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George Voyiatzes: A man for all Auburn’s seasons

Lifelong Auburn-area resident’s death at 96 takes away living link to Placer County history
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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George Voyiatzes’ death closes many chapters of living history the 96-year-old lifelong Auburn-area resident witnessed first-hand during an active and eventful life. Voyiatzes, who died Wednesday of congestive heart failure, was remembered after his death as a man who was able to connect the history of the area with his own experiences – sharing and bringing 20th century Auburn history to life through first-person accounts. George Nick Voyiatzes was born Jan. 23, 1913, on a Newcastle ranch, and lived the rest of his life in the Auburn area. The son of Greek émigrés, he lived on the same plot of Ophir farmland, just outside Auburn city limits, from 1918 until April. At that time, he was admitted to an Auburn care facility. Jim Voyiatzes, one of two sons, said his father could point to walls, roads or buildings from as far back as the 1930s that he had not only seen go up but helped to build. The list of projects included the Veterans Memorial Hall, Ophir Road and numerous retaining walls. Voyiatzes also had worked in 1934 on the Mountain Quarries Railroad bridge. Auburn-area resident Jack Duncan recalled hiking the railroad grade with him. Voyiatzes described the quarry operation, loading gondola cars and the setting from a time when the railroad still ran up the American River canyon. “These outings were very rewarding to me since I like real history and George was a living history book on subjects that he had witnessed,” Duncan said. Voyiatzes gave Duncan a wood-framed photo of him standing by the tracks near the engine house at the quarry end of the railroad some time in the 1930s. “A handsome young man wearing a sombrero,” noted Duncan. “The photo serves as a pleasant memory of George,” he said. When Voyiatzes turned 88, the Board of Supervisors honored him with a proclamation for all the significant roles he played in Placer County (See synopsis at end of article). They ranged from running for a Board of Supervisors seat in the 1940s to serving as commander of the Auburn’s American Legion Post 84 and master of the Mount Vernon Grange. He also was a Native Sons of the Golden West Auburn parlor member, serving as president in 1935. Voyiatzes kept up his political activism, particularly regarding veterans affairs. Harriet White, the Auburn-area supervisor at the time, recalled Voyiatzes had made an impression on her early in her first term as chairman, when he arrived with a new broom as a present. “He said I was going to keep the board under control the board and sweep everything clean,” White said with a laugh. The commendation came in 2001, with White describing Voyiatzes as “the conscience of the county.” “We got him that commendation because we wanted to give it to him while he’s still around,” White said. Voyiatzes maintained a vigorous life into his mid-90s – a colorful presence on Auburn streets driving his ancient yellow pickup and wearing a wide-brimmed Stetson. Until last year, he marched in Veterans Day parades through the streets of Auburn. Last year, he begrudgingly took his seat in a Jeep. It would be his last parade. Jim Voyiatzes said that his father’s final parade onfoot was in 2007, with family members watching with water bottles and concern, as he marched carrying a flag in the heat. “We didn’t think he would make it but he did,” his son said. Before he died, Voyiatzes told his son he felt like an ancient man in a modern world. If he had to pick a favorite photo of his father, it would be one taken at a cemetery next to the Auburn Town Center shopping plaza on Elm Avenue, Jim Voyiatzes said. Most of the graves in the oak-shaded cemetery were moved after county facilities there were torn down. The photo shows Voyiatzes amidst headstones from times gone by. “It reaches out and touches the essence of what he felt, of being close to the land, being part of nature and trying to preserve what should be preserved,” Jim said. Voyiatzes was preceded in death by his wife, Maxine, and a son, George Jr. Besides Jim, he is survived by a daughter, Nicola Voyiatzes, a sister, 93-year-old Mary Voyiatzes, two granddaughters and two great-granddaughters. Visitation is 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Auburn’s Chapel of the Hills. A service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Chapel of the Hills. Burial will be in the New Auburn District Cemetery. A reception will be held at the Veterans Memorial Hall following burial. ------------------------------ George Voyiatzes’ Time Line to Auburn History: 1918 – Influenza epidemic. Voyiatzes required to wear mask after being stopped with family at the Auburn city limits 1920s – Fruit boom. Placer County in the middle of huge tree fruit boom and Voyiatzes ranch profits 1930s – The Great Depression. Finds work on Works Progress Administration projects like Auburn’s Veterans Memorial Hall 1941 – With the Army National Guard, he guards the Rock Creek Reservoir after Pearl Harbor 1941-44 – Takes on wartime duties that include Army cook and searchlight operator 1944 – Works at Dewitt Army Hospital and guards German prisoners of war at Camp Flint, near current Gold Country Fairgrounds Late 1940s – The state of California takes over the Army hospital and turns it into a mental institution. Voyiatzes works there. 1950s and 1960s – Is employed by the county’s largest business, the Cal Ida sash and door mill on Highway 49. 1970s – Works at the Auburn Cemetery, including moving pioneer graves to new cemetery. Before retiring, he walks from Auburn to Reno to raise money for muscular dystrophy research at age 64. 1980 and 1990s – Plays a pivotal role with the Placer Sportsmen fishing derby and as cook at fundraising buck stew dinners 2000s – Honored by the Board of Supervisors on his 88th birthday, he serves on Veterans Memorial Hall board and marches in veterans’ parades into his mid-90s