This is the reply Elly (Helle) Protopsaltou Pangis received when she humbly said she was not qualified to teach Greek school. She ultimately came to be a highly respected and loved dascala (teacher) in Tacoma, Washington.
Elly’s family was originally from Palatia, one of six towns on the island of Marmara. Literally translated marmara means marble and palatia means palaces. In 1906, her newlywed father, Elias Protopsaltis, had come by himself to Astoria, Oregon, and worked in the Clatsop lumber mill. The surname Protopsaltis (literally first chanter) is derived from the fact that an ancestor chanted on the first side (the right-hand side) of the church. In 1911 Elias had returned to his family in Palatia and was operating a general store with a variety of goods (groceries, school and building supplies). Elly’s mother, Elpiniki, ran the women’s department. Elias first saw Elpiniki when she was seven years old, dancing at a village wedding. He asked who she was and vowed to wait and marry her when she grew up. They married when she was 17 years old and he was 27. Elias wrote poetry and would carry a pencil and paper at all times to record his poems. His desire for learning was instilled in his children.
In Palatia the church orthros (matins) began at six in the morning and the children would know services were about to begin when they saw water coming from the priest’s house next door indicating he had just washed himself in preparation.
During the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 ethnic Greeks living in Asia Minor were suspected of being allied with the British and were exiled from Asia Minor. Following the war the Treaty of Lausanne provided for the simultaneous expulsion of Christians from Turkey to Greece and of Moslems from Greece to Turkey. The Protopsaltis family moved to Chalkida on the island of Evia (Euboea) off the east coast of Greece’s Attiki peninsula where Elias had a sister. Elly was born there on Sunday, November 30, 1925. However, since the courthouse was not open, the date on her birth certificate is the following Monday. Unlike the tradition of naming children after ancestors, her name comes from Helle, the mythological daughter of Athamas. In Greek mythology, Athamas was the king of the prehistoric Minyans in the ancient Boeotian city of Orchomenus.
During a 1919 typhoid epidemic in Palatia, Elly’s aunt and grandmother perished. The Protopsaltis family had rented their home to a Turkish officer but was able to return three years later. With four children, the small home was demolished and a larger home was built. The family was happy to be back home where Elias also held public office and operated a kafenion (Greek coffee house).
Elias initially wanted to move to Glyfada, south of Athens, but was concerned his girls would become prostitutes by living close to such a large city. He opened a small store in Chalkida but faced competition with larger stores. So, the family moved to Nea Palatia, 25 miles north of Athens on the Euboean Gulf across from Evia, where a number of families from Marmara had settled. There were six Protopsaltis children: Mary, Kiki (Kyriaki), Alexis (who perished in World War II), Elly, Thalia and Demetri.
Elly attended elementary school in Nea Palatia but would travel across the water to school in Chalkida by boat from grades 7 through 12. While Elly was in high school, the Italian dictator Mussolini threatened to invade Greece and the Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas said “Ochi” (“No”) on that famous day of October 28, 1940. While the Greeks were able to push the Italians back into Albania, the German invasion followed. Elly’s older sister was now married and living in Athens where the girls would stay for school and commute weekly, a 45-minute drive between Athens and Nea Palatia. When the German army took the Protopsaltis home for its headquarters, Kiki, Elly and Thalia were placed in a French Catholic boarding school. They studied day and night until Elly graduated.
Elly developed a love for the French language and wanted to become a French teacher. Thalia’s teacher, Sister Dominic from England, suggested Thalia practice her English by corresponding with someone in America. Her father had acquaintances in Tacoma, Washington, to whom he had been sending letters from his friends in Greece. He suggested Thalia write to the kafenion on Broadway in Tacoma.
Thalia wrote saying she was 17 years old and wanted to practice her English. Costas Zacharos received the letter and passed it on to his cousin’s nephew, Elia Pangis. Elia’s mother said, “I know that family. They are distant relatives from Marmara.” So Elia began corresponding with Thalia. Eventually Elia asked for a photo of Thalia and received one with both Elly and Thalia. Elia, finding that Elly was closer to his age, started corresponding with her in English and asked if she would come to America and marry him. For Elly it was a “life saver” as the post-World War II conditions in Greece were dreadful. Her father Elias had been threatened as he was assisting rebel troops during the Greek Civil War. At one time it was only the misspelling of his name that kept him from being killed. Fortunately, the Protopsaltis family was considered upper middle class and was able to live comfortably while providing their children with the best possible education.
