From the Publisher's Desk: Just getting to know my brother

By Michele Grgas Thomas The Triplicate March 23, 2011 05:49 pm

I said an emotional good-bye to my dog Martha, the tsunami forced us to evacuate, our harbor was destroyed and, in Lake Stevens, Wash., my brother collapsed and passed away all within 24 hours.

Tony, also known by his Croatian name, Ante, retired in Lake Stevens in 1994. Reading his obituary and the funeral home’s online guestbook I learned about Tony the expert gardener, avid bird feeder, devout master of his beloved dog Ollie and the good neighbor.

“Tony was the neighbor that everyone loved.”

“Tony will be greatly missed by our neighborhood. We always looked forward to seeing his smiling face as he and Ollie set out on their walks.”

“We talked often on our walks for great lengths of time. I learned about his driving back and forth through East Berlin. He rode in the lead Jeep because he could speak Russian to the guards. To his lovely wife I am sorry we stayed out so late talking on our walks. I will cherish every memory.”

Tony was 16 years old when he emigrated from the former Yugoslavia to San Pedro. Our family reunion was front page news in our hometown and covered by the L.A. Times on March 19, 1951. The headline read, “Slav Youth and Father United after 15 Years.”

I was 10 months old and sat on Dad’s lap while my mother served Tony his “first American breakfast of bacon and eggs.” That’s what the photo caption reads on the brittle yellow newspaper clipping I still have after exactly 60 years.

Tony’s mother, my father’s first wife, was killed in 1943 during the German occupation. Two soldiers dragged her off and she was never seen again. After the war her remains were found in the hills above Zablace, the small fishing village on the Adriatic Coast where she, my father and Tony were born.

My father left Zablace to stow away on a ship in 1936. He was 25 years old. He left his parents, his wife and two small children to find America for reasons only he and the cousins that went with him understood.

Tony attended a boarding school run by his mother’s brother in Dubrovnik. Tony’s uncle, the headmaster, was a Franciscan priest and very strict. Tony received little affection but an excellent education. The Russian he learned would make him valuable to the U.S. Army when he joined in 1953. He served as an interpreter in West Berlin, where he met Helga Schmidt, whom he brought to the U.S. and married in 1956.

If that Slav youth and dad were reunited today, there would be family counselors standing by to help work through the abandonment and self-esteem issues felt by the youth, and the guilt and anxiety experienced by the dad. But what blue collar middle class family sought professional help back then? And so the rift grew larger every year until finally father and son had nothing to say to each other.

As a kid I loved having an older brother who resembled James Dean with the hair, the ’57 two-tone Chevy and a cigarette hanging from his lips. But the age difference was hard to overcome.  He was a career guy for Shell Oil, married and raising two kids. As a teenager I couldn’t wait to leave for college. After that I traveled some, then moved to Hawaii. We grew apart. And there’s a ton of evidence to indicate that Tony and I both inherited Dad’s stubborn gene.

Now I discover we were similar in other ways, too, sharing interests in gardening and feeding wild birds. And Tony, who never had a dog that I knew about, apparently adored his dog Ollie. At the same time I lost my Martha, Ollie lost Tony. There is some weird irony in that.

When I heard about Tony’s sudden passing, I immediately conjured up an image of The Pearly Gates and pictured Dad waiting for him. They have so much to talk about.

Note: Thank you for the cards, poems and messages sent when you heard about Martha. From my son Dana: “It was always nice knowing Martha was there for you, Mom, when we couldn’t be.” Readers, neighbors, friends, sons — you’re the best.

Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate’s publisher, at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.