October 1, 1936 to October 15, 2016
A gentleman and a scholar
Girmay Zewolde—an Ethiopian-born teacher-translator-lawyer, whose uproarious humor and championing of the underdog uplifted everyone he knew, especially his children—passed away on Saturday, October 15, at home in Adelphi, Maryland, his family by his side. He was 80 years old.
With his dazzling smile, riveting sense of humor and vibrant personality, he always lit up the room.
A vociferous reader who hated to see the lights go out at the library, Girmay believed street smarts trump book smarts, a theory he often expanded upon by explaining to his children that “street smarts can lead to book smarts.”
Book smarts, he said, are all about following the rules and getting straight A’s, whereas street smarts refer to taking a risk and surviving. “You’ve been tested and have a bank of courage to depend on when you are tested again.”
He knew of what he spoke.
He strove to achieve
One of five children, Girmay was born October 1, 1936, in Maychew Tigray, Ethiopia, to Zewolde Gebrestatios, a district financial officer, and Tiebe Asfehah, a homemaker “and a good one”, her children often said.
Brought up in a close, loving home, he adored his sisters, Amarech, Aregash, and Sara, for lavishing him with unconditional love and thought of his brother Mike as the glue that held the family together. His parents taught him to value others and stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves.
But Girmay was a very active kid and, at age thirteen, he climbed atop a car-carrying truck and fell asleep. When he awoke, the truck was driving through low-hanging trees and one of the limbs jabbed him in the left eye, rendering him half blind. Other than equipping himself with fashionable dark glasses, he continued to pursue life without missing a beat.
Girmay was also determined to debunk the myth that those who come from poverty end up in poverty. He believed education was the way out and encouraged kids to read at the same time he extolled street smarts. Every year, he bought school supplies for kids in the neighborhood whose parents were financially unable to do so.
Ambitious from the start, Girmay studied hard, earning top grades and whetting what would become his lifelong appetite for reading and books. After graduating from Addis Ababa Technical High School, he matriculated at Emperor Haile Selassie Teachers Training Institute, graduating with a teaching degree.
From 1952-1953, he taught 5th and 6th grade English in Illubabor, Ethiopia, returning to Addis to teach at Finote Tibeb School for a year. While pursuing a career in teaching, he began working at the Central Statistical Agency (CSA) in Addis Ababa as a book translator, converting Amharic (Ethiopian) into English.
Girmay chased away suitors
It was at CSA where he met the love of his life, Tisemie Abaruksi, a tall, stylish, elegant, young woman who exuded chic from tip to toe.
Girmay was so crazy-in-love with Tisemie that he secretly followed her home from work, ready to chase away any suitors. A passionate courtship led to marriage between the willowy beauty and the handsome translator, who kept in shape playing soccer every week. As a young runner, who routinely won the 100-meter dash, Girmay was dubbed “The Wind” by competitors.
They made a striking couple, friends and neighbors always remarking on their stylish outfits. Girmay never left the house without wearing either Penaud Clubman Cologne or Old Spice.
Due to an earlier marriage, Girmay was already the father of two sons, who he worshiped. He and Tisemie were over the moon when twin daughters and another son came along. An adoring father and husband, he reveled in being around his family.
His foremost priority, however, was to create a nurturing environment, in which his children could thrive and develop into confident, independent, caring adults. When his first wife moved to the US, hoping for a better opportunity for their sons—Benyam, 10, and Samson, 9—Girmay was heartbroken but excited for their future. He always kept in close touch with the boys.
“He was a good listener,” his twin daughters, Meley and Milan, said, but he despised bullying and created an atmosphere that allowed his children to come to him with anything. “He was not just there to enforce rules, but to listen to us when we had problems.”
Humor: “his greatest gift”
What struck people most about Girmay was his uproarious sense of humor. “It was his greatest gift,” his daughters said. “He and our mother created a home where joy, fun, and laughter abounded. We drank from the fountain of our father’s sense of humor.”
As for extracurricular activities—other than reading and playing soccer—he loved watching the Liverpool Soccer Team and regularly spent time with his friends at two of their favorite hangouts in Addis Ababa.
His best times were spent at family dinners cooked by his wife, listening to music and dancing. His taste in singers ranged from Ethiopian artists such as Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed to US stars such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and others.
“Growing up,” his daughters said, “our memories of our parents were of how much they respected others and were always lending a helping hand to those in need.”
Girmay also adored his work. “We never heard him complain,” his kids said. “He traveled a lot and we would eagerly await his return.” Once home, the children would find him drinking tea or sipping a cocktail. They always gathered around to hear about his day and share their experiences.
Earned a law degree
After sixteen years as a translator, Girmay’s eagerness to learn led him to earn a law degree from Haile Selassie I University (HSIU) at the Addis Ababa University College of Law and Governance. As a government attorney, he traveled all over the country, representing the Ministry of Agriculture and dealing with the problems of farmers and ranchers.
When Milen and Meley decided they wanted to further their education and work in the US, they left Ethiopia in 1992, and brother Zewolde followed in 1996, the year Girmay retired. Now all five of Girmay’s children were in America, and he missed them desperately.
For the children, adapting to a new country proved devastating. “Our biggest surprise was the language barrier,” the girls said. “We had studied English in high school, but suddenly … slang was just flying over our heads.”
They heard things like pissed off, drive me nuts, heck, laugh my head off, and countless other words and phrases that were totally unfamiliar. As usual, they consulted their dad. “He encouraged us to speak English as much as possible, read everything we could, and make international friends,” the daughters said
“Before you know it you will speak the language fluently,” Girmay told them.
Their lives changed forever in 2000
But Girmay and Tisemie’s lives changed forever when, in 2000, they received the devastating news that their youngest son, Zewolde, had been killed in an automobile accident, in Delaware, while visiting a friend. He was just 23-years-old. “Our family was in shock,” Zewolde’s sisters said. “It was hard for us to imagine ever smiling, laughing or finding joy again.”
Girmay recognized how much the girls were grieving and assured them he loved them just as much as their brother. If life was to be good again, he said, the family must continue to fully express their love for Zewolde and each other. To help them better understand the grieving process, he provided examples of others who had experienced a similar loss.
“He gave us hope that if others could survive such a loss, so could we.” When his granddaughter Gavriella was born, he was ecstatic. He called her his “source of life, his strength, comforter, and healer.”
Longing to be close to all his children, Girmay and Tisemie moved to the US in 2002. “We missed them so much,” the girls said. “They filled a hole in our hearts. We felt complete again, ready to conquer the American Dream.”
For Girmay, part of that American Dream was contained in one of his favorite Winston Churchill quotes about facing problems head-on and never giving up. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”
Girmay is survived by his wife, Tisemie; twin daughters, Meley Girmay and Milen Planas; granddaughter Gavriella Miller, and sons Benyam and Samson Girmay; sisters Amarech, Aregash, and Sara, and brother Michael Zewolde.
So touched and grateful
We have been truly overwhelmed by so many of you asking what you can do to help. We are genuinely so touched and grateful for your loving thoughts and generous offers. We want to sincerely thank all those who contributed!