Demetrios “Dimitri” Spyridakis has never said “no” in public or to his students. He credits his success as an environmental engineering professor to the positive support he gave to them and their work.
Dimitri was born in Heraklion, on the island of Crete in Greece, in December 1931. The family name, Spyridakis, seems to have evolved from Saint Spyridon, but the Turks added a Greek diminutive ending “akis” meaning the “small one.” He notes that there were a number of families in Crete and Cyprus with the same name.
His parents, Emmanuel “Manolakis” and Garyfalia were from the village of Petrokefali, Messara, in southern Crete. Emmanuel’s father, Eleftherios, wanted his son to be a farmer and gave Emmanuel some land to tend. Emmanuel did build a house on the property by the time he was 20 years old but also chose to open a kafenion (coffee house) in the square in Petrokefali. At the kafenion he used a credit system that predates Visa and Mastercard. There was a bibliarion (ledger) where customers would enter the amount of their purchase on each visit. Then, at the end of the month, after receiving their salary, they would come to the kafenion and pay their accumulated bill. However, Emmanuel was less than successful at collecting the debts and in 1918 took and passed the examination to work in the post office. (Dimitri recently found the actual examination his father took in 1918.) Emmanuel retired from the post office in 1937.
Dimitri’s mother, Garyfalia, was a housewife and one of six children. Her mother died giving birth to the last child and, because her oldest sister had already married, Garyfalia at the age of 12 had to take care of her younger siblings. She and Emmanuel were married when she was 28 years old. With only one hospital available, their nine children were all born at home in Heraklion. The children, from oldest to youngest, are Evridiki, Eleftherios, Erini, Minos, Marika, George, Yiannis, Mihalis and Dimitri.
The family lived in a home built by the Turks. This photo shows all eleven in the family and was taken in 1939 right before the war started. After his first few years of school, World War II erupted and Dimitri was sent to live with his sisters who were teaching in several small villages, a safer environment. During that time he remembers Germans parachuting into the village of Tymbaki. It was a communications group of nine Germans. The villagers killed the Germans and hid the bodies so other Germans would not find them and retaliate against the villagers. Dimitri and other children took a parachute to the top floor of the school house, pretending to jump. The mayor of the village came and cut up the parachute ropes. Dimitri took a strand of rope to tether the family goat. His mother was very upset, fearing the Germans would recognize the rope so they hid the rope in a tin biscuit can and buried it deep under the dirt floor of the kitchen so the Germans would not find it.
After the war the family moved back to Heraklion where Dimitri finished high school in 1949. From there he followed two brothers and his parents to Athens where he attended the Athens Agricultural College. In 1956, he entered an exchange program through the 4H Youth Development Program and boarded the ship QUEEN FREDERICA in Piraeus for New York. For the next three months he and three young Greek students visited several locations in the United States including New York, Virginia, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Iowa, staying with different American families. It was in Washington, D.C., where he learned that boys did not hold hands in the United States. His biggest fear was not knowing the English language and having to speak in front of 4H groups.
Back in Europe, Dimitri visited friends in Italy and finished his fifth year of agricultural studies. He also spent time at the American Library in Athens to learn English. Meanwhile, a classmate had been accepted to study at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, Wisconsin, but decided not to go. With a desire to study landscape architecture, Dimitri applied and was accepted to go in the friend’s place. “It was the trip of my life!” His brother arranged for Dimitri to travel with the owner of a merchant marine ship sailing from Rotterdam, Netherlands, and eventually to Norfolk, Virginia. During the week in the Netherlands, he remained on the ship to save money and met a number of Greek merchant mariners. When he arrived in Norfolk in August of 1957 with very little money, his shipmates collected funds to help him on his way to New York. In Astoria, Queens, New York, he was among many Greeks and wanted to seek work to help pay for the remainder of his trip to Wisconsin. However, that would have required a different kind of visa than he had. Fortunately, the president of the local Greek club assisted with $100 and Dimitri had enough for his Greyhound bus ride to Madison. He fondly recalls the generosity of fellow Greeks who aided him in his travels.
In Madison, he was a complete stranger but met another Greek at the bus station who knew of an available room. He was given a free room by the widow of a pharmacy professor. His housing problem was solved. Still, he needed money for tuition and was fortunate to meet two Greek men who owned a flower shop next to a pizza shop owned by an Irish man. With their help, Dimitri was able to obtain a Social Security card and as a foreign student he received permission to obtain a job making pizza at night for the next three months while attending school during the day.
