The summer of 1969 was a significant one for our nation. Sen. Edward Kennedy was involved in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which a young woman by the name of Mary Jo Kopechne died. Neil Armstrong declared, “That’s one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind” as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. That same summer nearly half a million fans converged on a dairy farm in upstate New York for a three-day rock concert known as Woodstock.
The summer of 1969 was a significant season for our family as well. On Aug. 13 my brother and I along with our parents stood before a Superior Court judge. As he banged his gravel, he declared that the Edwin Smith family would hereafter be known as the Edwin Asimakoupoulos family. Talk about a giant leap.
It all began back in 1906 when a 15-year-old boy immigrated to the United States from Greece never to see his parents again. Haralambos Asimakoupoulos made his way from Ellis Island to Lewiston, Idaho. He was so grateful for his new homeland, he wanted to claim a name that sounded truly American.
In spite of the fact that his complexion was dark and his Greek accent was thick, he was convinced that changing his name would allow him to fit in more easily with the crowd. Since his last name meant silversmith, he had an idea. When he was naturalized as a US citizen, Haralambos Asimakoupoulos became Harry Smith.
Harry married Margaret Turley and they had four girls and two boys. They named their second son Edwin who, after serving as a marine in World War II, married Star Birkeland. Edwin and Star Smith had two sons. I was the firstborn, followed two years later by my brother Marc.
From the time we were little, our father told us about our grandfather’s decision to change our ancestral name. While we were called the Smith family, we knew the rest of the story. A few years after my paternal grandpa died, my dad had the opportunity to visit relatives in Greece. He returned home with a renewed sense of ethnic pride. He had discovered an identity he’d not realized previously growing up on a ranch in rural Idaho. He knew he wanted to embrace his Greek culture in a tangible way.
He contemplated his options. What if he undid his father’s decades-old decision? It would require a lot of paperwork. It would require legal action. He talked it over with my mom. After much prayer and contemplation, the decision was made.
A lawyer was hired and the process began. When the appropriate forms were filed and approved, the day of destiny arrived. On that hot Wednesday morning, I entered the Chelan County courthouse as Greg Smith. I left as Greg Asimakoupoulos. Two weeks later I began my senior year of high school with a new identity.
As I have reflected on that momentous occasion 50 years ago, I’ve wondered what my Grandpa Harry would have thought. My guess is that he would have been proud of his son’s courageous decision. In fact, as I contemplate the rich diversity that punctuates our population as a people, I’ve come to yet another conclusion. My grandfather would likely would have had second thoughts about surrendering a name that celebrated his ethnic heritage in the first place. He would have been proud of his big fat Greek name.
After all, being truly American means a whole lot more than answering to an Anglo-Saxon surname. America is at its best when immigrants are welcomed and the cultures they bring with them are accepted.
Greg Asimakoupoulos is the chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores on Mercer Island.