Born, raised and educated in Washington State, Theodora Cokinakis Geokezas spent 31 years in Minnesota raising her family, serving her community and polishing her culinary skills. Back in Seattle since 1999, she continues to contribute her skills to her church and community.
Theodora’s parents, Michael Cokinakis and Irene (Irini) Matantos, came from the island of Leros in the Dodecanese island group in the Greek Aegean Sea. The origin of the family name is not known but could have been from ikis (little) and kokino (red).
Michael arrived in the United States before 1900 through Ellis Island. His exact birthdate is unknown and when he died in 1966 his family guessed at the date inscribed on his headstone. He was the second child born with two brothers and three sisters as siblings. Michael’s first job in America was as a fireman or stoker feeding the firebox on steam engines. It is not clear how he entered the restaurant business but Theodora’s earliest memory is of the Oyster Shop which he owned near what is now Seattle’s Westlake Center. With poor refrigeration at the time, seafood was not served in the summers and the family often spent that time on Camano Island, north of Seattle. Michael had also worked for his brother-in-law, John Spiro at Spiro’s Café on First and Lander in south Seattle. He operated the Brothers Lunch at Fifth and King in Seattle’s International District, worked across the street for the Hazimihalis family, for Gus Georges at the Greenland Café at Eighth and Pike and for Pete Wells at the Lotus Café on First and Stewart. Michael had no formal education in Greek or English but his work ethic held him in good stead.
When it came time for Michael to marry, his sister-in-law, Eftihia, arranged a marriage with Irini Matantos, also from Leros and almost 15 years his junior. Irini’s mother, Marika Alahouzou, was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She and her husband, Pandelis Matantos, divorced and Marika raised their children, Irini and Terry (Sotirios), in Athens with the help of relatives. Marika was a nikokira (accomplished homemaker) and taught other young women household skills. Irini attended Arsakeio, a well-respected women’s school in Athens, and also became a nikokira. When she finished school, Irini taught at the Hill Academy, a school for boys in Athens.
Michael knew Irini only by reputation from his sister-in-law, Eftihia, who had been her second grade teacher. Irini had no dowry to offer and Michael most likely paid for her travel to Canada and for the wedding. They were married in Seattle in 1930. They wanted children but, after three miscarriages, it was felt that having her mother’s assistance would be helpful for Irini. So in 1935 Michael sent Irini to Greece to bring her mother, Marika, to Seattle. He had purchased the family home in Seattle’s Wallingford/Green Lake area which he shared with his brother Nick Cokinakis (Cokis) and his wife Sophia. Their first child, Carrie, was born while they lived there. In the home also were Michael, Irini, her mother Marika and Irini’s brother (Theodora’s uncle), Terry (Sotirios) Matantos.
Theodora Cokinakis Geokezas, named after her paternal grandfather, was born on September 5, 1937, in Seattle. Her brother Gus (Costa) followed on September 29, 1942, and was named after both his uncle and nouno (godfather). Life in the Cokinakis home was very happy for Theodora. Food was very much part of the home life and as soon as one meal was completed another was being discussed. Yiayia (grandmother) Marika would braid Theodora’s hair while she chatted about the day’s activities. Michael worked long hours in his restaurant but never ate there. Irini would wait up and serve him at home. It was all Greek at home. Irini taught them Greek first and Yiayia, speaking no English, would hold her grandchildren on her lap and tell them paramithia (folk tales). The children were challenged if an English word slipped into the conversation even though Irini spoke English quite well.
As a young girl, Theodora’s relatives all lived nearby in Wallingford and there was regular contact among them. Michael would talk on the phone every day with his sister Katerina Pallikaris who lived with her husband Harry (Lefteris) and Theodora’s paternal grandmother, Kalliope. Thea (aunt) Annetta Spiro and her husband John, and thea Maria Manus with her husband Theodore and their four children also lived nearby. Nick and Sophia Cokis and their two children, Carrie and Ted, were in the neighborhood as well. Theodora remembers thea Sofia introducing them to scones at the Puyallup (Western Washington) Fair and having cookware representatives prepare food in their home. The Delimitros, Sourapas, (see HIRES TO YOU under Making a Living) Kaloris and Georges (see SORT OF LIKE THE VILLAGE under Keeping Community) families were also neighbors.
