Des Moines Oral History Project
Interviewee: Christy Karthan
Interviewer: Lucas Petrakis
Me (Lucas Petrakis): Okay, this is Lucas Petrakis interviewing Christy Karthan. Today is October 29th. Okay, so Mrs. Karthan, just to start if you could just give me a little bit of information about yourself. Where you’re from, what you do here. Just kind of a basic rundown of who you are.
Christy Karthan: Okay, I am originally from Samos island and I came to this country in 1958 as a foreign student. And, um should I continue the rest of it?
LP: Yea whatever you like.
CK: And I went to school here and got a bachelors degree in science and in medical technology and eventually got married. I have 4 children 4 grandchildren and so I am here. [laughter]
LP: Okay, could you tell me a little about your childhood in and your time in before coming here
CK: Childhood, okay. I was born in 1940. The year the Second World War was declared, started. And I remember it lasted for about five years, the war did, so I remember quite a few things from it like the Italian occupation of. And then the Germans came and how the people suffered during that time, like food-wise. The Italians would take all the food the people had. So the people had to hide it to be able to survive. Um, how they bombed and destroyed almost everything like any kind of industry, and kind of electrical plants, anything. Any kind of infrastructure or anything of um.. in the bigger cities they bombed everything. They destroyed. They leveled everything. And so after the war, which ended in 1945 or so, it was something more tragic. We had the civil war between the communists, who were supported by Russia, and the other side were supported by England and the U.S. and that war lasted for a couple years, or maybe more. And that was really bad because one Greek was killing the other. And that was pretty severe. After that, you know tried to put things together and start all over again so there was a slow start in the 50s or so.
LP: Sure, okay.
CK: I finished elementary school there and then I went to high school, as they called it then, six years. And I finished in 1958 and then I came here.
LP: Okay, um, so I guess kind of off that, if you could tell me about your journey to the US. Your trip here, you said earlier that you had a host family lined up before you came correct?
CK: Yes, yes.
LP: Okay, so were there any troubles coming to the US, or was it a pretty easy process?
CK: Well I came to the US in October, um I don’t remember when we left from Athens in October, but they came with an ocean liner, Queen Frederica was the name of it. There was, I am sure airplane communication but the time, people were coming by ocean liners because, I don’t know, maybe there isn’t that much, you know, either that much communication between the two countries by plane or maybe it was too expensive, I have no idea. But I came with queen Frederica and we fell into some very very bad weather and we went out of our course so it took a couple of extra days to get here. And when I landed in, when I got to New York, my host family had arraigned for the travelers aid society to come pick me up because I didn’t know English hardly at all. I could read and write, but I couldn’t speak or understand very much. And some very nice ladies came and picked me up and they put me on a train on Chicago, and from Chicago there was other nice ladies who came and picked me up and put me on a train to Mason City, Iowa. And that’s where my host family was waiting for me.
LP: Okay, I guess speaking of family, you came to the US on your own correct? Or were you with your family or anybody?
CK: No, all by myself.
LP: Okay, how was that leaving your family back in Greece?
CK: It was bad
CK: Very bad, but I came determined to go to school here, get a degree, and go back. [laughter] that was it
LP: Did you end up going back after getting your degree or did you stay here?
LP: Did you go back for a time?
CK: Yes, well in between, on our junior year, my husband and I got married. And then, okay, being here as a student you have to keep going to school. The minute you stop, they export you. At least those years that’s what happened, they sent you back. And every time I changed addresses, you had to notify the immigration people where you are. They kept very close, you know, they knew exactly where you were at all times.
LP: Uh huh
CK: And I kept on going to school, but in a year I was about to finish. I had the chance to go on, or get married or go back. And by the time I had met my future husband and decide to get married, and we did, and then I finished my degree after I got married. He was also a junior in college at that time.
CK: I got married in 1962, and after he was charged, he was in the navy reserves, after he was discharged from there because of an injury, then in 1964 we had our first child. And then I stayed home and raised the family for two-three years and then I went back to work.
