Tommy Rakus’ family came from Roumeli, tin carthia tis Elathas (the heart of Greece). And, he claims his passion for all things Greek originates not from the food, the dancing or the language but from his heart.
ANNA RAKUS (nee LALLAS)
Tommy’s grandfather, Tom Lallas, immigrated to Bellingham, Washington, in the 1920s where he worked in the saw mills, saved his money, opened a grocery store and eventually open-air markets. The mayor of Bellingham, Sid Black, was his business partner and Tom’s success brought him enough popularity to be touted as the future mayor. Tom brought his bride, Estara (Esther) Trambaklos, from the town of Gravia in Central Greece, halfway between Delphi to the south and Lamia to the north. This area is historically known for the freedom fighter, Harisandoutos, whose village was surrounded by the Turks. Harisantoutos escaped and inflamed the passions of the Greeks against the Turks in the early 1800s. A number of Roumeliotes (Greeks from the Roumeli area of Greece) had worked as loggers and farmers and found Bellingham, like Everett and Aberdeen, Washington, to be a good place to use their experience from the old country. Plus, the railroad lines ended in these towns, providing a natural means of transportation for them.
In Bellingham, Tom and Esther had three children, John, Tommy’s mother Anna (born in 1928) and George. In 1937 Tom decided to take his family back to Greece and thought about remaining there. However, as they had become “Americanized,” a return to life in Greece was not to be. On the cross-country train ride back from New York the family boarded the Olympian, claimed to be the safest train in America with sealed windows and shatterproof glass. Near Miles City, Montana, a flash flood had caused an unusually high water level in Custer Creek. Although 20 minutes earlier a train had crossed the creek bridge safely, the bridge collapsed and the Olympian crashed into the creek at a speed of 50 miles per hour. While sitting in the smoking car, Tom and 48 others were killed instantly. Esther wisely lifted her three children into the luggage racks as water swept through the car. Anna lost her grip on her mother’s hair as Esther was swept away by the current but the children were safe in the luggage rack. An additional 75 people were severely injured in what was the worst disaster in train history at the time, an event that haunted Anna throughout her life.
Fortunately a Greek family near the Custer Creek disaster read about the tragedy and took the orphaned children, then ages 12, 10 and 8, into their home. They later drove the children to Bellingham where their grandfather’s brother, Gust Trames (Trambaklos) lived with his wife Mary. Andy Lucas, son of the family that rescued the children in Montana, later became a neighbor and close friend to the Rakus family. John and George Lallas and Gust Trames later became partners in the Royal Café in Bellingham. It was a successful venture where many local leaders and officials dined. Former Governor Albert Rosellini claimed the Royal was the location of more political deals than any other place outside of Seattle.
Shortly after Anna graduated from high school, she received a call from a relative, Vasiliki Georgiadis. Gust Rakus had seen a photo of Anna while visiting the Georgiadis home and Vasiliki told Anna “this dashing young man wants to meet and marry you.” Gust, Anna’s senior by 14 years, was from Machias, Washington, where three families, Rakus, Tsiknes (see THE GIVING FARMER) and Pappas (later sold to Southas) owned farms along the Pilchuck River. Gust had come to Machias with his family in the late 1920s. Gust’s father was from the mountain village of Mavrolithari (black rock) in Central Greece and his mother was also from Gravia at the base of the mountain.
The Rakus name is derived from the fact that Gust’s father and grandfather were not only sheepherders but also made raki, the unsweetened, anise-flavored Turkish alcoholic drink. His upbringing on the Machias farm during Prohibition was rather colorful. Moonshine liquor was made on the farms using grain that was supposedly used to feed the chickens. When the police would arrive, the children would run to the adjacent farms and alert their owners so that any evidence could be quickly hidden. And, when the police and local politicians came to the London Grill, a Greek-owned restaurant in nearby Everett, they could obtain their alcoholic refreshments there. This operation continued for many years.
As a 12-year-old immigrant, Gust spoke no English and was placed in primary school with younger children, a humiliating situation that encouraged him to quickly learn the language. In fact, he later became quite a linguist. His brother, James, was an excellent athlete with a scholarship to the University of Washington (UW) but died at age 19 from a mistreated injury to his liver. In 1934, while attending a picnic, Gust was approached by a Greek business owner, C. P. Koutlas, (see EVERETT REMEMBERED) who offered to pay for his first year of college with the condition that he dedicate his knowledge to his heritage and to education. Beginning with his $134.00 scholarship from AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) Gust graduated from the UW in 1940 with a teaching certificate and the ability to speak six languages. He also served in the United States Navy during World War II where he used his foreign language skills in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which preceded the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). He was airlifted to the front lines with a small group of linguists to capture radio stations and disseminate propaganda or disinformation to the enemy.
Back in civilian life, Gust taught at Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central College) then, with a desire to provide the basics for children, continued his four-decade career at West Seattle High School teaching Spanish, some French and Italian. He left the teaching profession to start a new successful career in real estate but never abandoned his passion for education nor his dedication to the University of Washington. His marriage to Anna lasted 56 years, from 1948 until his passing in 2003. Tommy recalls how his father aged rapidly when he left teaching and no longer experienced the presence of students who “kept him young.” Over 500 attended Gust’s funeral including former students who provided emotional memories of their time with him.
