Middle America Meets The Middle East

How will it play in Peoria? When the question is about war, the answer is surprising, like Peoria itself, a place as American as apple pie - and tabouli.

March 25, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

PEORIA, Ill. - It's a tricky business, taking the pulse of Peoria.

As in any town, opinions vary - from the tugboat operators guiding barges up the Illinois River to the fresh-faced boys, lean as cornstalks, in town for the state high school basketball tournament to the Lebanese restaurant chef whose eyes dart between the war on television and the parsley she is chopping for tomorrow's tabouli.

Go to the One World Cafe, a coffee house on the fringe of Bradley University and you're likely to hear one thing. Go to a working-class tavern like Whitey's Tip Top Inn and you're likely to hear another.

Stop and chat with Anthony Romanus as he tends to his suburban garden and you'll realize, if you don't already, that the conflicting opinions can take place in a single soul as well - in this case that of a man who knew only a few English words when he came here from the Middle East at 21 and worked his way up from $5 a week as a shoe repairman to the board of directors of a bank and insurance company.

He is one of more than 5,000 residents of Peoria - often viewed as the epitome of the heartland - whose roots go back to the same small mountainside village in Lebanon, a country familiar with the ravages of war.

"This is going to be the worst war we've ever had," says Romanus, 87, whose life has been affected by several. "There's no reason for it." The next second he adds, "I'm not that big to say whether it is the right thing. It's no time to criticize. Nobody did that to Roosevelt. It's time to stand behind the president."

How the war "plays in Peoria" - to use the cliche that originated in the days of vaudeville - depends on where you go in this economically strapped rust belt city of 113,000, a place that, while a symbol of mainstream middle America, has quietly, peacefully and successfully absorbed almost an entire Middle Eastern village over the past 100 years.

The village is called Aitou, or Itoo in the Americanized version, a village 30 miles from the Mediterranean Sea that since the late 1890s has seen hundreds of residents leave, in hopes of escaping religious persecution and poverty.

Many of them came to Peoria, following the original recommendation of three fur traders who quickly found work on the railroad when they ended up here in 1885. In fact, there are now more people from Itoo in Peoria than there are in Itoo.

Here in the heartland, the Midwest and the Middle East met, meshed and, over the years, have gotten along quite nicely.

The Lebanese who came here are Christian (though the country is divided between Christians, Muslims and Druze). They are also Caucasian. And, with many taking the first names of their fathers as their last names when they passed through Ellis Island, their surnames aren't seen as strange and unpronounceable.

Equally important to their success story is the pride they take in their new country and their work ethic, impressive even to hard-toiling, flag-waving Midwesterners.

Romanus was born not long after his parents left Itoo and came to Peoria. When he was 3, his parents went back to Lebanon for a visit, but with the start of World War I, they were not allowed to return to the United States.

At 21, married and with a child on the way, Romanus, who attended only one day of school in his life - he was sent home after arguing with the Catholic priest's notions about America - decided to come back to Peoria. "I told my wife I have to go back to the United States, so my son can grow up and be a doctor. She laughed at me."

With no skills, no education and little knowledge of the language - "I only knew three words: sit down, today and tomorrow" - he took a job repairing shoes in the shop of another immigrant from Itoo, then enlisted in the Army.

Every family that immigrated to Peoria from Itoo had at least one member serve during World War II, according to Peoria's Itoo Society, where service members' photos hang on the wall. Four of them lost their lives.

Romanus returned home safely after at least one close call. While stationed in London, Romanus, who had learned English by watching movies, went to see Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Air raid sirens went off but, not wanting to leave the movie, he remained. When he did return to the motel where his company was staying, he found it had been destroyed.

After the war, he worked on an assembly line at a washing machine factory, laid bricks and bought a restaurant, where a customer introduced him to the business of selling stocks and insurance - another job that, though he had no inkling how to do it, he jumped into.

"In this country, anything I wanted to do, it came true," he says.

He and his wife would go on to have five children, four more after the one whose pending birth prompted Romanus to return to America.

As for that one, he is now a surgeon in Chicago.

Four flags have flown over this land - Peoria, not Itoo - Spanish, French, British and American.

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