In 1966, a feisty, handsome, young immigrant from Crete “took a chance” to come to America at the age of 29 in focused pursuit of his “love at first sight” whom he discovered a year earlier on a Mediterranean cruise. Little did he know at the time that years later, in another country, he’d be a husband, father and rancher in charge of a 100-acre farmstead complete with livestock and hay. Add to this energetic character a love of hunting and fishing with a passion for adding an extra heavy dose of unapologetic bold Greek identity throughout and you have the makings of an extraordinary life. Bernie Iliakis has written the following story about that person, his father Michael.
It all started in September 1937 in the village of Kaloniktis (Καλονυκτης), Rethymnon on the island of Crete. Mihalis Iliakis (Μιχάλης Ηλιάκης) was born to Aristides and Sophia (nee Galeros) Iliakis, the youngest of seven children. His siblings were Maria, Elpida, Chrisoula, Emmanouil (Manolis), George, and Telesilla. Elpida, Chrisoula, and Telesilla died early in childhood leaving behind the remaining four children to grow up together with an age disparity of seventeen years between Maria and Mihalis (Michael). It was a poor, challenging, dangerous, yet loving existence in Kaloniktis, including such brutal trials as German occupation during WWll followed by the Greek Civil War. Michael still recalls being tasked as a six and seven-year-old child to sneak between the German troops on a mission to deliver water and food to Cretan partisans, which included his elder brother Manolis.
Michael left Kaloniktis at the tender age of ten to attend the Queen Frederica School in Athens, where he was one of the very few in the region to gain acceptance and win a scholarship. Whilst a difficult decision for the family, his parents knew it was the right thing to do and a wonderful opportunity. Michael vividly recalls his first boat trip (from Crete to Athens) accompanied by a squad of desperately seasick police academy graduates. As they proceeded to lose their delicious, just-eaten food rations overboard to nausea, the crafty ten-year-old became the stealthy beneficiary of the remaining sumptuous tid-bids left behind by the blue-faced cadets.
Michael completed school through seventh grade when the burdens of post-war Greece urged him to find work and earn money to help support the family in Kaloniktis. He took odd jobs working in kiosks, restaurants, bouzoukia (nightclubs), and cabarets in Athens for the next four years. Life in the big city was exciting and the school of hard knocks replaced the classroom. Michael recalled a weekend stay in jail for fighting and eventually stabbing a man in the stomach. What could possibly bring out such aggression?! The rival cursed Michael’s mother’s name, for which he brandished his Cretan blade! His reputation preceded him and from then on, he was known as ‘Ὸ Kritikaki’ (little Cretan), for his youth and boldness.
Michael had a dream of being on the ocean; traveling all over the world on glamourous cruise liners. When the opportunity arose to apply to become a seaman, Michael was told he was too young but the ever-cagey and resourceful young lad found a way and entered younger than his 16 years allowed. He left the dazzle of Athenian restaurant and nightclub life and took to the high seas as the pre-conceived seaman he’d hoped to become. It wasn’t the glamorous life he’d initially envisaged. He began his work on various freighters, learning the ropes and gaining his confidence. Life on the sea was hard work and the work could be dangerous. He survived a shipwreck caused by foul weather of the coast of England in the North Sea. Over 20 of his shipmates did not survive the shipwreck which broke the freighter in two, leaving the sailors in peril against the high winds and cold water. How he survived is nothing short of a miracle.
Michael continued working on cargo ships until he was called to military duty at the age of 19. He recalls his two years of military service fondly as “some of my best days and memories.” He served much of that time with a Greek construction battalion doing demolition and excavation in northern Greece. His days were filled with setting up mine fields and working with bulldozers. He enjoyed the camaraderie he felt amongst other young men in uniform. Despite this filial sentiment, differences could become challenges and challenges could turn to fights. One day, there was an episode between Michael and a brawny corporal who displayed disrespect towards him. During the tussle that ensued, the sizable corporal caught Michael in a bear hug and was literally crushing him. Seizing the moment that the corporal’s ear was conveniently positioned near his mouth, he bit down separating the lobe from the rest of the ear. The corporal released Michael, but lost his earlobe in the process. So was the price paid in messing about with Ὁ Kritikós Mihalis. As irony would have it, the two became good friends throughout the rest of their military service.