LP: Could you tell me a little bit about your work?
CK: Oh yea, I worked in a small hospital. So in the lab we did, it was not specialized in one department. We could work in all the departments like hematology, blood banking, bacteriology, chemistry, name it. And we took calls at night, which I didn’t like but we had to take so many. It was very rewarding because perhaps you help with the parent, you do the test correctly, and you help be treated. Like for example, if you’re diabetic and we had a lot of these people coming in in a diabetic coma. What the doctor does not know, is it because the blood sugar is to high or is because it is too low and they cannot treat that person until they find out. And it is critical. Timing is critical because sometimes it can mean that the sugar is so low that maybe five more extra minutes that way would kill them. And when you see that you do the test and the doctor treats them and immediately they wake up, usually they were in a coma because of low blood sugar, the ones I have seen. It’s rewarding, or perhaps diagnose diseases like infectious mono for example. By looking under the microscope, looking at the blood cells, you recognize the white blood cells, the lymphs that they are a certain size and a certain type. That is very diagnostic for infectious mono. And I’m talking about simple stuff. Very very rewarding
LP: Yea, I’m sure
CK: And you get to be that by looking at the chemistry part, the chemical part of the patient, you can diagnose it yourself what is going on without knowing anything else. Because you have high liver enzymes for example, you know its hepatitis or something else, but the liver and stuff like that. It was very rewarding, what I did I loved it.
LP: How long did you work there?
CK: Twenty years in the hospital. Part time though, from three to four days, sometimes five days a week.
LP: Okay, sounds great. So, lets backtrack a little bit to something I wanted to talk about. We spoke briefly about this the first time we talked. Kind of growing up in America, well not growing up, but living in America through your high school and college years. I guess, if you could speak to anything you remember. Your experience living in Iowa, living in the Midwest, cultural differences, things of that nature.
CK: Well, the biggest difference for me was the climate. Because I had not seen snow before [laughter].
LP: Sure, yea.
CK: And the first winter in Mason City, which is 100 miles north from here, oh it was hard. When we would get a lot of snow it would just [inaudible] out there. Weather wise it was bad because it was harsh. Harsh winters and whatever the summers. Not knowing the language was quite a big adjustment, but I found the people very very helpful. Almost anybody and everybody tried to help you those years. And eventually you fall into it and you adjust physically, you adjust mentally and eventually you somehow, I mean now for me, this is my country. Next year I am going to be here sixty years [laughter]
LP: Yea, that’s a long time. Did you know English before you came here or did you learn it when you were here, or a little bit of both?
CK: I had an intense one year before I came with a teacher every day, a couple of hours a day. Intense lessons in learning the English language so I could read, I could write and I was pretty good when I went to college and stuff with the science courses and math. That was very easy for me [laughter], but government class I didn’t do very well because pages and pages to read. Psychology and history and all that, but science and math I was good. Besides high school over there, we finished and we had a very very strong background in science and math. Very strong. Even those years. The rest of it was difficult. It took quite a few years for me to be comfortable with it.
LP: So you just said you consider yourself, like this is your country as you said. Kind of off of that…
CK: And I am phonetic[*] about it!
LP: Yea, that’s great.
LP: So, I guess speaking to that. Being from Greece and living here for so long, could you speak to anything about your, like your Greek- American identity at all? Is there something that you feel strongly about one way or the other? I guess how do you see yourself in your situation, compared to say somebody who, like your husband, who is from a Greek background but was born and raised here?
CK: Well I think, I think if your ethnicity is by birth you take it for granted. If it is by choice, it is a different story. I believe you decide and I think you are a little more, a little stronger into it. Like you know, like when I go to Greece and start talking about the US and about everybody, [laughter] I’m pretty phonetic* about it. Nobody can say anything bad in front of me about this country, you know this kind of a thing. You see things differently. It’s not that I don’t like my homeland okay, and if Greece was in a war with some other country I would take the side of Greece. But if it was in a war with us here, it would be very difficult for me to decide.