Just before she left for America, Elly had met a tall, slender young man by the name of Seraphim who warned her against leaving Greece to marry someone she did not know. He was studying to be a doctor and offered to ask her parents for permission to marry her. Years later, her father Elias took a homeless man to a Red Cross hospital. When he signed his name as the man’s sponsor, the doctor recognized the name and disclosed that he was Seraphim, the man who offered to marry Elias’ daughter. Despite the warnings, when she received papers from her future husband allowing her to stay in the United States for 33 months as a veteran’s fiancé, Elly jumped at the chance. With tears in their eyes her family bid her farewell on January 9, 1947, and promised to join her at a later date.
The 17,000-ton cargo ship on which Elly sailed was reported to have two-bed cabins but Elly found herself with five cabin mates. It was smooth sailing on the Mediterranean from Piraeus until the ship reached the Atlantic Ocean. For the next two weeks the ocean crossing was very rough. Elly did not get sick but was very frightened. In New York she was greeted by her mother’s relatives and was amazed while riding in a taxi with a glass roof and shopping in large department stores with escalators. She was surprised to see jewelry displayed openly as it would be quickly stolen in Greece.
On the train to Tacoma, Elly was often in tears knowing little about her new country. She had to change trains in Chicago, Illinois, and a Red Cross volunteer and a young soldier provided assistance until she arrived safely in Tacoma on January 30, 1947. She was met by her future in-laws and several Greek families and had a meal at Elia’s home after attending church services.
Elly and Elia were married on April 20, 1947, at St. Nicholas Church in Tacoma. Without her father, her father-in-law John Pangis walked her down the aisle. When Fr. George Paulson asked the congregation to close their eyes and imagine Elly’s family in Greece, the tears flowed. Their reception was held at the Eagles Hall with patriotes (countrymen) and guests from as far away as California.
When John Pangis came to the United States at the age of 14, the letter “a” from Panagis was omitted so the name was shortened to Pangis. Like her father Elias, John Pangis also operated a grocery store on Tacoma Avenue where her husband Elia worked until business declined due to the growing number of large “super” markets. Elia later worked at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis/McChord) and then as a ship fitter at the Naval shipyards in Bremerton, Washington, performing manual labor and office work until he retired. Elia’s and Elly’s first child, Elpiniki “Nikki”, was born in 1948 and named after her maternal grandmother. Two years later, John, named after his paternal grandfather, was born and their youngest son Alexis followed in 1954. All three children live in the Tacoma area. Elly now has six grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Her children are very “Americanized” and she believes, if they do not attend the Greek Orthodox Church, they will lose the last vestiges of their Greek culture. Her son John has maintained his church involvement and his wife is also an active church member. Nikki lives nearby and takes Elly to church regularly. Alexis, a very accomplished mathematician, works for the Boeing Company and has helped the church with financial matters.
As newlyweds Elia and Elly lived with his parents until they found their own home. Elly wanted to learn more English and enrolled at Tacoma’s Stadium High School to take classes for immigrants. With all classes in Greece being mandatory, she found the elective system at Stadium less than challenging. After three months, she was told she already had the knowledge she needed and that her high school education in Greece was equivalent to two years of college in the United States. Elly’s knowledge of both languages made the transition from Greek to English relatively easy.
The Pulakis and Anton families wanted to bring the rest of the Protopsaltis family to America but their efforts failed. Elia and Elly were able to bring her parents to Tacoma in the early 1950s but they returned to Greece one year later. During this time Thalia had married a Greek officer and was living in California. Elly’s parents eventually returned to the United States to live with Thalia in the San Francisco Bay area.
Elly’s desire was to teach French but the Pangis family savings had been used to support the grocery store. Her focus became raising her three children. One day the priest, Fr. Tzoumanis, invited her to the Martigopoulos house. Martigopoulos was president of the church parish council and asked Elly to become the Greek school teacher. Elly hesitated and told the men she did not have the credentials to teach. Fr. Tzoumanis said ”agapiti mou echete tin gnosi” (my dear you have the knowledge). Elly taught Greek school for the next four years and savored every minute of it. She enjoyed having her students recite poems on Greek Independence Day. She also taught Sunday school for nine years. As a young immigrant, she joined the St. Constantine and Helen Club, an association for Greek women and became its secretary. However, as she wrote the minutes in classical Greek, one of the women said “pethaki mou” (my child) that is very nice but we don’t understand it. Elly learned to write in simpler prose.
