Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

“My Life is Like a Fairy Tale”
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“My Life is Like a Fairy Tale”

Fotini Falbo

1 Fotini Falbo, 2015From an orphanage in Thessaloniki, Greece, to Walla Walla, Washington, the story of Fotini Falbo’s life, like Cinderella’s, is similar to that of a fairy tale princess.

Fotini “Tini” Falbo (nee Lemonithou) was born on February 18, 1935, just outside of Kavala, about two hours east of Thessaloniki. While Fotini is her Greek baptismal name, she has most commonly been known as Tini.  Her mother died from pneumonia when she was very young and her father died a short time later.  Thus, she has no recollection of her parents.  Tini was living with her aunt, Lemonia Andriathou, until she began the first grade at the age of six.  With the town occupied by the Germans and her aunt no longer able to provide for her, Tini went to live in the Melissa Orphanage on Vasilissis Olgas Street in Thessaloniki. At Melissa she experienced bombing almost every night and running for cover in the orphanage when the sirens sounded.

2 Orphanage in Thesoliniki, 2014 3 Sultana Yianouli, Unknown and Fotini (front), circa 1940She fondly remembers a classmate, Ioanna (Jane), with whom she attended grade school and the two girls were the first from Melissa to receive the highest possible scores in all subject areas.  To her benefit, the local chamber of commerce provided a scholarship for both girls to attend Anatolia College (a combination of high school and junior college) while they continued to live in the orphanage.  Tini kept very active physically and participated in school athletics including volley ball, basketball and softball.  Times were difficult but Tini had a safe place to live, food to eat and the opportunity to attend the best school in Thessaloniki.  For her, the experience was “worth a million dollars.”

4 Anatolia College volley ball team, (Fotini, lower right), early 1950s 5 Lois Riess, Fotini's sponsor, 1950sAt Anatolia, Tini’s English teacher was Lois Riess, a true inspiration for Tini.  Lois was married to a French professor at Anatolia, Niko Kerimis. Lois was from Walla Walla, Washington, where her mother had been the assistant minister of the Congregational church.  Tini describes Lois as a brilliant woman who had worked with Naval Intelligence and had lived in many different places.   Lois and her husband had no children and took a special interest in Tini.  In fact, had it not been for limitations by the Greek government, they might have adopted Tini.  Instead, Lois arranged for Tini to come to the United States, live in Walla Walla at the St. Paul’s School for Girls (now apartments next to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church) and attend Whitman College.  The sponsorship included her 6 St Paul's School for Girlstransportation, a place to stay and entry into a very good college.  On August 25, 1955, Tini boarded the Queen Frederika from Greece to New York and from there flew to Spokane, Washington.  Miss Hedwig Zorb, principal of St. Paul’s, met her at the airport and drove her to Walla Walla.

St. Paul’s School had about 100 teachers and students, mostly junior high and high school, many of whom attended local schools away from the building.  Tini lived with some rather privileged girls, not orphans, whose worst problems were some limitations on their freedom.  In Walla Walla she experienced some homesickness and, while not feeling close to others, remembers how good they were to her.  She remembers some difficulty in adapting to a different culture and foods (mistaking lettuce for cabbage) but appreciating the availability of food that did not exist in Greece.  She remembers the limited “free time” when girls would go into downtown Walla Walla for an ice cream cone.

7 Fotini, 1958With some college credits from Anatolia, she began attending Whitman College in 1955 and graduated in 1958 with studies in physical education and planning to become a physical therapist.  There were two other Greek students at Whitman with whom she had contact: Theodora Cokinakis Geokezas (see BRINGING THE COOKING BACK HOME) and Faye Nicon Stylianopoulos (see BORN 8 Joe, early 1940sGREEK ALWAYS GREEK).  She remembers visiting the Cokinakis family in Seattle, Washington, and returning to Walla Walla with a bag of Greek cookies.  In Walla Walla, Tini was able to find three Greek women with whom she became friends: Sophia Dyke (see A REBEL FROM RODIA), Dina Baker (see A BROTHER AND SISTER ACT) and Georgia Sakas (see A CINDERELLA STORY).  She was also befriended by John and Martha Kelly.  John was the publisher of the Walla Walla Union Bulletin and walked Tini down the aisle at her wedding.