LP: Interesting… sure
LP: Kind of, a little bit off of the identity, speaking to people here in the congregation the past couple days, it seems as though there are quite a few people who are from Greece as well.
LP: What is, kind of, like the Greek community in Des Moines like? Are there a large number of people from Greece?
CK: There used to be many more, but they have passed on now. So the community is not, the Greek community is not that large anymore. But, and we have new people coming in, and we have a lot of people from outside the U.S. like from Russia or some are from Africa and stuff. Which they are all welcomed and stuff. But its just like every time I come here, like the lady I was sitting next to, Tasoula, she says there’s not too many of us anymore, they feel bad about it because our children or the most of our children have grown and they have not, you know retained the faith or come to church often or they don’t come at all, or this kind of a thing. But, you have to change with the times which is important you cannot be stuck in the past, the present or the future. So you have to go, do the best with what you have.
LP: You kind of just briefly mentioned this and we also talked about it a little bit when we first met, but the church community. I guess if you could walk me through the main congregation. Is it a lot of Greeks, not so many, how has that changed over time?
CK: Well the church community was mostly Greeks. It was smaller, but mostly because that’s who built the church, that’s who was supporting the church then and they still do, the Greeks support it the most. Mostly financially. Um, what was the other question [laughter] I forgot [laughter]
LP: Yea no problem, so over time, I guess how was the congregation changed?
CK: It changes. It changes with the people that attend and how active they are. A lot of them don’t take a big part into the church portion other than just the liturgical one on Sunday, but whoever is busy and helps with the church, and works for the church and stuff is very well accepted. Very well looked upon, and we more or less depend on these people anymore. When they just come, come in and light a candle and get up and go, its just a little more difficult to get acquainted. But the congregation is changing and we have to change with the times in our thinking no matter what. And I think its not just here its all over the place.
LP: Uh huh sure. A bit related, so the event we were at last night. If you could tell me a little bit more kind of about Ahepa and those organizations that you have been involved in for so long.
CK: Yea, Ahepa was established in the 1920s at the time that a lot of people were emigrating to the United States from other countries and when they would get here they needed some support.
LP: Uh huh
CK: And the people that would support them would be other Greeks. Either financially, or a place to stay, or giving them a job. So they formed these organizations, Ahepa it stands for American Hellenic Educational Progress Association. In the beginning it just helped the Greek immigrants coming in. And then the wives of these people, eventually The Daughters of Penelope was formed which is now chivalry ordered to the Ahepa.
LP: Uh huh
CK: And uh their mission is the same also. At the time it was just to help each other. Eventually it developed, it grew into much more philanthropic because not too many immigrants come from Greece anymore to just be helping them. So it’s more or less a philanthropic organization which helps with, oh I don’t know, money to the earthquakes and hurricanes, plus they help with the church, but we do a lot of good things and its international. We have chapters in Cyprus and in Greece of course, Ahepa has chapters in and somewhere in northern Europe I’m not sure… I think Netherlands, no. Canada, there’s a lot of Greeks in Canada. And it used to be they were just for the Greeks, now it’s opened up to anybody and everybody of any kind of race or color or ethnicity or whatever. And they could do a lot of good things.
LP: Sure, could you tell me about some of the work that you have personally done with the organizations?
CK: For the organization?
