning from others for his success in the United States. He also believes a diplomatic approach, knowing when to keep his mouth shut, has helped considerably. He did not find dollars on the streets of America as he was told before leaving Greece. Rather, hard work was required to be successful. The small clothing repairs that he and Anna made for their customers at no cost were not only good for business but evidence of their concern for others. While proud of his ethnic background, Steve believes anyone can succeed if they use good judgment, study carefully before making decisions and treat people with respect. Anna recognizes the problems of living in Greece today but believes that most young people there just live for the moment without planning ahead. While she is fortunate for the life she and Steve have had in the United States, she also knows she could be happy without the style of living they have come to appreciate.By John and Joann Nicon, May 20, 2015
1 Steve and Anna Athan, 2014
2 Demetri and Sofia Athan, circa 1965
3 Steve Athan, 1953
4 ANDREA DORIA, 1956
5 Steve in the Army, 1962
6 Eleni and George Chronopoulos, circa 1960
7 Anna, 1959
8 Anna’s diploma, 1959
9 West Seattle shop, 1976
10 West Seattle shop with Mayor Wes Uhlman, 1976
11 Promotional photograph, 1987
12 Steve with Chris Georgas, late 1980s
13 Anna, Sofia, Steve, Eleni, circa 1968
14 Steve, Sofia, Eleni, 1970s
15 Greek dancers (l-r) Chris Georgas, Lydia Kapp, Thom Dimitriou, Sofia, Aphroditi Peredis, Steve, Niki Pampoukas, Eleni, circa 1985
16 Eleni and Sofia on West Seattle parade float, 1980s
17 Anna and Steve, 1980
18 Demetri, Anna and Steve, 1970s
19 Sofia, Santa (Fr. Michael Johnson), Anna, Steve, 2013
20 Steve and Anna, 50th wedding anniversary, 2012
Photos 1 by John Nicon; 9, 10, 11 White Center News/West Seattle Herald; all others from Athan family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, November 2014