While activities with the relatives were frequent, Irini was very strict with her children and did not allow them to visit friends’ homes. Instead Theodora brought her belongings into her own large back yard and invited friends to her home. When she began school at Interlake Elementary (now the Wallingford Center), she was well-received, mentored by her teachers and does not remember language being a problem. On one occasion, Irini was invited to school and was very concerned. However, when she returned home, she said the teacher told her no matter where Theodora went she would be successful. Theodora continued on to Hamilton Junior High and Lincoln High where she again received much support from her teachers and counselors. At the time Lincoln was the largest high school in Washington State and she served as junior class and student body president. She recalls a number of children from immigrant families being tapped for leadership positions in high school. College was not encouraged by her parents but after Theodora hosted the president of the College (now University) of Puget Sound (UPS), he called the Cokinakis home indicating that if Theodora came to UPS she would be treated like his own daughter. Michael was very proud.
Theodora was accepted by Stanford University in California, the University of Washington in Seattle and Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, which she ultimately attended. She was met at the bus station by an upperclassman who said, “We gotta do something about that name,” and she was “Teddy” from then on at Whitman. There she majored in social sciences and worked in the office of the dean of women. When she came home for holidays, her parents tried to persuade her not to go back. After graduation, “Teddy” worked as assistant dean of women for one year but was then ready to leave Walla Walla. Theodora was accepted for graduate study at Syracuse and Cornell Universities in New York. However, by that time, it was her brother’s turn for school so Theodora came back to Seattle in 1960 and went to work for the Boeing Company to help pay Gus’s college expenses. Besides, the family did not want both of their children away from home at the same time. Theodora worked in the aerospace typing pool and from there was invited to work in the Boeing corporate offices. She shared an office and did the same work as a male counterpart but could not be called a statistician because she was a woman. Regardless, Theodora was successful and maintained the position.
In 1962 Theodora attended a New Year’s Eve party at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption hall with her brother and a friend, Katie Babunes. There she met Mel (Meletios) Geokezas who had come to Seattle from Greece to complete his studies at the University of Washington. Theodora became friends with Mel and his colleagues, Manuel Tramountanas and Jim Katsandres. The relationship with Mel developed. Theodora typed his master’s thesis while they were dating and his PhD thesis after they were married on August 25, 1963. While Mel had several employment opportunities he was most impressed by a representative from Honeywell, the Minnesota technology manufacturer. So, it was after Easter in 1968 when Mel, Theodora and their three-year-old daughter Marianthi moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they spent the next 31 years.
The Twin Cities of Minnesota provided a wonderful experience for the family. In addition to Irini, there were a number of visitors from Seattle who spent time in the Geokezas’ new home. Their son Demetre was born in 1969. Irini, widowed since 1966, sold the family home in Seattle in 1985 and joined Mel, Theodora and the grandchildren in Minnesota.
Theodora became active in the American Association of University Women (AAUW) where she enjoyed its stimulating programs and spent some time managing the local chapter club house. Its location next to the Minnesota Governor’s mansion in St. Paul made meetings with dignitaries, including Mikhail Gorbachev, possible. She also joined the League of Women voters in 1985, had a chance to meet Hillary Clinton and has remained active in the League since that time. At Saint George Greek Orthodox Church, Theodora was one of the youngest members of Philoptochos (womens’ auxiliary) where the older women encouraged and supported her activities, including establishing a Turkish coffee booth at the church festival. With much of her volunteer work including the preparation of Greek food, she was once recognized with the headline “St. Paul cook is expert with cuisine of Greece” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Now, as an older Philoptochos member in Seattle, she recognizes the importance of involving younger women.
