Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

Was Her Mother a Gypsy?
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Was Her Mother a Gypsy?

Helen Demson

1 Fran Demson todayIt was in the early 1940s when the county sheriff received a call reporting a gypsy begging for money in downtown Yakima, Washington.  He arrived at the scene and laughed when he found Helen Demson in traditional Greek dress collecting money for the Greek War Relief.  He knew the Demsons well as he was a regular customer at the family restaurant, the Yakima Cafe.  This event occurred in what may have been the most active period of the Greek community in Yakima.  Helen’s daughter Fran Pauline Demson shares stories about her parents and growing up in Yakima.

Fran’s father John Paul Demson (Apostolos Demopoulos) was born on February 14, 1894.  He came from Mirovrisi (Myrovrisi), a small village in the hills above Aigio (Egio or Aeghion) in the Peloponnese in Greece.  When Fran visited the village as an adult, the road was so treacherous that the reluctant cab driver had to stop and remove a large rock from the road so they could proceed.  John came to the United States at the age of 16 on a ship named Alice.  At first he worked on the railroad and eventually opened the Yakima Café on Front Street, then the Empire and Washington Hotels.  Though he had no formal training, he became very successful in real estate and property management.

2 Helen and John Demson (1)       3 Fran and Elaine Demson, circa 1947

4 Helen, Fran, Elaine and John Demson, circa 1945Fran’s mother Eleni (Helen) Martha Zissos was born in Detroit Lakes, Michigan, and then lived in Fargo, North Dakota.  Her father was from Macedonia and had candy stores in Fargo, then Klamath Falls, Oregon, and finally in Yakima.  It was there that she met and eventually married John Demson.  John and Helen worked together in the restaurant, hotel and real estate businesses.  Fran was born in 1938, her sister Elaine Marie in 1940 and her brother John Paul Jr. in 1949.

Fran recalls that there 5 Eleni the gypsywere around 80 Greek families in Yakima as she was growing up.  Several were in the restaurant business.  The chili at Harry Rallis’ and Mike Poulis’ Coney Island was Yakima’s best.  Ted Marcos had the Athens Club.  Chris Fouscaris had the Liberty Café.  John Dermousis was his partner for a while.  George Dinos had Brown’s Café and Bill Chirakis had the candy store.  Even though Greeks did not live in any one area, the Greek community was very close and supportive.  As there was no church or social center specifically for Greeks, they used the Knights of Pythias Hall, restaurants or private homes for social events.  Fran recalls having up to 50 people at the family home for Thanksgiving, feasting on turkeys cooked in the ovens of Greek restaurants.

6 Christmas presents arrive from Greece (l-r) Elaine, Helen, John and Fran Demson, circa 1950s - CopyFran has vivid recollections of various gatherings: New Year’s Day at the Jim Garras family home until they moved to Spokane, the Adeline family’s New Year’s Eve parties, open house at the Harry Rallis home to celebrate his name day in February.  Gatherings were publicized by word of mouth or phone calls.

Fran attended Yakima Valley Community College and completed her education at Central Washington State College (now University) in Ellensburg, Washington, and initially taught elementary school in Yakima, then in Sacramento, California, and Seattle, finally returning to Yakima.  Teaching second grade was her joy and she retired after 17 years at Wide Hollow Elementary School in the West Valley School District.  Testament to her professional skills she served on a science committee that evaluated and selected science textbooks for the school district.  Beyond the classroom Fran plays both piano and organ and has performed in the Yakima Mall and area nursing homes.  She 8 Helen and John Paul Jr., circa 2000also had the special honor of playing the organ at the Yakima Valley Museum Christmas party, which officially opened the Christmas season.  After retiring in 1993, her mother suffered a stroke and Fran cared for Helen until 2006.

Fran recalls being treated somewhat differently by some long-time Yakima residents who were wary of Greeks and others with cultures different from their own.  However, on one occasion Fran’s father gave some of his garden produce to a wary neighbor woman.  When the woman later came to the house to thank the Demsons and noticed all the artifacts from Greece, she came to appreciate the rich culture the Greeks had to offer.  The Greek community of Yakima began to dwindle in the late 1950s.  Many families moved to Spokane or Seattle for better opportunities.

7 New Years Eve at the Adelines (l-r) Cleo Adeline, Fran Demson and Elaine Demson, circa 1955What had been a very active chapter of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) unfortunately disbanded for lack of membership.  At one time a section of Terrace Heights Cemetery was reserved for Greeks but the witty manager said, “The Greeks didn’t die off soon enough.”  So he had to sell plots to others.  Fran was part of several efforts to maintain a Greek presence in Yakima.  She was very active in the Laurel Chapter #390 of the Daughters of Penelope, the womens’ affiliate of AHEPA.  It was formed in April 1995 and9 Fran with Greek pillow dissolved in January of 2009. During that time she authored the Daughters column in the MENTOR, AHEPA’s district newsletter.

Fran says it best in her own words, “For me there is no worst or best about being Greek-American.  It was a great sadness for me to watch the Greek community in Yakima fade away until it was gone.  For it was within this community that I felt so loved and accepted.  It was this community that helped me develop a sense of well-being.  It was also the positive influence of my parents and the Greek community that helped me develop the positive values by which I have lived all my life.  This is the reason why I always have been and always will be very proud to be a Greek-American.”

By John and Joann Nicon, September 2011

1 Frances Demson today
2 John and Eleni (Helen) Demson
3 Fran and Elaine Demson, circa 1947
4 Helen, Fran, Elaine and John Demson, circa 1945
5 Helen the gypsy
6 Christmas presents arrive from Greece: Elaine, Helen, Fran and John Jr. Demson, circa 1950
7 Helen and John Jr., circa 2000
8 New Year’s Eve at the Adelines: Cleo Adeline, Fran and Elaine Demson, circa 1955
9 Fran with embroidered pillow from her aunt Dimitroula
Photos 1 and 8 by John Nicon; all others from Demson family collection
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, September 2011; AHEPA Mentor, April 1997; Hellenic Heritage, A History of Greek Immigrants in the Yakima Valley through 1950, 2002; Fran Demson’s journal notes about being Greek in Yakima