Elly had known Theodosios Katramados, a bachelor in Tacoma, who was her father-in-law’s kalos athelfos (spiritual brother) and had written letters to Theodosios’ nephew in Greece for him. Recently, a letter arrived at St. Nicholas Church in Tacoma. The priest gave the letter to George Pirotis who in turn sought Elly’s assistance in translating the letter. The letter was from a Michail Katramados (the nephew who was now a professor in Thessaloniki) who wanted to know about a man named John in Tacoma. Michail eventually learned that the man was Elly’s father-in-law, John Pangis. Now, Elly and Michail maintain regular communication. (See GOD WILL PROVIDE – Eχει ο Θεός under Keeping Community)
Elly didn’t know how to cook when she first came to Tacoma as her mother did all the cooking, leaving the girls to focus on their education and relaxation in Nea Palatia. Elia’s mother Eftaxia helped her learn to cook. Her first experience baking a cake in a large pan was a disaster. That is not the case today. Elly’s tsoureki (sweet bread) is one of the best.
In 1965 some Greek friends were about to open a cafeteria at the Tacoma Mall and had asked if Elly would like to work for them. She went to work cleaning tables, much to the disappointment of Elia who reluctantly agreed to pick her up from work. When she told him it was her “mental therapy,” he came to understand. Eventually she worked on the cafeteria line and became known as the “speedy queen” for making sandwiches in record time.
Elly has a number of favorite Greek sayings, or proverbs, four of which are presented here. The first is to proton sholeion ine to spiti (the first school is at home). Two others are efhi ghoneon ke sto vouno perpatas (with your parent’s blessing, you can climb mountains) and polakis omilisas metanoisa, sigisas dhe oudhepote (speaking too much I regretted, in silence never). Finally, pez mou me pion pas na sou po pios ise (tell me with whom you associate and I shall tell you who you are).
Elly’s excellent command of the written and spoken Greek and English languages remains strong to this day. Her loyalty to both languages and to both Greece and the United States is equally strong. She is “Greek by birth, American by choice and proud to be both.” She possesses a small amount of homa (soil) from her village of Nea Palatia with which she wishes to be buried and to have “God Bless America” sung at the funeral ceremony.By John and Joann Nicon, February 2013
1 Elly and the letter
2 Protopsaltis home in Palatia, Marmara
3 Friday after Easter picnic, (l-r) Mrs. Matou, Demetra Matou, Ioanna Rantou, Elly Protopsaltou, Kostas Rantos, Mr. Rantou, Mrs. Rantou, Eleftherios Rantou, Alexis Protopsaltou, early 1930s
4 Protopsaltis children (l-r) Alexis, Kiki, Elly, Mary, 1926
5 Elly, 1927
6 Elly, high school graduation in Greece, 1943
7 The letter from Thalia, 1945
8 Elly and Thalia Protopsaltou (photo sent to Elia), 1945
9 Tacoma News Tribune article, 1947
10 John Pangis (at left) and co-worker in Tacoma, early 1900s
11 Elia and Stella Pangis, first Greek twins in Tacoma, circa 1926
12 Elia Pangis, high school graduation, 1940
13 Elia and Elly wedding (l-r) flower girl Voula John, Vasilakis Basil, Catherine Basil, Ernie Evans, Koko Pulakis, Anna Zaharachio, Evan Denny, Pete Apostolou, Stella Karakalos, Elly, Elia, Eleni Denny, Chris Nicholas, Stella Denny, Bill Evans, ring bearer George Panagiotu, 1947
14 Elia and Elly wedding, 1947
15 Elly at Stadium High School, 1947
16 Elly’s citizenship papers, 1949
17 Elia Pangis family (l-r) Elly, Alexis, Nikki, John, Elia, circa 1954
18 Nikki, John and Alexis Pangis, 1962
19 Elly and Elia, New Year’s Eve, 1969
20 Protopsaltou women, (l-r) Thalia Johns, Mary Argyropoulos, Elly and their mother Elpiniki Alexiou Protopsaltou (seated), 1981
21 Olympic torch rally, (l-r) Mary Manthou, Presbytera Maria Johnson, Andy Manos (in cap), Evelyn Manos, Elly, Joanna Tsapralis, 1996
Photo 1 by John Nicon; all others from Pangis family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, February 2013; notes from Elly Pangis; Tacoma News Tribune articles