Mel retired in 1995 and Marianthi moved to Seattle in 1999. Demetre was serving in the United States Navy at the time. Subsequently, the decision was made to return to Seattle. Also, Mel’s sister lived in Seattle. While it was hard to leave St. Paul (Theodora still visits her friends there), a return to Seattle was the logical move.
Marianthi married David Howard. David’s children from a previous marriage, Alec and Ellie, have taken an interest in the Greek traditions of the family. Demetre, a graduate of the U.S. Naval and his wife Eryn have two children, Demetrios “Jack” and Evvi Irene. Both families live in Seattle. Theodora has been to Greece many times and the family home in Leros, now in Marianthi’s name, is being remodeled for the family’s occasional use. Mel and Theodora share their cooking skills through the St. John the Almsgiver program at Seattle’s Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, where meals are prepared for the homeless at St. Martin de Pores Shelter.
Theodora has always had a sense of her Greek community through her church involvement. But beyond that, she feels “grounded with a culture from a country with a story to tell” and being Greek has given her “a platform on which to expand and enrich who she is.” Even with very strict limits on her as a child (no playing at others’ homes, picking beans for youthful employment or babysitting) hers was a very happy home life. When she or Gus would mix their Greek and English their mother would say “ti eine afta pou melas, ala bournesika” (what are you speaking, some sort of Chinese)? Another memorable saying is perasmena megalia (when you see yourself in your youth in a beautiful dress that you used to wear–something beautiful has passed, you are now beyond that). Just as Theodora learned English as a second language, she can easily relate to more recent immigrant families. She and Mel have passed the Greek heritage to their children through language, participation in their Greek Orthodox faith and traditions and of course, the love of Greek food.By John and Joann Nicon, October 2012
1 Theodora, 2012
2 Mike Cokinakis in his youth with his father Theodore, date unknown
3 Arsakeio Teacher Preparatory School, Athens, Greece. Irini Matantos fourth from left, back row, circa 1920
4 Terry, Irini and Marika Matantos, circa 1920
5 Bridal shower (l-r) Maria Cokinakis, Eftihia Cokinakis, unknown, Irini Matantos Cokinakis, Antigoni Pappadakis, 1930
6 Mike and Irini Cokinakis wedding, 1930
7 Theodora and Irini, circa 1940
8 Mike Cokinakis family, (l-r) Costa, Irini, Theodora, Mike, circa 1955
9 Mike Cokinakis, circa 1959
10 Cokinakis family and friends (l-r) Back: Mike Cokinakis, James Sourapas, Theodore Cokinakis; Front: Angelike Sourapas, Catherine Pallikaris, Kalliope Cokinakis, Annetta Spiro, Irini Cokinakis, Sophia Cokis, Nick Cokis, 1949
11 Theodora at Whitman College (l-r) Rhoda Daly, John Varvel, Theodora, Mike Wymer, 1959
12 Theodora and Mel engagement, 1963
13 Mel and Theodora wedding (l-r) Mike, Irini, Theodora, Mel, Marianthi Geokezas, August 25, 1963
14 Mel and Theodora leaving their wedding festivities, 1963
15 Theodora and her dog Duchess, 1992
16 Family party (l-r) Standing: Helen Matantos, Mari-Viki Matantos, Costa, Marianthi, Demetre; Sitting: Irini, Mel, Theodora, 1970
17 Geokezas family, (l-r) Marianthi, David Howard, Evvi Irini, Theodora, Demetre, Mel, Jack, Eryn, circa 2010
18 Mel and Theodora at home, 2012
Photos 1 and 18 by John Nicon; photo 10 courtesy Steve Sourapas; photo 15 courtesy Minneapolis Star Tribune; all others from Cokinakis/Geokezas family collection
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, October 2012