Great yiayia (grandmother) was too long to say for Willene (Vasiliki) Delegans Allison’s great grandson, so the name for this family matriarch became simply “Great.” She tells the story of growing up with nine siblings on a ranch in eastern Washington and raising her family in Spokane. Here she holds her mother’s 100-year-old stefana (wedding crowns) from which each grandchild received a sprig for use in their weddings.
Willene’s grandfather Angelo (Evangelos) Deligianis, married to Anastasia, was working on the railroad in Washington and Oregon. His son Gus (Costa) and some cousins were working with him as well. Angelo’s son Chris (Christos), Willene’s father, was born in 1886 and came to the United States in 1908 where he worked at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. When the Fair ended, Chris and his friend Andrew Christopoulos traveled to Seattle, Washington. Chris wanted to be a lawyer and was taking classes at night while working in a grocery store during the day. He also joined the National Guard and played clarinet in an orchestra in his spare time. Meanwhile, Angelo and Gus along with their cousins were at work building the railroad from Portland, Oregon, to Lewiston, Idaho. All the Deligianis men had come from the village of Kandila near Tripoli in the Peloponnese area of Greece but spelled the family name several different ways;(Delegans, Deligans, Deleganis) when they came to America. George and Mike who eventually settled in Lewiston dropped the “s” from their name and were known simply as Deligan. Angelo returned to Greece but his son and the cousins continued working on the railroad. Each day the railroad workers passed the area which came to be known as Penawawa. Gus, Mike, George and Louie Deligianis and Chris Dochios were impressed with the fertile soil and decided to purchase land on the banks of the Snake River four miles upriver from Penawawa.
In Seattle, Andrew Christopoulos wanted to bring his three orphaned sisters, Eva, Effie and Theodora, from Vaya, Greece, to live with him. Theodora had been working in Athens for a wealthy family and was used to living a comfortable life style. The girls sailed for America, arriving in New York in 1910, and traveled by train to Seattle where the four siblings were reunited. In Seattle the sisters stayed with the Ladas family who often hosted Sunday dinners for the many bachelors and Chris was among those who enjoyed the repast. At the Ladas home Theodora was asked to help Chris get some wine from the basement. There Chris declared his love for Theodora calling her his pulaki (little bird). Later, on a walk to photograph a sunset, he asked her to marry him and Theodora said “yes.” They were married by a Russian Orthodox priest on July 12, 1912.
Back in Penawawa, Gus and his cousins were pleased to learn that Chris had fallen in love and told him to marry the girl and bring her to the ranch because they needed a cook. Thus, Chris gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer and brought Theodora to live in a tent on the ranch. With her classic Athenian upbringing, Theodora would set the dinner table every Sunday night in the tent with a lace cloth. Theodora was an extraordinary woman. She bore ten children and strove to keep all the Greek traditions despite the rather primitive conditions.
Sophie (Sophia) was the first child, born in 1914. Virgil (Evangelos) followed in 1915, Helen (Eleni) in 1916. Then Theodora had a major operation which she barely survived. Thanks to the skill of a doctor who had gained considerable surgical experience in World War I and the fervent prayers of her husband, she went on to have seven more children. Tashie (Anastasia) was born in 1918, Mary (Maria) in 1919, Georgia (Yioryia) in 1922 and Jim (Demetrios) in 1923. Willene (Vasiliki) was born in Colfax, Washington, on October 9, 1925. The last two sons, George (Yioryi) and Bill (Vasili) were born in 1927 and 1928 respectively. When a new child arrived, Theodora would call on her neighbor for an English version of the name and that’s how the American names were chosen.
In Penawawa the families lived on 360 acres with the main income from produce sales. There were mules for the work in the early days before tractors, a few cows to produce milk for the family and two pet goats. Chris would haul fruit from the ranch to Spokane in a huge truck and sell it to Pacific Fruit and Produce where it was distributed to stores and restaurants. Chris would stay overnight and return the next day. The other cousins moved to other locations to farm and Gus and Chris stayed in Penawawa.
Chris had been an altar boy in Greece and liked to read the newspaper and especially the Bible. As the families were far away from their Greek Orthodox Church, Chris would conduct Sunday services and Easter services on the ranch. Often other Greek families would travel from surrounding areas, even Gus Hanches from Spokane (see HAPPY TO BE THERE TO HELP under Making a Home), to attend the Easter celebration on the ranch.
On the ranch the children were expected to speak Greek although they usually spoke English among themselves. Penawawa had a school which took children to the eighth grade and through three years of high school. After that, Sophie lived with her nouna (godmother) in Spokane to complete the 12th grade while Virgil and Helen rented an apartment in Colfax to finish high school. After high school Virgil drove his siblings 54 miles round trip to Colfax to attend school for one year. Then the family moved to Pullman, Washington, to continue their education.
Chris and Theodora stressed the importance of education with their children. Chris even served as head of the school board in Penawawa. The oldest child, Sophie, had been working as a teacher and was able to purchase a home in Pullman in 1936, where some of the Delegan children continued high school and others attended Washington State College (now University). Theodora cared for the children there. Willene’s father would drive from Penawawa to Pullman on Wednesdays with milk and eggs for the family and again on Saturday when he would stay overnight.
