Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

The Light of My Life
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The Light of My Life

John Sakellaris

1 John with family tree publication, 2012John and Penny Sakellaris’ summer home on Blue Lake in central Washington has, according to Penny, “as much electrical wiring as The White House.”  More impressive is the warm and bright manner in which they interact with people.

John’s story began before 1901 when his namesake grandfather died in Lavrio, Greece, south of Athens on the Attiki Peninsula.  The grandfather was a priest and had borrowed a great deal of money to study for the priesthood but died shortly after being ordained.  Thus, George (Georgo), the priest’s son, was sent to America to make money and pay off the debt.  George was born in Kriekouki (also spelled Criekouki) about 40 miles northwest of Athens.  Today it is called Erithrai or Erithres.  The village name Kriekouki is from an Albanian word meaning “redhead” in Arvanitika, a combined Greek and Albanian dialect spoken in this area.  It was also the site of the last 2 James and George Sakellaris, sons of John and Mary, circa 1900battle between the Greeks and Persians in 449 BC.  Many from Kriekouki have relatives in nearby Vilia as Kriekouki was settled by those from Vilia.

When George arrived in New York in 1909, he stayed at a hotel frequented by Greeks from the same area of Greece including his friend Dimos 3 (l-r) George Sakellaris, mother Mary (nee Maria Drikos) Sakellaris, James Sakis (Sakellaris), circa 1900Papaioannou.  When George’s suitcase and all his clothes were stolen, he decided this was not the place for him.  So, he came directly to Seattle and stayed at 165 Main Street, also a hotel frequented primarily by Greeks.  The family name has been spelled several ways: Sakellariou, Sakelari, Sakis and Sakellaris as it is today.  In 1910 George brought his brother Demetrios to America and Demetrios’ name evolved to Jim Sakis when he became a citizen.  In 1914 John’s grandmother, Maria Sakelari, joined the family in Seattle.  George and his patriotes (countrymen from the same village) were among the leaders in the Greek community at that time.

George on Mt Rainier 1In 1919, after a short time in Seattle, George met Ruth Maria Garr (Gaar).  Born in Ballard (now a Seattle neighborhood but then a separate city), Ruth’s family came from Bavaria to the colonies in 1732.  John is therefore descended from the original settlers in Madison County, Virginia.  Ruth’s grandparents fought on opposite sides in the Civil War and eventually became neighbors in Kansas.  Her family moved to Seattle in 1887, to Oregon in 1891, then back to Seattle.

George was a cook and a chef.  He had worked at Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier until it closed for the season then moved to Petaluma, California, to work with Paul Maorfopoulos who was also from Kriekouki and came on the same ship with John’s grandmother Maria.  George then worked in San Francisco for Alex Bethanis who owned the Blue and Gold Restaurant.

5 George and Ruth (Garr) in San Francisco, 1936George and Ruth married in San 6 John's mother Ruth Marie Garr at age 64,Francisco in 1924.  Their only child, John George Sakellaris was, born there on June 10, 1926.  That same year George went into business for himself operating the Courtesy Coffee Shop until it closed in 1934 when he went bankrupt.  For a while he worked at Art’s Sandwich Shop and became familiar with the fast food business before moving back to Seattle in 1941.  In Seattle he worked for Nick Zanides then bought the Model Café and Tavern in Bellingham, Washington, with his brother Jim.  George’s health failed from overwork and the family moved back to Seattle where he worked at the Olympia Café then became chef at George’s Café on Seneca Street.

7 Courtesy Coffee Shop menu cover, circa 1926Growing up in San Francisco, John knew few Greek families.  He recalls that during the Depression Paul Chapas and Bill Cremidas came from Seattle to find jobs.  John Grivas brought grandmother Maria to San Francisco in 1931 for an AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) convention.  John spent the summers with his mother’s family in Seattle and occasionally his 8 George and John in San Francisco, 1929uncle Jim would take him to visit his grandmother Maria on Howe Street in the Queen Anne hill home George purchased in 1919.  When the family moved from San Francisco to Seattle, they maintained contact with several families from the Kriekouki/Vilia area.  In 1945 Chapter No. 1 of the Criekoukiotes Association was established in Seattle.  Active in the organization were the Stamolis, Lucas, Cotronis, Barbas, Conom, Captain, Costas, Drosis, Pagonis, Dremousis and Sakellaris families.  Despite the number of Greek family friends, only English was spoken at home and John knew almost no Greek when his father died in 1947.

John graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1945.  Two weeks later he was drafted and sent to Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) and then to Camp Roberts in California for basic training.  Next he was sent to Camp Adair in Oregon for a short time.  Interestingly, part of Camp Adair consisted of a farm owned by John’s maternal grandfather between 1891 and 1897.  After a short time he was transferred to Camp Anza near Riverside, California, to ship out a few days later.  He spent eight days on a ship from San Pedro, California, to Pearl Harbor as infantry replacement for the invasion of Japan.  However, just as he arrived, the war ended.  He was assigned to be a cook at Leyte Island in the Philippines (much to his father’s dismay) even though he had never boiled water.  From there he was transferred to the Air Corps 315th Bomb Wing that flew the last mission of World War II.  He also worked as a prisoner-of-war guard and in a military warehouse.  In September of 1946 a huge typhoon destroyed most of the buildings and airplanes and a week later John was processed to Saipan and was back on a ship to the United States.