Dimitri’s limited English made it impossible to understand the thick text books on the history of architecture or architectural design and engineering even with a Greek-English dictionary. He then sought out the the Agricultural College where funds were available. (The college was famous for the discovery of Coumadin, the blood thinning medication.) There he met Dr. Serge Wilde, a Russian professor who began reciting Homer’s Odyssey in Greek and could speak five languages. This connection was Dimitri’s entry into soil chemistry where he completed his masters and Ph.D. degrees, obtained his Green Card (citizenship came later), and began work as an assistant professor.
Jan, Dimitri’s wife, lived her entire life in the Midwest with her parents, settling in Madison, Wisconsin, at the age of 11. She was studying Modern Greek at the University and was substituting for a friend as a waitress in a Greek restaurant where she met Dimitri who was a customer there. Having lived her entire life in the Midwest, Jan wanted to move west. So, Dimitri, knowing that he could live by the ocean (“the best psychiatrist in the world”) followed Jan to Seattle. Their common interests blossomed and they were married at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle.
Upon arrival in Seattle, Jan continued her studies at the University of Washington (UW) and started making and selling handcrafted jewelry at the Pike Place Market and at art fairs around the state. Dimitri supported her efforts at the Market and they traveled the art fair circuit together. The doors opened for Dimitri when he met an engineering colleague at the UW who was leaving for North Carolina and a faculty position opened, for which he successfully competed. Dimitri became a professor in the Division of Water Resources in the Department of Civil Engineering in the College of Engineering at the UW in 1970. He taught courses in water chemistry concerning pollution in lakes and rivers, and conducted research on water pollution. With five years of teaching at the University of Wisconsin and 25 years teaching at the University of Washington, Dimitri retired from his 30-year professorial career at two UWs in 1995.
Jan is a Professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington, where she recently stepped down from her six-year term as department chair. Her work involves researching how people use and interact with information and technology. Her interest in all things Greek has continued throughout her marriage to Dimitri. Their children, Erini and Minos, live nearby and both have embraced their Greek heritage. The family, with all members fluent in Modern Greek, travels to Greece frequently, always trying to see another island, another monument and another piece of history.
Dimitri’s perception of the United States was influenced partly by the movies he saw in Greece, but more by a Greek-American family that lived next door in Athens. Because many foreign students were arriving in the United States when Dimitri first arrived, he encountered few difficulties and was always treated well. Had he remained in Greece, he is not sure he would still be alive considering the difficult times that exist there now. Further, he knows it is almost impossible to succeed in Greece without a significant inheritance. As a child he remembers harvesting huge amounts of olives to make olive oil and exchange it for a single pound of wheat to make bread. In memory of that experience, he planted a number of olive trees along with orange trees and grape vines near the family home during a visit to Greece in 1995.
Dimitri describes himself as a hard-working, but easy-going person. Jan says Dimitri will never say “no” in public or to his students. This has never caused any problems and is supported by the fact that many of his students still pay their respects to their easy-going professor.By John and Joann Nicon, October 2015
1 Dimitri Spyridakis, 2015
2 Themistoklis Skoundakis, Dimitri’s maternal great-grandfather, circa 1905
3 Yiannis, Emmanuel and George Spyridakis, (l-r) Dimitri’s father (center) and two paternal uncles), circa 1919
4 Emmanuel Spyridakis (wearing uniform in Balkan Wars), circa 1912
5 Yiannis Skoundakis, Dimitri’s maternal great great-grandfather (wearing his old uniform from the 1821-1832 War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire), circa 1880
6 Kleoniki, Emmanuel, and Garyfalia, circa 1914
7 Dimitri with all nine siblings and parents in yard of Turkish house in Heraklion (l-r) George, Mihalis, Evridiki, Emmanuel, Eleftherios, Garyfalia, Marika, Dimitri, Minos, Erini, Yiannis, 1940
8 Dimitri with fellow students in Athens, circa 1954
9 Dimitri’s first identification photo at age 17, 1948
10 Dimitri in 4H club in Missouri, 1956
11 Dimitri with family in Athens (l-r) front: Emmanuel, Garyfalia, Dimitri; rear: other family members, 1957
12 Dimitri at University of Wisconsin, 1959
13 Dimitri with Dr. Serge Wilde, circa 1960
14 Dimitri and Jan at art fair, early 1970s
15 METRO poster with Professor Eugene Welch and Dimitri, 1984
16 Dimitri in Greece, circa 2005
17 Jan and Dimitri, 2015
Photos 1 and 17 by John Nicon; all others from Spyridakis family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, February 2015