September 24, 1925 - August 13, 2017
Caliope Spanou Karakoudas didn’t care what you called her – Caliope (rhymes with karaoke); Mrs. K; Theia (aunt in Greek); or Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) – so long as you looked her straight in the eye, smiled genuinely, and had good conversation to offer. The 4-foot-6 powerhouse of a support system died August 13, 2017, at a hospice in Naperville, Illinois, after a monthlong in-patient battle with complications of osteoporosis. She was 91¾, as she told the staff at the hospital she was admitted to in mid-July. Throughout her life, Caliope had escaped darkness and found hope and love. In her youth, she survived the occupation of her beloved Greek village by the fascists, the Nazis and then the communists. She had witnessed the worst of human behavior yet endured and never lost her faith in mankind. In adulthood, she was there when many things went sideways, but she saw – and treasured – redemption and progress. In the years she earned a weekly paycheck, the only treat she would allow herself was an Almond Joy bar she would buy on the way to the bank. In the years she needed physical therapy, she wouldn’t do exercises for herself, but would fold baby clothes for her great-grandchildren. The only makeup she ever wore was lipstick. She never dyed her hair. Her clothing since 1995, when her husband died, was just as black. She was an old-school Greek widow, putting on other colors only for grandchildren’s weddings. She thought of everyone. Caliope put pet names on prayer lists. She was patient. She was grateful. She was funny. “I feel sorry for the queen of England,” she would tell people who visited her in the master bedroom of her elder daughter’s home in Shorewood, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where she lived the last 5½ years. “The queen cannot have the care and love in her palace that I have here with my family.” Caliope was born September 24, 1925, in the mountaintop village of Leka on the island of Samos in Greece. She was the second child and only daughter of Demetrios Spanos and Eleni Alexandrou Spanou. Her brother, the late Georgios Spanos, was 11 years older. She would explain their age difference with a wink: “Every time my father returned home was special. One was more special.” Her father, like many Greek emigrants of the early 20th century, had left the homeland to work in the United States and send money back to the family. Caliope didn’t come to know her dad until her mid-20s. She grew up in Leka, where she left school in the fifth grade to care full-time for her ailing mother and help manage the family’s farmland. She was proud to have been present at the birth of two of her brother’s three sons – all of whom she helped raise and considered her own. Her nephews’ love and adoration of Caliope was contagious, first in Leka and then in Cleveland, where the Spanos family eventually landed. The woman that Demetri, Tom and Nick Spanos called Theia became Theia to everyone in these communities. Caliope emigrated to the United States in 1951, under her father’s sponsorship just months after her mother died. Caliope was 25 then. Her father, a railroad worker, lived in an apartment near downtown Cleveland, across from where Progressive Field is now. The best thing about that location, according to Caliope, was its proximity to the Cleveland Public Library, which offered a range of classes – including one for immigrants interested in getting their citizenship papers. It was in the library’s New Americans class that she met Georgia Kassiou, another recent immigrant. “My early education was cut short, but when I went back to school, I learned next to the best,” Caliope would say of the woman later known as Georgia Pappas, who in decades became the first principal and eponym of the Hellenic Cultural School of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Cleveland. The two library classmates became U.S. citizens together and close friends, marrying distant cousins, watching over each other’s children and, year after year, critically thinking about the amount of every ingredient in a translated recipe. Earning U.S. citizenship meant the world to Caliope. She not only stood her ground to guard her own status as a naturalized American, she made it her mission to help others reach that status. Always up on current events, she paid particularly close attention to news coming out of Washington – even in the early 1960s, after she and her father had returned to Greece with the intent of staying. There, in a wedding one week after an arranged engagement, Caliope married Emmanuel Karakoudas, the eldest son of a prominent family in Leka’s neighboring city of Karlovasi. She and Emmanuel were raising their first child, Eleni (Helen), in Leka when Caliope learned of a bill surfacing in the U.S. Congress that would take citizenship away from expatriates. In a male-dominated culture, Caliope made the family decision to return to the United States. She, her husband, her father and toddler daughter arrived in Cleveland in January 1964. Though the bill whose passage Caliope feared never made it up Capitol Hill, she didn’t reverse the family’s course. When Emmanuel was eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, she coached him as he studied the history and civics topics on the test for becoming an American. And even though the child of two naturalized citizens automatically becomes a citizen, she also quizzed Helen – then a kindergartner. As other immigrants landed in Cleveland – not just Greeks – Caliope became a go-to for help in finding jobs and navigating bureaucracy. She was a one-woman social network, offering both onsite and offsite support. From 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., she was an industrial seamstress at Astrup Awnings. Being on the main drag of West 25th Street for work, Caliope often would jump on bus after bus after work – she didn’t drive – to meet up with newcomers in need of assistance. She would help people fill out job applications, track down union reps, locate doctors, register for classes, apply for mortgages. Whatever help someone needed to make a start in the community, she was there to clear the path. And if someone needed help cutting through red tape while in Greece, she also was of service. A dedicated letter writer, Caliope would spell out the to-dos of emigration and then, as needed, follow up with phone calls. She was pivotal in the sponsorship of two of Emmanuel’s brothers in their journey to America. At one point – after she and Emmanuel had their second child, Smaragda (Esmeralda) – the family’s three-bedroom, one-bathroom house had eight occupants; at Caliope’s insistence, her elder brother-in-law, his wife and their two daughters stayed there until securing sure footing in