LP: Uh huh
CK: Well the biggest one, Julie, the girl who was the head of the, the chapter president, she forgot to get into it and she feels pretty bad about it. They told me today. We have built four buildings for the low income elderly. We started in the early nineties and my husband was the one who started the whole thing. And actually I was following him along in everywhere he went and the men built three buildings, and they mentioned it last night, and they house about 160 tenants, or 50. 150 or 140 something like that. And then The Daughters, I started it, we have one also and we call it Penelope 38, that’s chapter 38 apartments in Ankeny. And we have 53 units. I think that for me, that was I guess the biggest accomplishment through the Ahepa and daughters to build housing for the low income elderly because these people are very appreciative otherwise they would be out there when they only make like $6000 a month, social security. They cannot pay for an apartment and food and utilities and whatever. And some of them are just left and the children don’t live close by. they’re all alone at the holidays, it makes it difficult. And before Thanksgiving we are having dinners for these people. We are starting on Wednesday, the first of November, we’re having it in the Penelope Apartments in Ankeny and then we go from there for the other three. But I was the president of that one, and I work very hard for three years to be approved by HAAD, because the funds came from the department of HAAD section 202 and to prove that you had consultants and attorneys and architects and everything. It’s government money but we were like the sponsors looking into it to have it, to decide where to build and everything else. It took me two years. I applied twice and was turned down and the third time I made it and we built the 53 unit apartment building in Ankeny. Well I’m president of that one, and we have a management company, I don’t do any work there but I’m responsible, I sign a lot of papers and stuff. And I’m the secretary for the national organization, the Ahepa National Housing Corporation. That’s where I was from Wednesday to Saturday.
LP: Uh huh
CK: I came back yesterday, and I’m on the executive community of this group too. But anyway, um I see that as the most rewarding thing I have done I’m my life to be honest.
LP: Really, okay. That was going to be one of questions also, one of the most rewarding things in your life.
CK: And Julie forgot to mention our part what the women did here because we were the first ladies group that built a building like this for the elderly in the country.
LP: In the country, really? Wow
CK: it was very difficult to break ground, yea, and they felt bad about it, but anyway whatever [laughter]
LP: Okay, so switching gears a little bit then.
LP: You go back to Greece often correct?
CK: Every summer.
LP: Every summer, right. What is it like going back to Greece so often, seeing your family, experiences like that?
CK: Well as far as family is concerned, it was must better when my parents were alive.
CK: And I just lost my mother three years ago, who was very very old uh but I have a brother, and I have cousins and I have nieces and nephews. It’s very good, well once I go there and I get the chance to tour it its good, but after about 3-4 weeks I want to come back [laughter].
LP: Yea [laughter]?
CK: Well because you know, we’re established here, we have children, grandchildren and friends and the church and all this stuff we belong to.
LP: Speaking of your children, what do your sons, sons correct? Two sons you said?
CK: Three sons, three of them.
LP: Three sons, okay. What do your sons do? Where are they?
CK: Well all three graduated from Iowa State University. In Ames. And well that’s good you ask me what they do because I cannot describe it [laughter], okay one graduated in computer engendering and he did work on his masters, but he never finished the masters. He lives in Chicago. He has a family of three children and a wife. His oldest is 21, child, and 19, no, 21, 19 and 13. And he works, well he’s independent, I don’t know if you want to call it consultant or what, but he finds, or they find him jobs in big corporations he works there I don’t know, with computers, I don’t know [laughter].
LP: That’s okay.
CK: And then my second one graduated, he’s the oldest one and he lives here in Ankeny but he didn’t come last night because he was at the game in Ames, Iowa State, and they won I guess [laughter]. Um he graduated in computer science and he works for, I don’t know, some big companies here. And then the third one graduated in finance, he’s the youngest one. He’s going to be 50 in December, he’s the youngest one and he lives in California. And he’s in the finance department and he was working for a smaller company and he was like the CFO and ran everything and then he worked uh, I cant think of it. Anyway, he’s in that kind of finance department in California. They are all three very successful.
LP: That’s good, I guess more on family. I mean myself, coming from a Greek family my personal experience and from others I have spoke to, Greek families are generally, you know, quite large, quite connected and close. I guess if you could speak to, as opposed to your immediate family as in your sons and husband, your family life or family connections. If any, in the area. Reunions and things of that nature.
LP: To simplify the question I suppose, I guess if you could just tell me a little bit about your extended family.
CK: Well I only have a son here who lives close by, he lives in Ankeny who has one daughter and she’s a junior in college she’s also 21 and he’s the closest to us here, our oldest son. Now he’s got a cousin who moved to Des Moines, we don’t have much family here. I mean close, blood relatives we don’t, other than our son. Well the parents and uncles have passed on, and Jim has a cousin here in Des Moines, I have a sister in Connecticut, I have a south of here in Leon but they’re far. Close by here we don’t have much family. Just our friends and neighbors, acquaintances.