After the army, Michael was able to make his original seafaring dream a reality. He got his break and made his transition to cruise lines. He worked his way up from kitchen duty to steward on both the Greek Line and the Olympia Line. For six years thereafter, he traveled extensively circumnavigating the globe numerous times. His sea life included ports of call from St. Petersburg to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean to Rio de Janeiro, Egypt to Tahiti. Serving tourists from around the world he was also required to be conversational in different languages. Through company mandated coursework and on-the-job training, Michael became conversational in French, Italian, and of course, English. Some non-sanctioned side opportunities that promised a bit of extra income included selling duty-free Metaxa brandy and cigarettes to a growing number of loyal customers in key ports. It wasn’t long before this extracurricular occupation came to an abrupt halt as the customs officers in New York City caught on to his dubious transactions and followed him ashore. With several bottles hidden in his trench coat and the realization that he was being followed, he swiftly expelled all of the bottles in the nearest alley, shattering them to pieces in his wake as he raced to the safety of the ship. Close call!
1964 and 1965 were bittersweet years for Michael and the Iliakis family. As fate has it, when one door closes another opens. On Great Holy Pascha, whilst on her way to Anastasi (Easter) service, his mother Sophia was hit by a motorcycle crossing a street in the suburbs of Athens. She sustained significant head trauma and died soon after. Subsequently, his father Aristides passed away at age 70 from complications of diabetes and a double hernia, following his mother only one year later.
Then, during one fateful voyage from Naples to New York in the summer of 1965, Michael was struck by the most stirring encounter of his life: a bombshell that jolted him harder than any explosion he’d experienced before when he met his future wife Anna Primiani. Anna was an elegant, raven-haired Italian beauty who stood out from the crowd. Michael served her in the dining area throughout the eight-day passage. He proudly recalls how she “hooked him up” like a fish and comically claims how he served her for eight days on the ship and ended up serving her the rest of his life. Anna was returning to the U.S. from a trip to Spain, Portugal, Morocco, after which she concluded her journey with a visit to family in central southern Italy. Michael confides, “I liked her because she wouldn’t let me kiss her. I knew she must be family woman.”
Michael and Anna exchanged translated letters and a couple of phone calls for a year. This was the 1960s, so communication was slow and deliberate. They took a great leap of faith and decided to meet and marry in New York City on July 29, 1966, at City Hall. For their honeymoon, they crossed the country from New York to Spokane over a four-day romantic sojourn by train.
What brought them to Spokane? Anna and her family had relocated there from Vinchiaturo, Molise, Italy after World War II. Their emigration included a five-year residency in Canada (Montreal and Rossland, British Columbia) as they awaited their U.S. immigration documentation. In 1953, at the age of 15, Anna, her parents Bernardino and Maria, and younger brother, Frank, moved to the “Lilac City.” Once Michael and Anna arrived in Spokane after their cross-country trek, a huge wedding reception awaited them along with a new family for Michael which included Anna’s widowed mother, her siblings and nieces, and the greater Italian community of Spokane. Some of Michael’s first and closest friends in Spokane were fellow immigrants from Italy who endearingly referred to him as Michele (mee-ke-ley) or Il Greco. As the ship Michael met Anna on was a mixed Greek-Italian crew, he felt quite at home with Italians and spoke some of the language making his transition into his new community an easier one. Making zinfandel wine and sampling each other’s vintage creations was a favorite pastime amongst the paesani (Italian friends) and became an annual tradition which Michael continued for many years. A few homemade gallons still exist and have made their savory appearance at special family events.
From then on, Michael and Anna began creating memories together and sharing their own adventures as a unique and much-loved couple in the community. In the early years, Michael worked in the hospitality business, utilizing his highly prized skills from his days on the cruise liners. He quickly became noticed and was sought after for his unique skills, good looks, and European sophistication. He was a waiter and maitre d’ at several well-respected establishments like the Spokane Club, Zepp Inn, Fireside and Stockyard Inn restaurants. Despite the new locale and culture, danger once again found Michael. One night in 1974, while working at the Fireside Restaurant on Trent Avenue, an armed man with a pistol came in at closing time with an intention to rob the cash register. Standing with pistol in hand, the man demanded all of the money in the till. This man had no idea what he was up against, as this stubborn Cretan had absolutely no intention of handing over any money. He stood in front of the bandit and with solid nerves of steel countered, “No! Go ahead and shoot me – go to hell!” The surprised thug struck Michael on the side of his face with the pistol, knocking out a molar, yet the money remained untouched. The heroic event was captured in the Spokane Chronicle the following day and the owners, shocked as they were, remained ever grateful for Michael’s courage and loyalty.
In October 1967, Michael and Anna bore their first child, Aristides (named after Michael’s father). In September 1968, they welcomed their daughter, Sophia (named for Michael’s mother) to the family. Their third and final child, son Bernardino (namesake of Anna’s father), was born four years later in July 1972. As the family grew, they decided it was time to move to someplace more spacious. In 1968 they moved from their apartment in Brown’s Addition to the family farm in northeast Spokane, which had been in Anna’s family since 1935. They’ve remained there ever since. Today, Michael and Anna are very proud to have completely renovated the small old farmhouse over the years turning it into a comfortable family home, on which Michael labored at well into the evenings after coming home from work.