the U.S. Always aware of influencers and power brokers in a community, she made sure to get on their radar. At the neighborhood bank on Saturday mornings, Caliope was on a first-name basis with Dennis Kucinich. She would bend his ear and note the skill sets of any relative in need of employment. When Kucinich got to be mayor of Cleveland and then a U.S. congressman, she would remind people he started out as a councilman in her ward and that he listened. Caliope lived in Cleveland 55 years. A champion of underdogs, she loved this city whose economy and reputation had suffered. When she sensed that anyone might be turning on Cleveland, she spoke up. So it was with NBA superstar LeBron James, whom she nicknamed Judas Iscariot for his much-publicized decision in 2010 to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. In references to the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, this sweet and gently spoken woman – once a fan of James’ basketball wizardry – would interrupt conversations and snap “Judas! Judas!” whenever she would see him in a newspaper, on a magazine cover or on television. “Look, Yiayia, we Christians have something we call forgiveness,” her beloved son-in-law, Ernie Redfern, told her in July 2014 after James announced his return to the Cavaliers. Initially, she wasn’t forgiving. “I need to see body language,” she told her daughter, who brought her a doll of LeBron James in his #23 Cleveland jersey. Tracking Lebron James’ micro expressions interview after interview, she was convinced several games before the historic June 2016 NBA championship win for the Cavaliers that he, too, loved Cleveland. She kept the LeBron doll on a nightstand next to her plants, addressing it every morning with a smile and a hello. Several months before her death, Caliope began saying, “Bravo, James, bravo. You are a good boy.” She had learned about the Lebron James Family Foundation Promise Project and its work to help children. Caliope proved you are never too old to open your mind. Once a believer that marriage is only for a man and a woman, in her late 80s she became a cheerleader for gay rights. After growing close to a step-grandson who is gay, she began dismissing every political candidate who spoke against same-sex marriage. She not only closely watched – and beamed with – the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage a civil right across the United States, she proudly attended the wedding of her grandson and his partner in November 2016. Observing politics and how the world evolved socially was important to Caliope. Nestled either on a sofa or a king-sized bed in front of a big-screen, high-definition television set, she in her later years would watch news programs and news networks religiously – always with no sound and reading closed captions. She would look up words she didn’t recognize, like “hoax” – and ask a family member about words she couldn’t find in the dictionary, like “sexting.” She favored Al Jazeera America and lamented its closing, having surfed between that and CNN in the afternoons after tuning in to CBS game shows and soap operas in the morning and at noontime. She liked the wider lens and pacing of Al Jazeera America, but was intrigued with the personalities on CNN. As the race for the 2016 presidential election took shape, she first gave up on game shows and then on soap operas, too. “Victor has met his match,” she told her son-in-law when he would bring her lunch and ask why “The Young and the Restless” wasn’t on. Caliope saw and played a part in the lives of two great-grandsons. It didn’t matter that their mom was her step-granddaughter. She was her baby, and so were the two little boys. Caliope would sing Greek nursery rhymes to them from the time they were born. As they started to walk, she would let them help push her wheelchair and walker. When their mom and dad weren’t watching, she would sneak them treats. After the 5-year-old and the 1-year-old moved away, she would high-five them on FaceTime – on her own iPhone. Yes, Caliope had her own iPhone. It was a setup arranged by her grandson, George, a phone-systems engineer who for years had been wanting to get Yiayia to embrace the potential of mobile communications devices. That teachable moment came in April 2017, after learning she had tired of limitations on her flip phone. Yiayia’s iPhone was set up not only with commands in Greek, but also with custom audio and touch controls. She was working on learning one thing a week and was fascinated with how specific apps and functions can be. “All old people need this,” she would say, gleefully tapping her iPhone to block telemarketers. She could recognize people and events until the day she died. Her geriatrician for the past five years often would apologize for giving her a dementia test, explaining he had to by law. Her answers to the standard questions were so thorough that, at one point, her son-in-law challenged the doctor to have her name the nine Supreme Court justices. She did. And listed who they had succeeded. And noted their voting records. Coming out of a procedure on July 27, 2017, Caliope asked her daughter what had happened with the health care vote in the Senate. On her last morning of life, seeing television reports of the events in Charlottesville, Va., she shook her head and whispered, “Too much.” Caliope Spanou Karakoudas is survived by two daughters: Helen Karakoudas Redfern of Shorewood, Ill., and Esmeralda Fleming of Cleveland, Ohio; one son-in-law: Ernest Redfern; two nephews: Nick (Koula) Spanos of Strongsville, Ohio, and Tom (Terry) Spanos of North Olmsted, Ohio; six grandchildren: Penelope Chongris, George Chongris, Jeffrey Redfern, Stefanie (Alexander) Morgan, Diana (Marko) Peraica and Joseph (Gerald Duane) Gardener; two great-grandsons: Alexander Redfern and Henry Morgan; and dozens of great nieces and nephews. Visitation will be at 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, August 20, 2017, at Yurch Funeral Home, 5618 Broadview Road, Parma, Ohio. Trisagion Service 3 p.m. Funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Monday, August 21, 2017, at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 2187 W. 14th St., Cleveland, Ohio. Burial will follow at St. Theodosius Orthodox Cemetery, 8200 Biddulph Road, Brooklyn, Ohio. Donations appreciated: The Georgia Pappas Hellenic Cultural School of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 2187 W. 14th St., Cleveland, Ohio 44113.
Caliope Spanou Karakoudas didn’t care what you called her – Caliope (rhymes with karaoke); Mrs. K; Theia (aunt in Greek); or Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) – so long as you looked her straight in the eye, smiled genuinely, and... View Obituary & Service Information
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