The youngest of four siblings from a small village in Greece, Sophia Dyke (nee Kourkoubas) took an independent route to the United States, her education and her profession. Still, her home of Walla Walla, Washington, with its green valley and surrounding mountains reminds her frequently of her village in Greece.
Sophia was born on September 16, 1932, and raised in the small farming community of Rodia, north of Larissa in central Greece. The village had a lot of pomegranate (rodia in Greek) and fig trees and the former became the name of the village. Her parents, John and Maria Kourkoubas, were farmers in this very small village where everyone knew each other. The climate was varied and she could see Mt. Olympus from her home. Sophia was the youngest of four siblings. The oldest was Maria followed by Athanasios, and Eleni, who was born in 1915, 17 years before Sophia. Tobacco was one of the crops on the farm and all the children except Sophia helped by preparing the leaves for sale. She remembers playing in the snow during the winter and that life was very pleasant until she was about eight years old at the beginning of World War II.
When she was 10 years old, the Greek guerillas killed two German soldiers who were swimming in the river at the edge of town. There was no immediate reaction but the Germans surrounded the town, evacuated the village and transported the residents in trucks to nearby Larissa where they were held in military installations for 24 hours. Meanwhile the Germans torched the entire village including the fields and, when the school did not burn, they blew it up with dynamite. Sophia and her parents went to her great aunt’s home in nearby Derele. In Derele the Germans took her mother and sister-in-law to the local train station and threatened to send them to Germany. Sophia escaped and hid in a church until she was safely reunited with her family. From there, the family went into the mountains and spent the summer living in huts along with the sheep and scorpions. By August of 1945 the Germans had lost the war and Sophia returned to Rodia with her family. Fortunately, the Kourkoubas home was only partially damaged; the village was slowly rebuilt.
Before World War II began Eleni had moved to Williamson, West Virginia, with her husband, John Tsutras. John had been in the United States for some time and returned to Greece for an arranged marriage to Eleni. In Greece, the closest high school for Sophia was in Larissa and Eleni sent money to their family so Sophia could attend high school there. In Larissa Sophia rented a room as transportation between Rodia and Larissa was very primitive. She missed family and the comfort of a small village, especially the fresh aromas during harvest time. Fortunately, her landlady, Eleni Samara, became like a second mother to her.
In 1951, Eleni offered to bring Sophia to the United States, an offer reluctantly agreed to by their parents as they did not want to have another daughter leave them. Sophia’s propeller-driven airplane took her on a 24–hour flight from Athens with stops in Milan and Rome, Italy, Paris, France, through Switzerland and into Canada before finally landing at LaGuardia airport in New York where she was met by her sister and brother-in-law. If Eleni had not sent photographs, Sophia would not have recognized her sister whom she had last seen as a five-year-old in Greece. Eleni and John had no children so Sophia was like a child to them. In fact, when Sophia was born, her mother was over 40 and needed special care. Thus it was Eleni who tended to her younger sister.
The plan was for Sophia to enroll in the small liberal arts Marshall College (now a university with its own medical school) in Huntington, West Virginia. As the second semester had already begun, Sophia was advised by a wise registrar to attend school in Williamson to learn the English language and enter Marshall in the fall. While considering attending the local high school, a teacher there had a sister who taught the first grade. So, Sophia went to high school in the morning and joined the first graders in the afternoon. The children were wonderfully helpful and non-judgmental as she progressed in the language, to the point of eventually assisting her young colleagues.
Five years later, in 1956, Sophia graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Marshall. Eleni thought Sophia might become a doctor and Sophia considered dentistry but did not want to spend her life looking into people’s mouths. So, by that time she knew that medical technology would be her future profession. During her time at Marshall, her physics laboratory partner was a student by the name of Paul Dyke. Paul was an Army veteran studying engineering under the GI Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act). Sophia had been working part time at St. Mary’s Hospital in Huntington and one of the sisters recommended St. John’s (now St. John’s Mercy Medical Center) in St. Louis, Missouri. When Sophia moved to St. Louis, Paul joined her and began work at McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell-Douglas).