Willene attended Washington State for two years until World War II broke out. Jim and Virgil both served in the War. With airline pilots being trained nearby, the Delegans sisters were able to enjoy the music of big bands from California brought to entertain the servicemen. After graduation Willene and Georgia joined their sisters in Spokane for one year. Georgia found work as a lab technician and Willene as a secretary in the Office of Price Administration (OPA) which set prices on fuel, oil and other commodities. The four women shared an apartment at Cambridge Court near Sacred Heart Hospital.
Georgia and Willene felt the romantic pull of California and decided to relocate. They traveled by train to Los Angeles where Georgia found work as a lab technician and Willene transferred to the OPA office. After World War II, Willene worked for the E. B. Wiggens Oil and Tool Company and then went to work for the M.C. Levee Agency. The agent, Ray Stark, managed such stars as Greer Garson, Joan Crawford, Tony Randall and Claude Raines. Willene once spoke to Clark Gable on the phone! While attending St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, Willene met Nick Demos, a screenwriter from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They decided to marry in Spokane and theirs was the second wedding to take place in the new Holy Trinity Church. They returned to Washington again in 1950 for the birth of their first child, Peter Nicholas. Their second child Barbara Willene (named after the patron saint of the Delegans clan,) was also born in Colfax in 1951. When the marriage began to fail, Willene and her two children lived on the farm in Penawawa where her brother Jim and his wife Mary Lou (nee Kusulas) Delegans were also raising their family.
Meanwhile, in Spokane, Willene’s sister Tashie’s husband Ted had a brother, Paul Allison, who had attended Law School at the University of Chicago. Paul was practicing law in Spokane and would visit the ranch with Ted and Tashie. He became interested in Willene and her father Chris approved the match. It was felt that sisters should not marry brothers unless they married at the same time. So a double wedding was held on November 26, 1955. Willene and Paul settled in Spokane.
When Willene’s parents came from Penawawa to attend the Greek bazaar in 1936 which was held to raise money for a new church building, they stayed with the Hanches family. Willene’s brother George later married Alexandra Hanches in 1954. Willene and Paul were close to many Greek families including the Zagrafos, Cassis, Garras, Arger, Menegas, Bourekis, Tsalaky, Gormanos, Velis and Damascus families.
Willene and Paul’s child Theodore was born in 1959 and, like his father, is an attorney and lives in Washington D. C. with his wife Sophia. Peter is a CEO of a medical device company and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. Barbara is a retired educational assistant and lives with her husband Dave just down the street from Willene in Spokane. Willene and Paul have three grandchildren and four great grandchildren. While Willene is nicknamed “Great,” Paul is known as “Poosie,” a name given to him by his granddaughter.
In 1967 the building of the Little Goose dam on the Snake River flooded the Delegan ranch. The compensation the families received was enough to buy a larger wheat ranch near Cheney, Washington.
When asked for a favorite saying, Willene replied “apo pita pu then tros ti se meli ke an kai” (if it is something that you’re not going to eat what do you care if it’s burnt) or if it’s not your business why do you care? Willene is proud of her extended family where education was a primary focus. Even though the Delegans children were teased by neighbors who did not understand the Greek culture, their dual (Greek and English) languages helped them succeed in school. Willene even skipped the sixth grade and had no trouble in the seventh. In her words, “My life has been enriched by my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. My strong faith and love of education were instilled in me by my Greek immigrant parents.”By John and Joann Nicon, July 2012
1 Willene with her mother’s 100-year-old stefana (wedding crowns), 2012
2 Sitting: Angelo Deligianis; Standing: Chris and his brother Gus (Costa), 1905
3 Chris Delegans in Seattle, 1909
4 Chris Delegans playing clarinet in Tacoma (middle back), circa 1910
5 Chris and Theodora Delegans wedding, Seattle, July 21, 1912
6 Chris and Gus Delegans with hired hands in Penawawa, circa 1915
7 Delegans in Pullman, (l-r) Standing: Jim, Willene, Mary, Tashie, Helen, Sophie, Georgia, Virgil; Sitting: George, Mama (Theodora), Papa (Chris), Bill, circa 1938
8 Chris Delegans’ fruit truck, 1940
9 High school graduation for Willene and brother Jim, 1942
10 Helen and Malcolm wedding (l-r) Helen Randall, Malcolm Randall, Willene, Paul, Theodora and Chris, 1955
11 Paul Allison family, (l-r) Peter, Willene, Theodore, Paul and Barbara, 1963
12-14 Sections of book cover, Deligianis Family in The Pacific Northwest, by Eleni Schumacher
15 Extended family reunion, Easter 2009
16 Paul and Willene, circa 1990
Photo 1 by John Nicon, all others from Allison family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June 2012; Willene Delegans Allison’s Story as told to her daughter Barbara Schmedding 2012; My Great YaYa from Vaya, by granddaughter Jennifer Kelson