Helen Zeese Papanikolas

Helen Zeese Papanikolas was born in the Utah coal mining town of Cameron in 1917, the second of what would eventually be four girls.   Her father, George Zeese, originally Yorgis Zisimopoulos was born in the mountainous region of central Greece.  Her mother,   Emilia Papachristos, grew up in Istanbul, where she went while still a girl to be a servant to a Greek family.    The family soon moved to the railroad town of Helper, in Carbon County, center for the many coal mining camps surrounding it.   Helper, with its Japanese fish market, Chinese restaurant, Greek coffeehouses and its ethnic enclaves became an abiding source for Helen Zeese’ s work as a writer.

In 1933 the family moved to Salt Lake City where Helen Zeese graduated from East High School and in 1939, after a brief stay at Northwestern, the University of Utah.   In 1941 she married Nick Papanikolas, another first generation Greek American, and began a life of juggling homemaking, two children and the obligations of Greek-American family life with the desire to write that had been with her since her youth.   Her first important publications were on the Greek and other immigrants in Utah, often written for the Utah Historical Quarterly.   She wrote about mine strikes, bootleggers, Bingham Canyon, Greek folklore and the remarkable Magna midwife Georgia Lathouris Mageras, “Magerou.”  In a dual biography, Emily-George, published in 1987, she told the moving story of her parents.  Her belief that the perception of Utah as a mono-cultural, largely Mormon state needed to be corrected led, in the American bicentennial year 1976, to her editorship of The Peoples of Utah, with chapters on the state’s many ethnicities. 

In 1993 she turned to writing fiction, with the publication of a collection of stories, Small Bird Tell Me, followed by a second collection, The Apple Falls from the Apple Tree and then a novel, The Time of the Little Black Bird.    She was doing the final editing of another novel, Rain in the Valley, at her death in 2004.   Her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is illuminated by its humanity and fidelity to the realities of immigrant life and to the lives  of the immigrants’ children and grandchildren as they negotiate between  old-country customs and expectations and their lives in America.

Helen Zeese Papanikolas was the recipient of many awards and honors during her life, among them the Utah Heritage Foundation Lifetime Award, the Japanese American Citizens League Award, the Catholic Community Services Award, The Axia Award of the Hellenic Cultural Association and the NAACP Rosa Parks Award. She was made an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by the University of Utah in 1984.

The best source for Helen Zeese Papanikolas’ life and work, though it stops short of her three final fictions,  is Miriam B. Murphy’s “Helen Zeese Papanikolas: A Unique Voice in America,” in Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah, edited by Colleen Whitley (Logan, Utah, Utah State University Press, 1996).

Work

Bibliography

Ed., The Peoples of Utah (Salt Lake City, Utah State Historical Society, 1976.  

Emily – George (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1987).  Reprinted as A Greek Odyssey in the American West, Bison/University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

Small Bird Tell Me:  Stories of Greek Immigrants (Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1993, 1994).

The Apple Falls from the Apple Tree (Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1996, 1997),

The Time of the Little Black Bird (Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1999).

An Amulet of Greek Earth (Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002).

Rain in the Valley, (Logan, Utah, Utah State University of Utah Press, 2005).