9 Fotini and Joe wedding, 1958Occasionally Georgia and Frank Sakas would take Tini along on visits with other families, one of which was the Falbo family.  The Falbos owned and tended eight acres of farm land on the south edge of Walla Walla.  It was there that she met Joe Falbo.  After their first meeting, Joe would call on Tini, to take her to his home or out for a drive.  Their relationship developed.  They were married on September 21, 1958.

Joe worked as the 10 Gina, Joe and Tina, circa 1964assistant fiscal officer for the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.  After work he would put on his Levis, milk the cows and work the acreage.  Their children, Gina Maria (now married to Gary Cox) was born in 1959 and Tina Maria followed in 1961.  In the early years of their marriage, the family lived in town then moved into the Falbo home on the acreage.  Three years later, they built their own home on the property.

Tini had considered working outside the home.  However, Joe felt that it was not financially necessary. And, he needed her help as there was plenty of work to do on the property, mostly by hand.  Tini learned to make cheese from the milk which she shared with friends and neighbors.  Joe was one of the strongest men Tini knew and, until his knees began to give him problems, he was very active.  They were married for 56 years; he died in 2014 from congestive heart failure.

11 Gina and Tina, circa   12 Joe, Fotini, Tina, Gina, early 2000s   13 Gina, Joe, Fotini, Tina, circa 1990

When the girls began grade school, Tini was asked to help supervise at the school cafeteria and at recess.  At first, she thought it was a volunteer position and then found that she was being paid for the work.  This work continued until Gina and Tina moved on to middle school.

Having married a Roman Catholic, and with no Greek Orthodox Church in the area, Tini attended the Catholic Church as did many Italians in Walla Walla.  While most knew she was Greek, others would even see her as Mexican.  Although her first language was Greek, English was always used at home.  In later 14 Fotini, Tina, Gina, Gary, 2004years when Greek cousins contacted her or visited, she found herself “tongue tied” when trying to converse in Greek. This experience reminds Tini of a favorite Greek saying, matia pou then vlepounte gregora lismonane, meaning eyes that don’t see each other are quickly forgotten.  One cousin even sent Tini some Greek children’s books so she could practice.  It was almost like starting over.  She made her first trip back to Greece in 1992, 37 years after coming to Walla Walla and again in 2008 with her daughter Gina.  Joe was not a traveler and was content with his life in Walla Walla.  While in Greece she tried unsuccessfully to locate the Melissa Orphanage in Thessaloniki but hopes to find it when she visits again.  The building now belongs to the University of Thessaloniki and is used as a research center for Byzantine studies.

Tini believes hers is an unusual story and she is extremely 15 Fotini and Joe, early 2000sgrateful for the assistance she received from Lois Kerimis, Hedwig Zorb and others.  Looking back, she attributes her good fortune to showing sincere appreciation when opportunities were presented. As a young woman traveling alone from Greece to the United States she was a bit naïve and didn’t think about any possible misfortune along the way.  She knew that God was with her.

Tini’s daughter Gina and husband Gary now live in the Falbo house next door and Tina not too far away in Puyallup, Washington.  Had Tini remained in Greece she might have secured a job, married and lived a simple life.  But, she is grateful for and content with her full life and the many years she shared with Joe in Walla Walla.

By John and Joann Nicon, February 2016

1 Fotini “Tini” Falbo, 2015
2 Sultana Yianouli, unknown, Tini (front), circa 1940
3 Melissa Orphanage in Thessaloniki, 2014
4 Anatolia College volley ball team, Tini at lower right, early 1950s
5 Lois Reiss Kerimis, Tini’s sponsor, 1950s
6 St. Paul’s School for girls, 1961
7 Tini, 1958
8 Joe, early 1940s
9 Tini and Joe wedding, (l-r) Sam Fazzari, Froso Beneva, Tini, Joe, Fr. Georgen, 1958
10 Gina, Joe and Tina, circa 1964
11 Gina and Tina, late 1960s
12 Joe, Tini, Tina, Gina, early 1990s
13 Gina Joe, Tini and Tina, 2005
14 Tini, Tina, Gina, Gary, 2004
15 Tini and Joe, early 2000s
Photo 1 by John Nicon; 6 by Joe Drazan; all others from Falbo family collection 
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, April 2015