Paralleling his newly-adopted Italian community, Michael quickly embraced the budding Greek community of Spokane, as well. The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church became a second home for the Iliakis Family as they soon were involved in all aspects of the church life and fellowship. From parish council, Sunday school, the Greek festival, altar service, choir, Sunday school, Greek school, and Greek dance the church was a central focus and source of religious and cultural nourishment throughout the years for the entire family. Michael also became active in the Spokane chapter of the AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association). He found comfort in developing familiar relationships within the Greek community similar to those he would have enjoyed back in Greece. His koumbari (best man or godparent) and close friends included some original and continuing parish members: Gormanos, Kanellos, Theilen, Nathaniel, and Prekeges families, just to name a few.
In 1968, Michael and Anna began celebrating Holy Pascha at the Iliakis farm. To date, it’s been recognized as one of the greatest in the Spokane area complete with arnaki (lamb) and kokoretsi (lamb or goat intestines) butchered and prepared in the traditional way by the Iliakis and Gormanos families. Those who attended would usually bring other holidays dishes. Anna always prepared some traditional Italian dishes as well to add to the festivities making it even more special. Local Greeks, Italians, and close American friends all looked forward to annual Easter festivities at the Iliakis farm. Some years, the total number of guests attending would be over 50. They would travel from northern Idaho, western. Montana, central British Columbia, Seattle, and other parts of eastern Washington. It was always very memorable and meaningful.
As time went on, it became clear that the restaurant business was not ideal for raising a family, so Michael shifted to a daytime regiment of factory work from 1972 onward. He was employed at Kaiser Aluminum, RA Hanson Company, and finally Centennial Mills until his retirement in 1999. With most of those working years spent at RA Hanson, a heavy machinery manufacturer, Michael worked mainly in the areas of preventive maintenance and plant maintenance. Regardless of restaurant or factory work, there was always farm work and it was a year-round obligation. The 100-acre farm where Michael and Anna live to his day is located on the corner of Bigelow Gulch Road and Havana Street on the western border of Orchard Prairie. It’s constantly served as a source of honest living and pride for them and their family.
Every June through August marked hay season on the calendar. Ongoing work continued from dawn until dusk; plowing, seeding, swathing, bailing, and finally harvesting and hauling tons of alfalfa, grass, and oat hay. Michael owned and maintained all of the farming equipment. Beyond working the land, there were also animals to care for: cattle, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, goats, and an occasional horse or two. At its peak, Michael recalls having upwards of 20 cows and 40 sheep on the farm. His elder brother, Manolis, joined the family on the farm in 1971. He was a great help as the farm required endless hours of work. He passed away in February 1993 from pancreatic cancer and was interred in Spokane.
Despite often working three jobs at any given time, Michael didn’t want to lose opportunities for adventure in his new homeland. He was a man of action and he didn’t want to lose this part of his soul. The great American sports of hunting and fishing were welcome distractions. He was fortunate that his new koumbari taught him all he needed to know about hunting and fishing in the “great northwest.” He recalls fond memories with the Theilen brothers in the mountains and on the sea. He taught his children to fish and ice fish on lakes and rivers outside Spokane where he still goes to this day.
Every October for nearly 30 years, Michael would spend at least one week in the Okanogan highlands hunting mule deer at Mount Annie followed by weekend hunting for whitetail deer at Mount Spokane. Rarely did a hunting season pass without bagging his buck and sometimes, even a trophy rack. During winter and spring, Michael would make the most of fishing for trout and walleye in the robust lakes and rivers of eastern. Washington. In late summer, he would make the annual trek to La Push, Washington, for salmon fishing. In recent years, Michael has discovered the new and exciting pastime of horseback riding and camping. Ever the gregarious and congenial character, Michael was fortunate to befriend some non-Greeks who have taken him under their wing to teach him these recreations. In return, they have enjoyed and appreciated the hospitality and friendship of Anna and Michael. Hunting and fishing were not simply enjoyable, exciting and relaxing ways to spend time, they also served as great sources of sustenance for a growing family. Most importantly, they were exceptional opportunities to spend time together and for Michael to bestow profound knowledge, truths and philosophy upon his kids.
