A Life of Service – Remembering Virginia Lagiss

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last month, the HJ lost its greatest champion when Virginia (Ourania Kyriazi) Lagiss passed away on June 14, 2017. She reached the remarkable age of 101 years old, accomplishing much in her lifetime. A pioneer, activist, educator, athlete, and mentor, Virginia’s rich life inspired many. As a tribute, we are republishing the April 2016 story when she celebrated her centennial birthday. Virginia is survived by two children, Barbie and James, and numerous nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. Her husband James predeceased her in 2012 and her daughter Patricia, just several days before her passing (please see In Memoriam – Patricia Lagiss). Donations in Virginia’s memory can be made to the Greek Orthodox Church of Belmont, CA, Alzheimer’s or Cancer Research. May her memory be eternal.

Virginia Lagiss, Ourania Kyriazi, was born on April 27, 1916 in Benicia, California. The attending physician at her birth registered her as Virginia Kyriazi. Later, her father registered her as Ourania Kyriazi, which the Greeks used. When the Greek Orthodox priest came from San Francisco, he baptized Ourania in an old, metal clothes wash tub.

Benicia was known as the “Athens of the West” because it had several academies of learning to which students came to from throughout the United States. When Virginia started school, she could not speak English.  A kind teacher helped her practice the correct pronunciation of words. Eventually, Virginia realized she could pronounce the words correctly and gained confidence when speaking.

At eight years of age, she did the grocery shopping for her mother. She always hated to tell the butcher that she wanted “two lambs heads and crack them up.” It was such an unusual request; however, something her father and mother enjoyed.

At age ten, she “went into business.” She sold ten cans of a healing salve at 25 cents a can. She kept 10 cents a can profit, and mailed the 15 cents per can to the company. She wanted to do it again, but her mother told her she could not because she would have to sell to the same people.

In the fourth grade, Virginia admired an older girl, Vivian. Virginia would take the lunch her mother prepared and go to Vivian’s house to wait for her and walk to school with her. At lunch time one day, Virginia opened her lunch bag and did not see the sesame seed bread sandwich which had been toasted on an iron stove and had an egg fried dry which her mother had prepared. She also did not see the koulouraki and apple. Frightened she would be accused of stealing Vivian’s lunch, she did not eat it. After school, she ran the mile to Vivian’s home, turned the buzzer on the door, and when Mrs. Ritchie opened the door, she said, “Here is Vivian’s lunch. I guess I made a mistake.”

Mrs. Ritchie responded, “No, Virginia, you did not take Vivian’s lunch. I threw your lunch to the chickens and gave you a real American lunch.” Virginia ran home, crying. She did not tell her parents. She was confused. Weren’t her Greek parents any good?

After much thought, she decided she had to prove that Greeks were just as good as Americans. She told herself that whatever she did would be the very best she could do. She had won the Tri-County tennis singles and mixed doubles for three years in a row in high school; as a result girls as well as boys earned a block letter. Virginia was the Valedictorian from eighth grade, and from high school, and she gave the Valedictory for College Graduation from the stage of the San Francisco Opera House. Virginia’s mother and aunt were so delighted. They wanted her to be an American school teacher and they praised her along the way to their objective. The highly qualified high school teachers gave more work to those few who had declared they were going on to college. As a result, Virginia was well prepared for college.

Virginia declared a double major, English and Physical Education. She completed the course requirements and met her goals. To attend college, Virginia lived with her aunt and uncle in San Francisco. She earned all her money that she needed by working as a San Francisco Playground Director every summer and by working on campus. At Christmas she always had a job at the old Emporium department store. She was also involved in various activities, including the Presidency of the Girls’ Athletics Association. She played tennis and basketball and was Vice President of the Student Body at San Francisco State Teachers’ College. She was nominated to run for President, but two men came to see her to be Vice President, because one of the men wanted to be President.

In the spring of 1938, high school principals came to San Francisco State College to select teachers. Virginia was selected to teach junior high school English in Pittsburg, California. Pittsburg, a large industrial city with iron mills and chemical plants, had a very large enrollment that included the surrounding areas. School buses brought students in from the outlying areas. There were four classes in each level.

Many teachers were needed. They came from out of town on Monday morning and left on Friday afternoon. They were paid $100 per month. They would arrange room and board with families in Pittsburg for $15 a month.

Virginia met Jim Lagiss in Pittsburg in 1938. When he was drafted in 1941, they married at the Church of the Annunciation in San Francisco. War time was no time for a white, glorious wedding. Young women married in suits with very few people attending.

