Georgia’s father, George Roumeliotis, was from Nestani, a town near Tripoli in the Peloponnese area of Greece. The family name is derived from the Roumeli area of central Greece where Georgia’s grandfather was a cabinet maker. George was born in 1889 and came to the United States in 1909 with his brother Anthony to work on the railroad in La Grande, Oregon. He lied about his age and returned to Greece to fight in World War I. He traveled back and forth to Greece two or three times and, after earning some money, again returned to Greece while Anthony remained in Oregon. George married Maria Panagakis, also from Nestani, in 1915. Maria’s family owned property and, while it was expected that she help with the property, she went to school instead and was the only one in the village able to read and write. She used her skills to write letters for men who were in the army during that time. Maria and George started to build a house but George came back to America for a short time, then returned to Greece and, with the help of an engineer from Athens, was able to establish a flour mill with fixtures and supplies purchased in France and Germany. Ultimately, he finished the house and the couple lived adjacent to the flour mill where people from the surrounding areas would bring their grain for grinding.
Four children were born to George and Maria: Sofia in 1926, Georgia on January 9, 1928, Pete in 1931 and Gus in 1933. The Roumeliotis name was shortened to Romas which Gus still uses while Pete has officially changed his name back to the original. Sofia died in 1952 and the brothers now live in Chicago, Illinois. Georgia, following Greek tradition, uses her father’s given name as her middle name.
When George died in 1939, Maria was left with four young children yet successfully ran the flour mill and provided for her children during World War II. Following the war and the communist revolution in Greece, Maria was afraid for her daughters because of the stories she had heard about the communist movement. Maria wanted Sofia and Georgia to go to the United States to be with their theo (uncle) Anthony who had moved to Walla Walla. Sofia refused but Georgia agreed. Having heard of the danger of turbulence in the Atlantic Ocean, Georgia feared travel by boat and stipulated that she would only go if she could fly. Thus in the early days of commercial flight, she boarded an airplane with other Greeks in 1947 and flew to Montreal, Canada, then to New York where she boarded a plane to Walla Walla. One of Georgia’s strongest memories of New York was seeing people eating “cold cuts” (pre- cooked or cured meats) at a restaurant and wondering how they could eat what she thought was raw meat. On the next leg of the flight, Georgia’s plane landed in Salt Lake City. Speaking no English, she was very confused until an attendant found a Greek man who could interpret for her. The plane was to land in Walla Walla but the foggy weather prohibited the landing, so the choice was Spokane, Washington, or Pendleton, Oregon. Uncle Anthony was beside himself, not knowing when or how she might arrive and was in tears when he was finally able to rescue his niece from the Pendleton airport.
Uncle Anthony had shortened his name from Roumeliotis to Romas and tried his hand at the restaurant business with another Greek by the name of Vrettos in Walla Walla. However he became disgusted with the restaurant business and, with Chris Rivas, opened the Cinderella Electric Shoe Shine Shop which eventually became a town landmark. Georgia lived in the Rivas family’s basement when she first arrived. At 19 years of having just arrived from Greece and speaking no English, she wonders now how she was able to cope in those first years in the United States. She was almost placed in the first grade at school but was able to learn some English from Dorothy Reiss, her uncle’s friend and a teacher who helped her get her drivers’ license and citizenship papers.
Georgia secured employment ironing in a dry cleaning shop. Dissatisfied with the work, she moved on to work in a cannery where she became acquainted with two sisters. When one of the sisters failed to appear at work, Georgia learned that she had gone to work for the telephone company. Georgia quickly applied and was surprised two weeks later when her uncle came to the cannery saying the telephone company wanted to see her. A few days later, she was handling telephone calls. With an Air Force base near Walla Walla, she had to decipher the various languages while handling long-distance calls. Her time with the phone company was short-lived and ended after her marriage and pregnancy in 1952.
Uncle Anthony knew a man in La Grande who knew Frank Sakas’ (Sakkas) father. Frank had been working with his father on the railroad in Meacham, Oregon. He and Georgia met at a picnic on a lake near Tollgate, Oregon. They were married by a visiting Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. Assimakidis, from Spokane in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walla Walla. After they married, Frank first worked for a cabinet maker in nearby College Place, Washington, and then for a can company in Walla Walla. Frank learned that he could make a much better living shining shoes and a life-long career ensued.