LP: Sure, so what I have gathered, your family seems to be the church community, is that fair to say?
CK: Well the church community, the church part in the Greek aspect it is the center of everything. And if you are in a smaller community like here, everything we do Greek wise it is in the church hall like we did last night. Ahepa and the daughters are not affiliated with the church but they use the hall to have our get together. And it looks as if the church is the center of anything Greek think that we do, even though it’s not religious oriented. Now, if you’re in bigger cities like Chicago where they have a big, large Greek population and stuff there its different, but here everything is around it.
LP: Um, again we spoke your work with the organizations from last night but is there anything else you do with the church or in your free time?
CK: Well I am on the church board. I was on before some years back and now I’m back on again. And its somewhat time consuming and stuff, but [laughter] there’s a lot of problems I mean finance wise. And you have to see that everything is solved that way and everything.
LP: This is not exactly a very pin-pointed question, but if anything sticks out in your mind, we talked about your proudest moment building the…
LP: Buildings, but um I guess this may be the same thing, but something that sticks out in your mind either, I guess we could split it in two maybe from one of your fondest memories of your time in Greece and then one of your fondest memories here in America[†].
CK: My fondest memories would be like family life and I come from the island of Samos in a small village. And the family, I mean they are pretty close together in a small community. You know everybody, they know you and I had cousins and uncles and aunts and that would be one of the things that sticks out in mind, the family life in Greece. And here I would say also family life, like when our first grandchild was born or my first child, family I would say.
LP: Uh huh, good. Could you tell me a little bit more, kind of about your hometown in Samos?
LP: The hometown in Samos.
CK: In Samos?
CK: A small village and there in those years, the 40s and 50s, I left in 1958, it looked as if the church was the center of everything there too. Um, well when I was small it was, well the impressive part that I remember was how beautiful the four seasons were. Not all of them were but like the spring of the year, the summer of the year, the fall of the year. Even by the time its cold and it rains and its windy and all, the climate is Mediterranean climate where I come from like in California.
CK: Very rainy winter and dry summers, dry. My village was on top of this not very tall mountain, lets say a hill or something overlooking the Aegean and overlooking the mountains of Turkey, the country Turkey.
CK: During my childhood I guess, it was the freedom I had, that we were just carefree and just ran all over and playing all over, boys and girls and whatever those years.
LP: Uh huh, so about how big was your village?
CK: My village was not that big, maybe about one thousand, population. One thing that, thinking about it, going back and thinking about it, was that we always had, in Greece I’m talking about, a very good educational system. And I’m talking about after the war because that’s when I started elementary school and continue on for six more years high school. Very organized and I cannot forget how a country was so torn up like this during the war because they resisted to the Italians and they just leveled Greece and they killed most of the population and stuff eventually. They were really very very organized, we had good teachers, we had supervisors to supervise the teachers, they would come every so often and the curriculums were very, at the time, science oriented. And they always tried to teach a foreign language, I never got, the years I went to high school, I never got into the foreign language part. They used to teach French then because France I think was one of the strongest countries then. Eventually the common language, the language of trade became English but before that was French. It had very good educational systems, very supervised, very strict and now, I think it’s a mess but [laughter] from what they say, okay?
LP: Uh huh.
CK: But when I was growing up, what I could see was good. They prepared you a lot.
LP: Good, yea interesting. What did your family do?
CK: My dad was a farmer and my mother was just a housewife, coming from a family of four, two boys two girls. My dad was always very proud, he had some vineyards and he was very proud to have. And we had fruit trees and whatever to have fruits and grapes grafted from California. Like we had kinds of plants, they called them Santa Rosas they came from California and he was pretty proud to have a lot of stuff in his vineyards or the fruit trees from California. You had, olive oil was the crop that would be supporting us then. We had a lot of olive trees and vineyards and they had a co-op where they would, you would take the grapes and they would weigh them and measure the specific gravity of the sugar concentration and then they would pay you accordingly, later, the co-op thing would. But olives and I guess grapes was the thing that we were producing besides having a garden and stuff.
