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General News

Greek-American Stories: The Case of Judge Nicholas Kalokathis

There is no one story about the Greek, or any other, immigration to the United States. Many individual stories make up the tapestry of challenges that immigrants faced, and which are obscured by stories of their success – even the mere success of survival.

Success stories themselves sometimes are obscured in such a big country, where it is not always easy to imagine exactly how far Greeks have gone, literally and figuratively. As The National Herald spotlights the lives of Greek-Americans all over the country, today we speak to Judge Nicholas Kalokathis, the son of Greek immigrants to the United States, who rose to positions with the Pentagon and the Justice Department before an impressive 20-year turn in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as Laramie County District Judge.

The National Herald: The Pentagon, the Department of Justice, the county bench – an impressive career, but your ‘professional’ path started out at your uncles’ restaurant, is that correct?

Nicholas Kalokathis: Yes – I was probably in grade school. Every Sunday, I would go down to the restaurant. My job was washing the windows. I did that every Sunday morning for quite a few years and then eventually I got a job working as a busboy there, when I was in junior high. So I would do both, just generally tidying up the place as best I could. It was a very fine restaurant. I will never forget how well-attended it was. It had a good reputation around here. People would come through and make a point out of stopping in this town just so they could go have a meal there, at the Mayflower. The brothers that owned it were my mother’s first cousins. It was through one of them that my father got to know my mother. One of the brothers was the chef, and he was the one who encouraged him to go to Greece and look up the family of his first cousins. They had five daughters of eligible age. My father went over, met my mother, decided that she was the one and that was it!

TNH: How did you decide to go into engineering?

N.C.: I graduated from high school in 1956. It was a time when there were a lot of jobs available. The government had got into the business of developing all sorts of products, rockets and all that sort of business. It captured my attention and I realized I would like to get a job in that field. So that’s how I decided it. I did pretty well in engineering, and, really, never thought about ever going to law school. Never had that in mind. And then, as I got closer and closer to graduation, I thought, “I could use some more education, and I might as well do it now that I have an opportunity.” So I said, “maybe I should go to law school!” I liked the law; I was kind of surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I have. The study of law was probably more interesting to me than the study of engineering. I had taken an ROTC program and I got a deferment for several years to go to law school. When I graduated from law school, I was commissioned in the Ordnance Corps. Then I applied to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and I spent a few years in the army. Because I had a degree in engineering – that’s pretty rare combination, apparently – they thought that I would be better assigned to this section in the Judge Advocate General’s Office in Washington, D.C. at the Pentagon that did patent law.

So for the three years that I was in the army, that’s what I did. It was interesting, but I must confess I didn’t see any really important inventions that I worked on. After that, I knew some people who were given opportunities to go work for the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, and to work in another phase of litigation, which I thought I’d like to do. And I did that. While I was there, the G.I. Bill allowed me to enroll for a Master’s degree in law at Georgetown University. I was a part-time student for two years, and afterward I got the chance to teach at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, PA, and then as an associate professor at the law school in Sacramento, CA.

TNH: And how did you get back to Cheyenne?

N.C.: My mother died. My father had suffered a stroke when he was in his 40s; and my mother was quite a bit younger than my father. We always thought that he would go first. But my mother passed away, and my father had been handicapped, basically, since his stroke. So he was there, alone, and I thought, “maybe what I have to do is go get a job at a law firm in Wyoming.” So, I came back. And I really enjoyed the experience of being with my father until he passed away. Shortly after his passing, I met my wife. And that’s my story! It’s like all sails up and no anchor, just going where the wind takes you. It’s probably unusual for a lawyer.

TNH: On to something more usual, then: How did you become a judge?

N.C.: Back in Wyoming, I worked at a law firm for almost 20 years, at which point there was an opening for a judge, because the other judge was retiring. I applied for that opening, and the government wanted me. So I stayed on the bench for almost 20 years. I must say, that was a pretty interesting experience.

TNH: What was your initial attraction with the law?

N.C.: That’s really a good question – I wish I could give you a good answer, but I don’t have one! I knew it was an opportunity for me to get a job. I thought, if you had an engineering degree and a law degree, you had a good leg up toward a job. I don’t think I ever dreamed about being a lawyer when I was younger, nor did I ever think about being a judge. It just kind of came along. And I enjoyed it very much. It is one of those deals where, you know, if you plan on doing something, it doesn’t work out, right? But on the other hand, if you go with the flow, it seems to come your way.

TNH: It sounds like job security was your primary concern. Do you think that being the youngest child of immigrants affected how much that weighed in your decisions?

N.C.: Yeah, because I was not a natural with people. I was always kind of shy. I needed to take advantage of whatever opportunities came my way so that I could get ahead, because my personality was kind of ordinary. So I thought, “why don’t I just get as much education as possible?”

TNH: How did your family get to the United States? Your father wanted to avoid the wars that were plaguing Greece in his time, is that correct?

N.C.: Yeah, my father used to say that’s all they ever do in Greece, they fight. He didn’t want anything to do with it. A lot of people who came over to the United States the time my father did left and went back to Greece to fight for the Greeks in WWI. My father was in that category, but I don’t think he wanted to do that.

TNH: What does your Greek heritage mean to you? Does it feed into your daily routines somehow?

N.C.: When I was in grade school, up until junior high we went to Greek school after American school for three times a week. The local priest held classes here, so we would spend many hours in that environment. Now, I read a lot about Greece, and I like to read the Bible in Greek – it is interesting to see how difficult it is to translate it word for word into English. So, yeah, when I was younger the center of my life was more Greek, of course. It isn’t anymore because my parents are gone. But we had a big Greek community around here when I was growing up. And when you saw another Greek, even though you weren’t related to them, it was all ‘thio’ this, and ‘thia’ that – we experienced all of that. And here’s another funny thing: there were a lot of bachelors. When we were growing up, they would hang around downtown, so if you went down there in the evening, and they thought you were up to no good, they would call you out on that! We referred to them as the GBI – not the FBI, but the Greek Bureau. But I must confess that the Greek kids I grew up with, none of them got into trouble. Every one of them made something of themselves, and I think the Greeks of this community really have something to be proud of.

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