9 John in the Army, 1945Back in Seattle, John began studying to become an electrician at Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central Community College).  He began his apprenticeship driving a delivery truck for 65 cents an hour.  As a member of the Air National Guard he spent summers on maneuvers at Moses Lake in 1949 and Walla Walla in 1950.  In May of 1951 his unit was activated and John was sent to Kelly Air Force Base in Texas until released in April of 1952.  He had to start over as an apprentice electrician and finally became a journeyman.  He worked for several companies and began studying electric controls and automation.  While working for Industrial Electric in 1972, he managed the Honeywell computer controls in the SAFECO tower in Seattle, one of the first buildings to be controlled by computer.  His next job was at the Federal Office Building in Seattle which was the most automated building (security, heat, ventilation and backup) in the United States at the time.  Once the job was completed John worked on the list of items to be corrected by the contractor and made any repairs required under the warranty.  When that work was finished, he declined an 10 Seattle-Tacoma shipyard pass, 1943opportunity to work at the new Bangor Submarine Base on Whidbey Island as labor problems were frequent there and he preferred to stay in Seattle.  His next opportunity was working for Ace Electric and Johnson Controls at the Weyerhaeuser Technology Center where he spent two years.  In 1986 the Johnson Controls headquarters farmed out all electrical work.  Its Seattle office arranged for John to transfer to Northwest Electric.  After two years he went to work for Seattle Electric at the Washington State Convention Center until the building was completed.  Then he retired.

11 John and Penny wedding, (l-r)  Ruth, John, Penny, Paul and Maria Cooper, 1972John had no communication with anyone Greek after his father passed away in 1947 until he met a fellow Kriekoukoiti through a mutual friend.  That acquaintance, Manny (Meneleos) Stephas, his older brother Peter and John became good friends.  John was an usher in Peter’s wedding when Peter married Penny (Penelope) Scordas.  Penny knew little English and John and Peter would tease her by speeding up and slowing down their English conversation to see if she could keep up.  Tragically, Peter died in 1966 at the young age of 42.  In the early 1960s John received a letter from Greece that he did not understand.  With the help of George Cotronis and Gus Barbas, John learned the letter was from relatives.  In 1970 while he was recovering from an operation, he decided to visit those relatives.  He returned with over 500 slides and shared them with Penny, his good friend’s widow, and her Greek friends.  Later when John wanted to go to a movie, and no friends were available, he decided to ask Penny to join him.  She did.  They dated.  They married on February 27, 1971.

12  Penny's family (l-r) standing; father Niko, Niko, mother's cousin Sofia, seated; grandmother Penelope, front; cousin Elefteria, circaPenny (Penelope) Scordas, the oldest of eight children, was born on April 2, 1931, in the village of Goura near Corinth in the Greek Peloponnese.  She finished the fifth grade in Greece and did not return to school due to the World War II teacher shortage.  Instead she worked with her parents on their farm until she was 14.  She then lived with an uncle in Athens until she was 18 when she came to America and worked for the Greek embassy in Washington, D.C.  Penny came to Seattle in 1951 and lived with Maria Chohlas.  Shemet and married Peter Stephas.  They had two children,13 Penny, 1950 Constantine (Dean) born in 1955 (now deceased) and Sofia in 1957 and bought a home on Queen Anne Hill.  After Peter died in 1966, Penny cared for her children while working two jobs in food service, at the Bon Marche (now Macy’s) and the Seattle School District.  She now has expanded her volunteer work and whenever there is a call for cooking at her St. Demetrios Church Penny can be found center stage.  Penny is the proud yiayia (grandmother) of two grandchildren, Peter and Emily.

For Penny there have been no negative experiences with regard to her Greek heritage.  Rather, living through the Depression and losing a husband and a son have been her most difficult experiences.  Her advice is to “be thrifty” and “not spend money” unless you have to.  John has never really thought about any difficulties from his Greek heritage.  As a small child, he didn’t pay attention to the Greek side of his family.  When he met the Stephas family in 1950, a new world opened up for him.  He has researched both sides of his family and prepared a detailed historical scrapbook.  He has even obtained ship manifests listing Greeks from Kriekouki and other areas dating back to the early 1900s.

14 SAKELLARIS FAMILY (l-r) Peter, Kenny, John, Tim, Panny, Emily, 2001  15 John and Penny on Alaska Cruise, 2007  16 Penny and John, 2012

He has also obtained census information about Greeks living in western Washington State counties in the early 1900s.  His recall of dates and places is enviable.  He refrains from giving words of wisdom, especially to younger people, not wanting to “interfere with their business” unless they ask.

Penny’s and John’s positive outlooks and good humor electrify those around them.

By John and Joann Nicon, June 2012

1 John Sakellaris with his family tree publication, 2012
2 James and George Sakellaris, circa 1900
3 George Sakellaris, mother Mary (nee Maria Drikos), James Sakis, (Sakellaris), circa 1918
4 George and friend on Mt. Rainier, summer 1923
5 George and Ruth in San Francisco, 1936
6 John’s mother, Ruth Marie Garr Sakellaris, circa 1962
7 Courtesy Coffee Shop menu cover, circa 1926
8 George and John in San Francisco, 1929
9 John in the army, 1945
10 John’s shipyard pass, 1943
11 John and Penny wedding: (l-r) Ruth, John, Penny, Paul and Maria Cooper, 1972
12 Penny’s family (l-r) Standing: Father Niko, cousin Niko, mother’s cousin Sofia; Seated: grandmother Penelope, cousin Elefteria, circa1929
13 Penny, 1950
14 Sakellaris family (l-r) Peter Kenny, Sofia Kenny, John, Tim Kenny, Penny, Emily Kenny, 2001
15 John and Penny on an Alaska cruise, 2007
16 John and Penny, 2012
Photo 1, 16 by John Nicon; all others from Sakellaris family collection
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June 2012; Spirit of Criekouki. Criekoukiotes Association of America. August 1946.