LP: You said a little bit about the education and how people now say that its not very good, is there anything else…?
CK: From what I hear, because I am not there.
LP: Right, of course. Um, I’m sure there are lots of things that have changed, but I guess what have you seen that has drastically been changed from when you were there?
CK: Well, one thing is that, okay because of the war, they bring you up those years to have some kind of a patriotism, okay?
LP: Uh huh.
CK: And we knew like the *28th of October (what is the date?), like yesterday what was about. the *25th of march what was about and stuff, now there’s young men that they don’t know any of it. They don’t teach it in the school or I have no idea, I don’t know what they teach them. I think history has taken a back, well since the European Union and since we are becoming more or less the global thing anymore, they tried to copy what the West does, what Europe does and they are loosing their identity that way I hear. Like the kids finish high school and they don’t know anything of the, of those holidays we used to know. And like yesterday they have a lot of, they parade with the Greek flag we used to and stuff, now I guess most of that has stopped too. I think all that is put on the back burner because of, well because the outside influence, they belong to the union and because I think the government. Right now they have a socialist government. And I think it’s bad, maybe the young people, they think that’s how it should be, but the others don’t, I don’t know. And just like I said, it’s from what I hear so I have no idea.
LP: Okay, I guess kind of to open it up to you. Is there anything that, I or anybody else, that you feel like should know about you? I mean again you spoke to your philanthropic work which seems to be very important to you, your family which seems very important to you. Is there anything else that you can think of that is core to who you are? Like a part of you, something you’ve done?
CK: Well, I’m pretty honest, I’m pretty open. I don’t pretend, I say what I think and I mean I also express my opinion. If they don’t like it, I don’t care [laughter].
LP: [laughter] that great, I think that’s a great thing to have.
CK: [laughter] I don’t know if it’s good or bad.
LP: I think its good.
CK: [laughter] Okay.
LP: I think too many people “beat around the bush.”
CK: No I don’t pretend.
CK: And I’m not [laughter], what do they call it, I’m not for small talk [laughter] okay? I don’t have any time for it, I’m very uncomfortable with it. So around a bunch of women as they’re talking nonsense, I don’t care about it, I don’t know [laughter] I guess I’m more straight forward, I’m honest. I don’t know what else to say, something like that.
LP: That’s okay, um okay for right now that was the majority of the questions I had.
LP: If you are okay with it and open to it, there would generally be a second interview, or like a follow up interview after I go through the transcripts and things like that. I may, there were some things that I may want to into, more in depth if you are comfortable with.
CK: Okay well put it together and if you need, if you think we have to talk again it’s fine. Call me, leave a message and eventually we can get it together, and I’d like to have your telephone number.
LP: Of course.
CK: Is it with a k or a c, Lucas?
LP: Lucas with a c, yes.
LP: (gives telephone number)
CK: Okay and that’s your cell phone?
LP: That’s my cell phone yea.
LP: And I mean again, like I said last night I live on 34th Street just right around the corner so it’s always, its incredibly easy for me to get here.
CK: Well come around, people love to see you.
LP: Yea that would be nice.
CK: And usually we always have like coffee after, most of the time, now it’s hard to find sponsors, after church and they sit down and talk like they did today and stuff. And Dianne has been working at Drake, the lady you met at the very end and I think, I don’t exactly know what she does, but I think she’s probably big in there, she’s been working there for many years.
LP: Yea I had actually talked to her before that as well, she came over and introduced herself. She said she works in like the alumni office, so working with graduates, putting people together, stuff like that.
CK: Okay, it’s nice to have some connection there in case you need some help.
LP: Yea that’s true, and she was actually saying they are having an event in Chicago soon, I won’t be there, but yea [laughter].
LP: Okay thank you so much once again.
CK: You’re welcome.
[*] Phonetic meaning vocal/ passionate
[†] United States of America