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posted: 8/11/2014 11:23 AM

What's in a name? A family's heritage and identity

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  • The Rev. Greg AsimakoupoulosGuest columnist

      The Rev. Greg AsimakoupoulosGuest columnist

  • Edwin Smith was never comfortable with the surname his father had chosen after immigrating from Greece. When his son, Greg, left, was in high school, Edwin and his family legally changed their surname back to Asimakoupoulos -- and never regretted it.

      Edwin Smith was never comfortable with the surname his father had chosen after immigrating from Greece. When his son, Greg, left, was in high school, Edwin and his family legally changed their surname back to Asimakoupoulos -- and never regretted it.
    Courtesy of the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos

 
By the Rev Greg Asimakoupoulos

Forty-five years ago this week, my identity changed forever.

Aug. 13, 1969, was the day my parents, Edwin and Star Smith of Wenatchee, Washington, stood with me and my brother, Marc, before a Chelan County judge. As the sound of a gavel reverberated in the empty courtroom, the Smiths heard him declare that from that day forward they would be known as the Asimakoupoulos family.

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After my paternal grandfather emigrated from Greece and became a naturalized U.S. citizen, he changed his name from Haralambos Asimakoupoulos to Harry Smith. Proud of his new country, my papou chose the most typical American name he could imagine.

When my dad married and had two sons of his own, his personal pride in his ethnic ancestry was camouflaged by his alias. He regretted his father giving up that tangible part of his Greek heritage. On more than one occasion, he told my younger brother and me what our real name was. Repeatedly, we encouraged him to reclaim that which was authentically -- and uniquely -- ours.

A few months before my senior year at Wenatchee High School, my dad decided to act on his inclination. The legal application to change our name was initiated.

A nervous excitement twisted in my gut. Weeks went by as endless paperwork was processed. And then, on Aug. 13, with the bang of the gavel, it was official.

A month later, as I sat in Mrs. Valaas' French class, I practiced my new signature wishing my grandfather (who died when I was only 5) had lived to appreciate our decision.

After 45 years, I can honestly say I have never regretted the decision to change our name. Despite all the hassles and headaches associated with such a major change, the resulting sense of pride more than made up for the inconvenience.

I took joy in knowing my dad's dream to reclaim his ancestral identity had been achieved. In years to come, I did my own dreaming -- daydreaming about getting married and passing on that 14-letter surname to my sons.

I guess the Almighty has a sense of humor. When I eventually got married, my wife blessed me with three daughters. When the first of them to marry promised her new husband a lifetime of love, she surrendered her last name and took his. I doubt the other two will choose to hyphenate with their future husbands' names. At least my brother, Marc, has a son who can keep the reclaimed name alive.

Six years ago, as my dad's 14-year battle with prostate cancer drew to a close, he and I reminisced about highlights that marked his 82 years of life. He never quit talking about being aboard the USS Missouri at the surrender ceremony that marked the conclusion of World War II. He also smiled as he recalled the day our family name was legally changed.

Remembering both occasions, he was unabashedly patriotic. He had pride in the country from which his father had come and pride in the nation in which he was privileged to grow up.

Over the past five decades, that big fat Greek name has served our family well. It has been a conversation starter as well as the means by which people are more apt to recall having met us. Once someone learns to pronounce it (awesome-ah-COPE-ah-less), they never forget it.

• The Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos was Neighbor columnist for the Daily Herald from 2000-05. He is the chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community in suburban Seattle and is the faith and values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.

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