During her year of clinical training at St. John’s, Sophia lived across the street with three other medical technician students. One of her Catholic teachers was known to single out a student to badger and Sophia was chosen that year! And, despite the sister’s opposition to students marrying, Paul and Sophia were married secretly on February 16, 1957. The following March, Paul moved to Seattle, Washington, to accept a position with the Boeing Company while Sophia remained in St. Louis until September to finish her training.
In Seattle, the couple lived in the Queen Anne neighborhood for nine years; Paul worked for the Boeing Company and Sophia, at Doctor’s Hospital (merged into Swedish Medical Center). After two years at Doctor’s, she worked as a laboratory technician for a few physicians in private practice and then worked at the University of Washington Medical School conducting research in the pediatrics department. She continued her work until their first child, Ellen, was born in May of 1960. A second daughter, Kathy, was born in November of 1961. In 1964 Sophia obtained her United States citizenship but was disappointed as it was not granted in time to vote for a favorite presidential candidate.
As a civil engineer, Paul preferred a smaller setting, more consistent with his field. So, in 1966, the family moved to Walla Walla where he went to work for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Sophia focused on raising their children, including her “Walla Walla baby,” Emily, born in September of 1967. With a focus on work and education plus marriage to a non-Greek, only a few Greek traditions have been passed on to her children. Sophia does remember the saying tha se vraso (literally I will boil you) as a warning if they misbehaved.
When she sought to return to work, she contacted St. Mary’s Hospital in Walla Walla. By that time machines had replaced much of the work previously done by hand and the head pathologist required that she take refresher courses. That would have required a six-month stay in Seattle, Spokane, Washington, or Portland, Oregon, all some distance from Walla Walla. Thus with three children and a husband she decided to begin caring for people who had been released from the hospital and needed assistance in their homes. With what she describes as a “soft spot for older people,” she has cared for members of several Walla Walla families over the years.
1984 was a very hard year for Sophia when the family experienced two tragic deaths: Ellen at age 24 from leukemia in October and Paul in December. Presently, the second daughter, Kathy, lives in Illinois with her husband and Sophia’s granddaughter. Emily, a veterinarian, lives in Seattle with her husband Gavin.
While a number of Greeks came to the United States at the same time as Sophia, she is one of few women who immigrated and entered the medical profession at that time. She feels her adventurous, if not rebellious, spirit has contributed to her welfare. She also knows her Greek language helped considerably in her medical studies. She always felt accepted from her first days in West Virginia where other foreign students had also come to study. Any reservations about life in the United States vanished as she came to appreciate the freedom and opportunities that existed. The professional class snobbery, arranged marriages and dowry requirements that have existed in Greece were never of her choosing and the opposite of what she has enjoyed in the United States.
Sophia is content with her life in Walla Walla, half way around the world from Rodia. With no Greek Orthodox Church nearby, she has chosen the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod which she feels is as close as she can come to her original faith. She has kept busy volunteering at the Christian Aid Center, cooking and serving what came to be known as Greek French toast. She enjoys gardening, listening to classical music and misses singing as her voice is not what it used to be. Sophia’s Christian faith is strong. She is very concerned about the changes she sees in life around her, most of which she feels are not for the better. Although neither a baptized Lutheran nor a practicing Greek Orthodox, she says “nobody is going to get between me and my God.” Sophia knows that God knows her and what others may think is really not important; she is comfortable with her faith and has no worries about what people might say when she is gone.By John and Joann Nicon (date when posted)
1 Sophia at home, 2015
2 John and Maria Kourkoubas, 1930s
3 Sophia’s family (l-r) rear: Athanasios (brother), John (father); front: Sophia, Maria (mother), Aunt Ekaterini, nieces Georgia and Effie, 1938
4 Sophia’s (center left) high school class, 1948
5 Landlady Eleni Samara and Sophia, 1940s
6 Sophia, Eleni and John Tsutras, 1952
7 Physics laboratory at Marshall College (Sophia at left, Paul at right), 1955
8 Paul and Sophia engagement, 1956
9 Sophia, 1957
10 Sophia college graduation, 1956
11 Sophia in medical technician school, 1957
12 Paul, Ellen, Kathy and dog Susie, 1960s
13 Kathy, Emily, Ellen, 1968
14 Paul, 1957
15 Paul’s retirement sketch, 1984
16 Emily, Gavin and Sophia, 2013
Photo 1 by John Nicon; all others from Dyke family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, April 2015