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The Greek Immigrant Who Championed Nevada's First Veterans Hospital

U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Immigration is all over the news these days, but behind the policies and the politics are countless individuals with unique and compelling stories. Historian Alicia Barber shares the story of an early immigrant to Nevada in this segment of Time & Place.

The image of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island is one of the most enduring symbols of the American experience.  Ioannis Lougaris immigrated to the United States from Greece in 1907 and sat down for an oral history interview about his life in 1964. He began by explaining why he left his home at the age of nineteen, and the sacrifices his family had to make to pay for his journey.

“The reason I left Greece was due to the great poverty existing at that time in my hometown,” Lougaris said. “My father, in order to give me $100 to come to America, he had to mortgage five-and-a-half acres of land, one burro, and one goat.”

Wearing the first pair of shoes he had ever owned and knowing no English, Lougaris boarded a boat from Patras, Greece to Naples, Italy. There, he booked passage on an Italian freighter that had been converted into a passenger ship.  As difficult as the journey across the ocean was, he claimed to have been more concerned about the final hurdle he’d have to overcome when he arrived. 

“I got an accommodation in steerage with hundreds of others. It took us 31 days to reach New York. I never thought we’d ever see land,” he said. “The only worry I had was whether I’d pass the physical examination. I saw many immigrants returned back home because they could not pass the examination.

Credit Alicia Barber
A display honoring Ioannis A. Lougaris stands inside the main entrance at the Ioannis A. Lougaris Veterans Administration Medical Center in Reno.

Lougaris sailed through the medical exam and settled first in New York, then Chicago, and then San Francisco. He became an American citizen in 1915 and served in the U.S. Army during the First World War.  In 1920, he arrived in Nevada, where he operated a banana stand while studying for the Nevada bar exam. 

Within a few years he was a practicing attorney, and dedicated himself to securing the funds and legislation to build Reno’s first veterans hospital. Lougaris personally broke ground for the hospital, which opened in 1939 and was named after him in 1981. He died there in 1987 at the age of 100, and the expanded medical center still stands today.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical.

Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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