A Great, Greek Guy: George Economou, 1924 – 2011

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George Economou, renowned from 1957 through 1977 as a popular Shasta High School sports coach, physical education teacher and drivers training instructor, died May 5 at his Redding home. He was 86.

Born Nov. 2, 1924, in Sacramento, Calif., to Theodora and Peter Economou, George was the middle child born to his Greek immigrant parents, who moved to the United States in 1921.

A gifted athlete, George was awarded 11 of 12 possible high school varsity letters for football, basketball and track. The only reason he missed getting a full set of letters was he wasn’t old enough to play varsity football at the beginning of his freshman year.

Shortly after his 1943 graduation from Shasta High School, George was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces where he was stationed on an island off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. His military duties included flying aboard planes that rescued stranded soldiers during World War II air strikes.

After he returned from the war, George set his sights on college. His athletic ability awarded him a football scholarship to the University of San Francisco for two years, until the school’s football program was cut. He went on to earn a teaching credential from San Francisco State University.

San Francisco is where George met Sue, the woman he’d marry the year before he accepted the Shasta High teaching and coaching job.

But before he began his educational career, George worked in various other jobs, such as with a Shasta Dam construction crew, and helping out at his father’s California Street bar, where George poured drinks and often broke up fights.

After he retired from two decades at Shasta High School, George spent his next 34 years of “retirement” traveling the world with Sue, and volunteering six days a week at three Redding jobs: the Riverview Country Club, the Redding Elks Club and Mercy Medical Center.

George was a strong, stocky man with direct, brown eyes and a broad, brilliant smile. He favored knit golf shirts,  cardigans, sweater vests and ironed, cloth handerchiefs, never Kleenex. He never ate at a restaurant without bringing along a small bottle of hand sanitizer, which he insisted others use after handling menus. He was a practical man who stored a fully decorated artifical Christmas tree in a way that all he had to do each year was haul the tree inside and set it by the fireplace. Presto, instant Christmas.

George Economou was a man who knew his own mind and expressed it as openly as he shared affection, advice, opinions and stories.

His terms of endearment were legendary, and included calling his long-ago football players “boy” and even grown women “girl” – to say something like, “Boy, you better come over here and give me a hug!” or “Girl, come over here and give me a kiss!”

George was a traditionalist who prepared annual batches of holiday baklava as gifts in the same dented aluminum pan, scored with the same ultra-sharp paring knife, and using the same hand-crank nut-grinder to make the walnut/cinnamon filling just the right consistency.

He successfully juggled a heavy social calendar that included standing golf games and weekly breakfasts, lunches or dinners with friends.

Fiercely proud of his Greek heritage, whether it was to harvest his oregano plant (smuggled as a small cutting by his mother from Greece into the U.S.), or to create authentic Greek meals, George also tried (mostly in vain) to teach accurate Greek pronunciations and accents of even seemingly simple words, like gamma or baklava to non-Greeks.

“No, not gam-ma!” he’d say. “It’s GA-mah! Never mind. Only Greeks can say it right.”

George had favorite English words, too, such as “goofy” – his a catch-all characterization of a wide range of individuals that ranged from slightly silly – “goofy bastard” – to the downright intolerable – “… now that guy, he’s just plain goofy!”

Finally, there was “screw it” – a phrase George Economou proclaimed so frequently and nonchalantly that the words somehow didn’t sound crass. Rather, they were uttered as George’s special way of dismissing something, whether it was a troublesome situation, or an irritating person, or even a mechanical medical bed and its complex remote control, delivered to his den to supposedly make his end days more comfortable.

His bride of nearly 55 years, Suzanne – “Sue” – also a teacher – was the love of George Economou’s life. The two were so inseparable that to those who knew them, “George and Sue” sounded like a single name. Consummate hand-holders, George and Sue held hands while George drove, and while they watched television, and sometimes even while they ate. They never entered their house together without stopping first to kiss. Sometimes, from across a crowded or noisy room, George or Sue would flash a quick hand signal to the other – a non-verbal code for “I love you.”

They had a knowing way of looking at each other that bypassed words, and nine times out of 10, if George said to Sue, “What’s that goofy guy’s name?” – Sue would know exactly which goofy guy George had in mind.

George and Sue volunteered at Mercy Hospital each week, and on Wednesdays, when George worked as a bartender at the Elk’s Lodge (ironically, he wasn‘t a drinker), Sue came along, too, and sat at a nearby table as his “B girl” – the couple’s inside joke from bygone days when bartenders hired women – “bar girls/B girls” – to attract male customers.

Until just one month before he died, George Economou continued his trio of volunteer jobs, and even driving, until he acknowledged the nearly incapacitating fatigue, a byproduct of his illness.

Although George, a life-long athlete, appeared the picture of health most of his life, the truth is he cheated death many times, from a massive heart attack to bladder cancer to a gangrenous gall bladder.

He bounced back every time, until last year, when George was diagnosed with advanced-stage liver cancer. Doctors predicted the disease would take him swiftly; anywhere from four weeks to six months.

Competitive until the end, George Economou beat the odds. He survived six months and 17 days after his diagnosis — almost as if to deliver a pointed message to the cancer that would claim his life: Screw it!

George Economou is survived by his wife Suzanne of Redding.

He was preceded in death by his two sons, Lance and Lon Economou.

George is also survived by brothers Gus of Rocklin, Calif., and Peter of Phoenix, Ariz.; sister Katina Smith of Sacramento; son Robert Lee Sandusky and his wife Adrienne of Huntington Beach, Calif.; son Mark Stewart and his wife Margaret of Ketchum, Idaho; grandson Robert Lee Sandusky and his wife Liz of Frisco, Texas; grandson Gregory Sandusky of Costa Mesa, Calif., and great-grandsons Rob and Henry Sandusky, both of Frisco, Texas.

In addition to many nieces, nephews, friends and extended family, George Economou left behind a lifetime’s accumulation of “adopted” children, many of whom were former students.

As an aside, he also leaves behind one one reporter/”adopted” daughter, whom Economou taught to drive when she was a teenager, someone who unexpectedly became a permanant part of George’s life after she wrote a newspaper feature about his annual baklava tradition.

A memorial celebration of Economou’s life will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Redding Elk’s Lodge.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to a Shasta High School student athlete scholarship fund in George Economou’s  memory.

Contributions via check may be made out to Sue Economou, in care of P.O. Box 993533, Redding, CA, 96099-3533. Put the words “George Economou scholarship” in the memo.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Allen & Dahl Funeral Chapel in Redding.

Special thanks to reporter Candace L. Brown for her assistance with this story.

Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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