Michael is highly capable and versatile; able to put his hand to any trade. He is also a philosopher in his own right, happy to share his thoughts and reflections on life and the world. Not surprisingly, one such philosophy centers on the topic of work; that you “don’t get something for nothing,” as he’s proven over and over throughout his lifetime. On family unity, he taught his children, “one by one branches can be broken, but together, they will always be strong – you always stay together and you’ll always be strong.” Another revolved around education. Recalling that he didn’t have an opportunity to complete formal education beyond elementary school, he always insisted that his children not only complete high school and go to college, but to reach beyond. He would warn, “Don’t be (a dummy) like me!” He pushed for further education “so that you can work with your mind instead of your back.” His encouragement worked, Ari, Sophia, and Bernie all hold masters degrees and continue to reach for the top of their professions. Michael calls himself a “straight shooter” as he “tells it like it is” with “no phony business.” He admits, unapologetically, “People will like me or hate me, but they know where I stand.”
Although he admits to experiencing mild levels of discrimination and ridicule in the workplace and beyond due to his imperfect English, heavy accent and ethnicity, Michael never let it discourage him. He never felt regret for immigrating to the United States. His love for America is profound as is his pride in being an American citizen. “The US is the best country on the earth,” he proudly announces. “We are so lucky to live in the most beautiful country,” he claims. He proudly attests that it gave him every opportunity to make something for himself as well as provided opportunities for his family. In light of the war-torn homeland he left, this truth was authentic and heartily felt. That said, make no mistake, Michael is ardently and proudly Greek, Cretan to be exact, complete with curled mustache. He travels every other year to his village and to Athens to visit his family. His elder sister Maria, his sister-in-law Maria and many nieces, nephews and cousins are always very happy to welcome him back. During his visit, he also makes time to tend to his property in Kalonikti.
After years of hard times through war, danger, travel, relocations, cultural acclimations, incredible hard work, health challenges and job transitions, it’s a miracle this adventurous and very lucky man from a small village in Crete is still alive! Michael’s formidable character shows no sign of resting any time soon. Michael and Anna continue to live on the farm they moved to in 1968 and built into a comfortable home. They now live a “simple retired life” still harvesting hay in the summer, caring for a couple of cattle, growing a small vegetable garden, and taking care of Anna’s mother Maria, who just recently passed in December 2014 at the age of 104!
Whilst the Greek community in Spokane has become smaller since its heyday in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Michael continues to promote Greek culture and community in the area, primarily through his labors at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. He continues to volunteer at the annual Greek festival in the fall, cooks and serves lamb dinner after the Holy Pascha (Easter) liturgy, served on the church board and much more. Michael’s immediate family spanned four generations; starting with his mother-in-law, himself and Anna, the three children and their spouses, and four grandchildren; three girls and a boy. He still has a yearning for adventure and excitement and would like to spend more time fishing and hunting, but as he says with aggravation, “I’m still just too damn busy!”By Bernie Iliakis, (date when posted)
1 and 25 Trout fishing on Banks Lake, 2010l
1a Island of Crete with the village of Kaloniktis indicated
2 Michael at age 9 or 10 with cousins, ca 1947
3 Michael in the Greek Army, ca 1958
4 Michael and crewmate on the Olympia Line, ca 1960
5 Corporal Michael with brother George, Mother and Father seated, ca 1958
6 Brothers George, Manolis, and Michael, 1960
7 Easter egg breaking with crewmates, Michael seated in center, mid 1960s
8 Anna Primiani, early 1960s
9 Newlyweds Anna and Michael, 1966
10 New parents with baby Aristides, 1967
11 With babies Sophia and Aristides, 1968
12 The first Greek Easter on the farm. Michael and baby Ari, John Gormanos, Gene Theilen, and Sam Triantis (background), 1968
13 A more recent Greek Easter, 2000
14 Baling hay on the farm, 1985
15 Digging out of a cold Spokane Winter, 2010
16 Showing a proud fishing yield with Gene Theilen, 1968
17 Salmon fishing with Jerry and Gene Theilen, 1976
18 Hunting with Jerry Theilen, 1970
19 Michael with a four-point mule deer at Mt. Annie, 1985
20 A family moment at home, (l-r) Michael, Sophia, Anna, Bernie, and Ari, 1987
21 The Iliakis offspring, Sophia, Bernie and Ari, 1996
22 Ancestral home in Kalonikti, 2009
23 Michael in the orange grove in Kalinikti, 2009
24 Michael, mother Maria Primiani, and Anna at home, 2010
25 Greek Dancing with Koumbari John Gormanos, Stan Kanellos, and Michael, 2005
26 Trout fishing on Banks Lake, 2010 PHOTOS courtesy Iliakis Family SOURCES
Document written by Bernie Iliakis February, 2015; video interview by Eleni Schumacher, August 2015