John Skimas has found relatives with the original family name of Skamnias, a derivation of the Greek word for sycamore or mulberry tree. This discovery was made while visiting Greece and using a DNA kit to determine that there was a 99% match with his relative.
John’s father, Nicolaos, was from the town of Thermopolis, Greece, just west of the city of Lamia. He emigrated from the abject poverty of Greece to the United States in 1909 where he worked on the railroad and eventually found his way to Camas, Washington. Camas had a large paper mill where many Greeks were employed. Many also worked on the railroad. Nicolaos worked there for four years until the outbreak of the Balkan War when he returned to fight against the Turks. Nicolaos remained in Greece until 1920 and returned to Camas, worked again for ten years and amassed enough money to find a bride. He corresponded through his brother with the brother of Panagiota Papageorgiou and returned to Greece to marry his “mail order” bride.
Although Nicolaos knew little of his own family history, John used internet searches and Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing to learn about his ancestry. John first discovered a Skamnias family in New York but his initial call to them was rejected. On a second call, he was able to speak in Greek with a family member and learned they were from Nafpaktos, across the mountains from Lamia. While visiting relatives in Greece one Pascha (Easter), he drove to Nafpaktos and was greeted warmly by the Skamnias family there. In the conversation about their possible common ancestry, John was surprised when an old woman in the family said “mono me to DNA tha mathome” (only with the DNA will we know). When John visited the family two years later, he took a DNA kit. The testing resulted in a 99% match with Vasili Skamnias and John determined that they were probably third cousins.
John also learned that, during the Turkish occupation, Greeks sought safety in the mountains while the Turks remained in the lowlands and along the water. They both feared each other. After the Turks withdrew, John’s grandfather, Athanasios, a sheep and goat herder, migrated from Nafpaktos to Thermopolis where he met his wife and raised several children, including Nicolaos, John’s father. This series of events gave him further evidence of the relationships.
After Nicolaos and Panagiota returned to Camas, their son John was born on August 1, 1931. Nicolaos worked for almost 40 years at the mill and taught himself to read and write both Greek and English. He always carried a lexico (dictionary) with him and attended night school to study for his citizenship. With Panagiota being much younger than her husband, the marriage did not last and she moved to Seattle. She worked at the Boeing Company and remarried.
John attended elementary, junior high and high school in Camas, earning letters in three high school sports. There were only a dozen or so Greek families and up to 100 bachelors in the area during John’s youth. There were few Greek children of John’s age and most of his time was spent with non-Greek children. It was during the Depression and transportation to Portland, Oregon, across the Columbia River with its large Greek community and Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church was very limited. Association with Greek families was only at celebrations on holidays and name days (the day honoring the saint after whom a baptismal name is given) or occasional picnics. The relative isolation in Camas continued with gas rationing during World War II. It wasn’t until about 1948 that transportation improved and John was old enough to drive that the family attended church and Greek community events in Portland on a regular basis.
John remembers a love/hate relationship with Greek school, learning a great deal but having to spend extra time after his regular lessons. Initially, the priest, Father Tsarouhas, came from Portland to Camas once a month; then the Greek parents pooled their money and hired Mrs. Zafiratos. John has found the Greek language essential to communication skills especially in combining words. His knowledge of Greek gave him an advantage in learning Russian during his military service. John recalls the many Greek bachelors who lived in boarding houses, cooked their own meals and rotated the use of the same bed while working different shifts. While most were illiterate and returned to Greece, several including the Meletis family remained in the Portland/Vancouver area and became very successful.
After high school John attended Willamette University in Portland for two years before serving in the United States Air Force during the Korean War. He also attended the Department of Defense Language Institute English Language Center (DLIELC) at the Presidio of Monterey in Monterey, California. After serving as a Russian translator John became a navigator assigned to a B-29 crew and was stationed in England for two and one half years. After returning home John served a year as a radar intercept officer flying in F-89s in the Oregon National Guard. During this time he attended law school at Willamette University and became an attorney. He spent 11 years in private practice and part time as an Assistant City Attorney. John believes “the stars were in alignment” in 1971 when he was appointed to the Washington State Superior Court by Governor Daniel Evans. In 1988 John was recognized by the Firwood District of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), serving Washington and Oregon, when he received its Hellenic Heritage and Achievement Award.
John retired in 1992 but found he had too much energy for retirement. Now he provides arbitration and mediation services for ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) Support Services. According to his listing with the ADR, “Judge Skimas was President of the Superior Court Judges’ Association from 1986 to 1987, a member of the State Board of Judicial Administration from 1985 through 1987 and chair of the Judicial Information System from 1983 to 1984. He was the co-founder of the Uniform Child Support Schedules and Standards which served as a national model and he also developed mandatory pre-trial settlement procedures in family law cases.”
John was sitting on his front porch one day in 1958 drinking beer with a friend and watching the Camas Days parade when he spotted JoAnne Henriksen on one of the floats. With a helpful introduction from a mutual friend, they met and were married in 1959. They have two children, Kathy, an educator in the Multnomah School District, and Nick, a chemical engineer with Georgia Pacific. There are four grandchildren.
Being identified as a “non-native” or someone with an ethnicity from outside the United States resulted in some subtle discrimination for John. However, as he grew older and less self-conscious he came to appreciate his rich history and how much is based on 2500-year-old Greek principles. He believes that much of the history of the Byzantine era from 400 to 1460 AD has been overlooked by historians. Had his parents not emigrated to Camas, he would most likely have been caught up in World War II and the civil war that followed. Some of his relatives in Greece were forced from their homes and were starved or killed.
As there was little contact with others in the Greek Orthodox Church community in John’s early life, his father wanted John to experience a Christian education so John attended the Lutheran Church for several years. It was only in later years that he connected with Holy Trinity in Portland and served on the Parish Council. It is mostly the Greek ethnicity that John remembers and he came to appreciate how well-connected Greeks in Washington were with others from the same provincial areas of Greece. Even without cell phones and e-mail, the Roumeliotes (those from the area of Roumeli in Central Greece) maintained close contact. His nouno and nouna (godfather and godmother), Demos and Athena Zerwoodis were from Seattle. John’s father Nicolaos was the nouno for children in Tacoma. Even when stationed in San Antonio, Texas, and at the Defense Language Institute in California, he was welcomed by relatives or friends of his Greek contacts in Washington State.
John has found value in the Greek philoxenia (love of strangers) and what he calls sistimeni (a word not easily translated that refers to the common bond when one Greek meets another). And, many of those bonds have continued to this day.By John and Joann Nicon October, 2014
1 John Skimas, 2013
2 Nicolaos and Panagiota Skimas, 1930
3 Panagiota, John and Nicolaos Skimas, circa 1935
4 John as Superior Court Judge, 1972
5 John as ADR arbitrator/mediator, 2013
6 and 7 Hellenic Heritage and Achievement Awards dinner program, 1988
8 John Skimas family (l-r) JoAnne, John, Kathryn, Nick, 1980s
9 Skimas family at Disneyland (l-r) Sophia, John, JoAnne, Julia, Nick, Michelle, Nicolaos, Kathryn, Jacob, 2002
Photos 1, 6 and 7 by John Nicon; 5 courtesy; www.adrsupportservices.com; all others from Skimas family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, December 2013; www.adrsupportservices.com; Annual Hellenic Heritage and Achievement Awards
Dinner program, Order of AHEPA, 1988