Greek immigrant laid honest foundation

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About 60 years ago, when Chris Romanias was a schoolboy, his grandfather did something extraordinary.

Mike Romanias, a North Side shoemaker, put an ad in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph saying he'd found a little white purse with $920 in it.

In today's dollars, that would be close to nine grand.

"I don't want nothing that doesn't belong to me,'' Mr. Romanias, then 66, told a reporter circa 1950. "I could not sleep at night if I had something that belonged to somebody. Maybe woman who lost purse need money more than I do."

He was known as "Honest Mike'' from then on. Even then the Greek immigrant knew money comes and goes, but he had something that would last forever: family. He asked the Sun-Telegraph to put somewhere in its story that he had 28 grandchildren, adding, "They make me happy man.''

Fast-forward to last Sunday at Ellis Island in New York Harbor.

Some 52 of Honest Mike's grandchildren and great-grandchildren assembled. They came from seven Eastern states to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their grandparents, Mike and Athena Romanias, stepping off the ship from Crete, Greece, on July 29, 1912.

From there, they would begin a new life in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania.

Families, no less than nations, are nurtured by their founders' story. It's passed down in tales that are told and retold at kitchen tables and reunion picnics.

Take what "Pappou" liked to say if, when walking with two or three of his 10 children, he received a compliment on their polite behavior.

"These?" he'd say. "These are the brats. You should see the good ones. They're at home."

Four of the children born to Honest Mike's fifth child, Nick -- Mike, Chris, Kathy Warren and Nick -- shared stories over coffee and pastry at Chris' kitchen table in Castle Shannon on Wednesday morning.

They were still in the afterglow of their Ellis Island trip, where they wore commemorative T-shirts with the Greek flag on the front and thankful words to their grandparents on the back.

These four siblings range in age from 58 to 74 and direct memories of their grandparents are just flickers from their childhoods, but confronting the stark reality of the landing place in the U.S. moved them all.

In their late 20s, their grandparents left Greece with their infant daughter, Katherine, for a long, slow trip across the Atlantic Ocean without a friend or a job to greet them. Mike knew no English, but a Greek speaker on the boat told him of mining jobs in Washington County.

For the next six years, he worked mining jobs there and as far west as Colorado before settling in Burgettstown. Mike would later say that donkeys were treated better than the miners, and Athena may have worked even harder, cooking and cleaning for 10 kids while tending to pigs, chickens and a cow.

There's another story of Mike making moonshine for extra money during Prohibition and landing in jail.

Athena came to court with the 10 children, asking the judge to let her husband out. The judge said no, so she started for the door, leaving the children behind.

"I can't feed the children without my husband,'' she told the jurist.

"Case dismissed,'' the judge said.

Beat that, Solomon.

By 1930, Mike had learned shoe repair and opened a shop on Mount Washington. The family moved around the city for years, but by 1943, Mike had saved enough to buy two neighboring North Side rowhouses for his family, a short walk from his Federal Street shop.

When World War II ended, three of his four adult sons opened the Fort Wayne Restaurant on Federal Street.

Another bit of family lore goes that the semi-retired Pappou volunteered to work the cash register for nothing but was let go after three weeks. He evidently had trouble with numbers because his cash drawer kept coming in short.

"Pappou,'' his sons told him, "we can't afford you.''

He died in 1959 and his widow, Athena, died in 1963. Nine of the 10 children are gone now, too, but the sixth child, Angie Davis of Cranberry, turns 94 this year. She couldn't make it to New York, but her daughter Lenora was there with 51 of her cousins in two generations, from their early 20s to early 80s.

By the way, not a one of them can remember if the woman who lost the purse with $920 ever turned up.

The important part of that story, the bit about Honest Mike's family bringing him joy, is all that really mattered then or now.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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