Georgia and Frank’s first son, Chris, was born in 1953 and John followed in 1962. Georgia taught Chris to read and write Greek at home where only Greek was spoken. However, he surprised her one day at school when the teacher had laryngitis. Chris easily read from the board in English while Georgia, the room mother at the time, stood open-mouthed. She learned later that Chris’ nouno (godfather) would buy him comic books, his introduction to the English language. Georgia also remembers his baptism when guests wondered why the infant was allowed to cry while being immersed. Chris now lives in Beaverton, Oregon, and John in Sammamish, Washington.
Until 1968 Georgia had been raising her sons and sewing at home for herself. One day she went to Macy’s to buy some double-knit fabric and was referred to a woman in the alterations department for assistance. During their discussion the woman asked, “Do you want to work here?” Georgia’s son John went to school in the morning, so she accepted the job on a part-time basis. As needed, she would be called to assist in the women’s sportswear department. Tiring of the unpredictability, she told her manager that she wanted her own department with regular hours. Having never completed a formal application the office manager asked Georgia to do so and Georgia spent the next 29 years full time in the men’s department. Despite her limited English when she came to Walla Walla and her noticeable Greek accent, Georgia has never been made to feel different from others.
Today the Walla Walla area boasts more than 100 wineries and is touted as one of the best viticultures in the world. When Georgia and Frank were raising their family, life was much simpler. The Sakas family, their social activities and the Cinderella Electric Shoe Shine Shop have appeared frequently in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin over the years. At the same time, Georgia missed the Greek activities and traditions as there were only one or two other Greeks in the area. The family would travel to Spokane for Pascha (Easter) where Georgia’s aunt, Christine Panagakis, lived. It was not possible for Georgia to return to Greece and visit her family there. However, in 1965, the paper had another article about the Sakas family when Georgia’s mother, Maria Romas, visited from Nestani, Greece.
Beginning in 1980 the Greek Orthodox mission parish of St Nectarios was available in Pasco, about an hour from Walla Walla. A small Orthodox parish now exists in Walla Walla under the Russian Archdiocese and serves primarily converts to the faith.
Frank passed away in August of 2000. The marble steps, leather chairs and numerous “shoe shine” photos of the Cinderella Electric Shoe Shine Shop are no longer in place. The space Frank Sakas rented for so many years was converted to a wine shop. Two of the chairs were seen in a restaurant in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, just south across the state line from Walla Walla. The photos were to have been displayed in the restaurant and were never returned to the family. Georgia continues to attempt to locate the old photos. She also believes two of the chairs eventually found their way into the Olive Marketplace and Café on East Main Street next door to the space occupied by the shoe shine shop.
In her modest and demure manner Georgia relates one of her favorite sayings which she would tell her sons: “O pseftis o kleftis, to proto chrono herete.” Literally interpreted it means a liar, a stealer is only proud/happy for the first year. In Georgia’s words, “If you lie and steal you only get away with it for a while and eventually you get punished.” Georgia believes people should be nice to each other, not demean others and try to help. The legacy of the Sakas family in Walla Walla proves that they always tried to “do the right thing.” And, they have.By John and Joann Nicon, August 2012
1 Georgia holding 1989 article from Walla Walla Union Bulletin, June 2012
2 Georgia shortly after arrival from Greece, 1947
3 Georgia signing her naturalization papers, 1953
4 Cinderella Electric Shoe Shine Shop, circa 1920s
5 Georgia and Frank, circa 1950s
6 Frank and Georgia wedding, September 21, 1952
7 Wedding party (l-r) Standing: John Sakas, Christine Panagakis, Tom Romas, Jo Romas, Frank, Georgia, Anthony Romas, Gus Romas (best man), Seated: Chris Rivas, Carrie Panagakis, Paul Panagakis, September 21, 1952
8 Newspaper wedding article, September 28, 1952
9 Anthony ”Pop” Romas, Georgia (holding Chris), Frank, 1953
10 Newspaper article about Frank’s Shop, Feb 13, 1979
11 Chris’ first haircut by grandfather John Sakas, June 1953
12 John’s college graduation from Lewis and Clark (l-r) Chris, John, Georgia, Frank, June 1984
13 John’s wedding (l-r) Frank, Georgia, John, Chris, August 1995
14 Newspaper article about Georgia’s mother’s visit (l-r) John, Chris, Maria Romas, Georgia, 1965
15 Frank at work, February 1979
16 Georgia after tea at the Empress Hotel, Victoria British Columbia, circa 2008
Photos 1 by John Nicon; 8,10,14,15 courtesy Walla Walla Union Bulletin; all others from Sakas family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June 2012