Jim became a Staff Sergeant and was stationed at Camp Roberts, Virginia was a “stay at home” parent for nine years while she raised her three children in Campbell, California. Her mother joined the family after Virginia’s father died. Virginia was able to participate in the Moreland School District activities and was elected to the school board.

After World War II, trees came down and houses went up. The Moreland School District had four classes with no rooms. A large metal building was used to house those four classes. The School Board received $6 million in bond money to buy a farmer’s land to build a second school. The farmer decided he wanted $3 million more. When Virginia was told that the farmer wanted $3 million more, she did not hesitate. She said, “Let’s go to Sacramento.”

Arrangements were made to meet the legislator who approved the initial funding. At their meeting, the legislator told Mrs. Baker, the Superintendent, and Virginia that he could not help, and that he was going to lunch. Then Virginia said, “I know that with four walls of books from the floor to the ceiling that you are capable of finding a precedent in some of your books that will allow you to save the children who need classroom space. We will be here when you return from lunch.”

When Virginia and the Moreland School District Superintendent returned from lunch, they found the legislator had four books open on his desk. All was silent for fifteen minutes. Finally, the legislator said he did find several precedents that allowed him to add the $3 million for a second school. Virginia insisted on a hand shake to seal the deal. The next morning, the Superintendent of the Santa Clara County Schools phoned Virginia and asked her if she was the “blonde bomber” who raised the $3 million.

In 1955, the Lagiss family moved to San Mateo County where Virginia became part of a committee to work toward making people aware that a Greek Orthodox Church was needed. Her various assignments included searching the telephone book for Greek names so she could personally invite people to join the effort to establish a church. She also developed and mailed a special booklet with photos and information about those who pledged and the need for more pledges.

At the same time of becoming pledge chairman for the new Greek Orthodox Church, she was called to teach in Palo Alto. She organized a committee of ten, when the Church of the Holy Cross was built in 1964, to contact potential new members and invite them to participate in the Church. No money was mentioned, but in one year the pledges jumped from $68,000 to $160,000. Virginia also started the first Youth Group and arranged various activities for the group.

When His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America came to officially open the doors of the Church of The Holy Cross, he pinned the Medal of Saint Paul on Virginia. This is the highest honor an Orthodox woman may receive.

Virginia was the first woman President of the Parish Council. After her two years in that seat, she continued with Church work. When no one volunteered to chair a festival, she organized fifteen sub-chairmen and produced a three day “Yuletide Fantasy.” There were eight, ten foot trees decorated by local designers, and a large variety of gifts including a computer, a brand new fur coat, even a vintage car. One tree had 24 beautiful dolls on it. The event ended with a great brunch and raffle and netted $34,500. It made as much as festivals made in the mid-1980s. In 1984, Virginia was assigned by the Archdiocese to serve as a proxy for a two day meeting of the National Council of Christian Churches.

When her children were in college, she enrolled at Stanford University and registered for classes on Friday evenings and Saturdays. She earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology and a Pupil Personnel Services Credential, which authorized her to be a counselor. One day in a college class on ethnicity, her professor looked at her and said, “You Greeks are a proud people.” She responded, “Yes, we are!”

Her Stanford mentor encouraged her to complete a doctorate in Educational Psychology. She earned sixteen quarter units by producing a manuscript proving that academically high achieving girls excelled in competitive sports. To do so, Virginia spent two and a half years testing academically average girls and high achieving girls involved with athletics.

Her college mentor was disappointed when Virginia told him that she was exhausted from helping her mother who was ill and that her position as Director of All School Activities at the senior high school kept her very busy with dances, etc. She lacks three quarter units towards her doctorate.

Early in her married life, Virginia’s husband trained her on how to handle a rifle and a shotgun. She became an excellent “trap” shooter, shooting flying clay targets, and a good hunter. She shot a deer with the rifle and shot quail, doves, and pheasants with the shotgun. In 1972, she shot a pheasant that was flying over a canyon in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain, and a week later she won a trap shoot at Lake Garda, Italy.

Virgnia was honored when she left the Moreland School District, and the faculty of Cubberley Senior High School, Palo Alto, and later by the Church of The Holy Cross. Some of her awards include the prestigious AXION AWARD in 1985, and gold Parent Teacher Association pins from the Moreland School District and Cubberley.

TOP PHOTO: VIRGINIA LAGISS AT 2016 HAPS MEETING  |  PHOTO BY JASON BEZIS

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