Anna and Gust raised three children, Diane, the oldest, Tommy in the middle and Jamee, the youngest. Anna also worked for G. John and Sam Doces at Doces Furniture Store in Seattle, where she managed the china, silver and linen department. Before retiring she also spent many years in charge of china and crystal at Seattle’s Bon Marche (now Macy’s). Anna also served her Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption as parish council president while Gust had held the same position at the sister parish, St. Demetrios, in Seattle. Anna passed away in 2017 at the age of 89.
Gust’s support of his Greek heritage carried over to immigration where he wrote letters to editorial boards and gave speeches on the importance of Greek immigrants learning English while keeping their Greek culture alive. He collected newspaper articles, photographs and magazines on everything that touted Greek-Americans. In 2004 his family established the Gust Rakus Hellenic Studies Collection in his honor which contains materials found in over 53 storage boxes from his many years as an AHEPA member. The Rakus Collection has also provided for the purchase of more than 750 books and publications on international and Middle Eastern studies. These are used in the Mediterranean Studies department of the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School for International Studies. From those materials, several photo story boards have been prepared by UW graduate students which include “Early Greek Pioneers to the Northwest,” “Greek Businesses in the 20s and 30s” and “Greeks in Seattle during World War II.” The story boards have been displayed at a number of Greek gatherings and educational venues and are available for viewing upon request.
Gust’s passion for education passed to his children, particularly Diane, who had taught children with learning disabilities. Tommy holds honors degrees in history and political science from Claremont College in California. He also earned his master’s degree in government and public administration from George Washington University and a Juris Doctor from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. Jamee followed in her father’s footsteps and has a successful real estate career.
Gust wanted his son to be either an educator or a lawyer but Tommy had no interest in a legal career. However, with some “time to kill,” he completed law school and even helped establish “Barrister’s Legal Research,” a forerunner for paralegals conducting legal research. Returning from a visit to Greece in 1979, Gust had an appointment for Tommy with Harry Platis (see A GREAT LIFE IN EVERETT) and Tom Conom, two Greek attorneys with whom Tommy practiced in Lynnwood, Seattle and Kirkland, Washington, without vacations except to attend AHEPA conventions. After 12 years working in bankruptcy, foreclosure and debtor rights, Tommy chose to leave the law profession.
Using his knowledge of bankruptcy, Tommy started Northwest Capital Partners, Inc. With 24 years in his business, he has been able to provide advice and solutions to business partners. Projects have included restoration of Seattle’s Paramount Theater, the Columbia City Theater, other developments in the Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood and revitalization of Hewitt Avenue in Everett.
Tommy has served almost every chapter and district office in AHEPA and continues to advise younger members of the organization. For him, everything about being Greek has been positive. He does recognize that while Greeks may become lost in petty arguments amongst themselves, they can come together to compete and overcome any opposition. Being raised in the Greek Orthodox Church has given him a cultural legacy combined with the Christian faith. He is proud of the fact that Greek Orthodoxy has been constant for almost 2000 years. Even for converts to the faith he says “they all have a little Greek and it takes the Orthodox religion to bring it out.” He has found the Greek philotimo (friend of honor) to be a uniting characteristic amo Greeks he has met in different parts of the United States or around the world. As his yiayia said, “My son you are not Greek just because you speak Greek, dance Greek or eat Greek food but you are Greek from the heart.”
By John and Joann Nicon, July 2017 VIDEO SEGMENTS
1 Tommy Rakus, 2015
2 Great grandfather Pete Rakus, 1930s
3 Wedding celebration on Tsiknis farm, mid 1930s
4 Gust Trames with Lallas children; Anna, George and John, circa 1934
5 Family on the farm, yiayia on left, circa 1940s
6 Gust and Anna Wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Maniotes, Constantina Rakus in back row, Mary and Gust Trames to the left of Gust and Anna
7 Gust and Anna, 1997
8 In Thessaloniki (Tommy center with glasses), 1969
9 Tommy, Anna, Gust, Jamee, 1990s
10 Gust and Tommy Rakus, 1995
11 Tommy as member of Washington State Olympic Committee, 1996
12 Tommy with Bob Park speaking at Korean-American Amateur Sports Association event, 1997
13 AHEPA board of directors present replica of Tribute to Olympism, 1996
14 AHEPANS meeting with Governor Gary Locke, (l-r) Chris Benis, Tony Maroussis, George Stamatoyannopoulos, Governor Gary Locke, George Maroutsos, Tommy, 1997
15 Tommy with Senator Paul Sarbanes, 1999
16 Northwest Capital business card
Photo 1 by John Nicon, all others from Rakus family collection. SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, September 2015; written materials from Tommy Rakus; the Gust P. Rakus Hellenic Studies Collection, University of Washington, Seattle