By Chuck Hagee and Mary Wadland
She left the light on for Alexandrians for 70 years. On August 1 she turned 95 years young. But for the first time in seven decades, that light peacefully dimmed.
“She” was Lillian Vasilas, owner of The Lamplighter at 1207 King Street, which she and her late husband Emanuel, “Manny,” founded 70 years ago. Prior to it becoming a lamp and shade store, it was a radio shop owned and operated by Manny, the bachelor, and his partner commencing in 1935.
That all changed with America’s entrance into World War II and Manny’s enlistment in the U.S. Coast Guard as a radio technician. Twenty-one year old Lillian Spaulding from Corry, Pennsylvania, also enlisted in the Coast Guard and reported to boot camp in Florida.
“It was early 1942 and the snow in northwestern Pennsylvania can get very heavy along Lake Erie. Also, everyone wanted to get into the war effort and serve,” Lillian said.
“I was assigned as a driver in Florida after boot camp but my commander said there was no money in being a driver and they needed radio operators more. I told him I didn’t particularly want to go to radio school which didn’t go over so well,” Lillian said.
Finding out that one doesn’t get to pick and choose in a wartime military, Lillian was sent to radio school in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “I actually discovered that I loved being a radio operator,” she recalled.
Lillian was then assigned to U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC. There was only one problem — headquarters had teletype but no radios.
She was then transferred to the Coast Guard station on Telegraph Road in Fairfax County as a radio operator where she met a certain radio technician of Greek heritage from Brooklyn, NY, who co-owned a radio store in Alexandria. They were released from active duty in May 1946, got married the next day and came to Manny’s radio store in Alexandria.
“We bought out his partner who had run the radio shop, known as “The Radio Hospital” throughout the war years,” she said. That first shop was located at 1021 King St. and Lillian, who also had a substantial collection of phonograph records, opened a record store next to the Waffle Shop. Next they bought a building in the 400 block of King Street and relocated the Radio Hospital. “However, we were eventually urban ‘renewaled’ out of there,” she stated
“When that happened we decided to take a trip to Europe. We bought a Volkswagen camper, packed up our three boys, and decided to see Europe — particularly Greece,” Lillian said. “Although Manny was Greek he had never been there.”
They enrolled their children in school and took turns making sojourns to visit various sites. “He’d travel and I’d stay with the kids. Then I’d take trips and he’d take care of the kids,” she explained.
Following their return from Europe, the couple bought the building that currently houses The Lamplighter. Originally, it consumed only the center building. In the 1970’s they acquired 1205 King St. and in 1996 added 1209 King St. Unfortunately, Manny died that same year.
Today, the store’s day-to day operations are run by two of their sons, Roger and Steven. “I’m just the hired help now,” said Lillian.
Well, not quite. She is there every day except Fridays waiting on customers and giving advice on their lighting needs. And, that can cover a wide array of choices.
At any given time Lamplighter customers have their choice of more than a hundred table lamps, about a dozen hanging light fixtures, and over a thousand shades of all shapes, sizes and designs. The Lamplighter is also the place to take a lamp or light fixture in need of repair or restoration.
“Most of our income today is from repairs. People are tending to keep lamps and fixtures longer and they often have items that are no longer available that they like and want to keep,” Roger said.
“I try to stay away from real high-end lamps. Our prices range from $39 to $3,000. But, we only have one at $3,000,” he emphasized.
In the 1980’s, The Lamplighter kept as many as 3,000 lamp shades in stock. “That isn’t necessary today because of the warehousing. We can get most any shade within a day or two now. That did not used to be the case,” Roger explained.
The wide variety of lamps and shades coupled with the family’s expertise at restoration, repair and workmanship has created a huge customer base, many of whom have been with them for years. One of those extremely satisfied customers is Vick Patrick, former owner of “Patrick’s Different by Design.”
“I began dealing with The Lamplighter in 1984 and they have been just wonderful. No matter what the need they can get it done. I believe they could create a lamp out of shoe leather if that’s what you wanted,” Patrick said.
“It’s basically the only game in town for those kinds of services and expertise. They helped me become a success in Alexandria when I had my business,” he emphasized. “Patrick’s Different by Design” closed eight years ago.
The Vasilas’ customers are not limited to Alexandria and its immediate environs, but instead they are spread throughout the metropolitan area and in some cases the nation. Peter Grey’s design-build business is located in the District of Columbia. He has relied on the Vasilas family for lighting, shades and wiring needs for more than 20 years.
“I always have a ball when I go there and talk with Lillian. You would never guess she is going to be 90. She is just true blue and always tells it like it is,” Grey exclaimed.
Lillian was often recognized by her clientele no matter where she was in the world. “I was walking across the Acropolis in Greece one day and a lady called out “Hi Mrs. Lamplighter.” I can rarely go anywhere without someone recognizing me,” Lillian said.
In addition to running the Old Town shop over the years, “Mrs. Lamplighter” was also a collector of antique oil lamps. “I have over 100 in all shapes and sizes,” she noted.
She also kept quite active — 95 or no 95. “Over the years I’ve done a lot of ice skating and swimming. I still go swimming four times a week. That’s probably why I got so old. Maybe, exercise really is the answer to longevity,” she speculated.
However, there was one form of exercise where she drew the line — shoveling that lake effect snow that tends to literally bury cities and towns along the Great Lakes where she grew up. “I knew it was time to leave Corry when my dad said I was old enough to shovel snow,” Lillian admitted.
Leaving Corry proved not only to be a plus for the nation, given her service during World War II, but also for her many customers, friends and admirers throughout Alexandria and the entire Washington Metropolitan Area.
[Lillian Vasilas passed away this week. Viewings will take place Sunday at Demaine Funeral Home, 520 S. Washington St., Alexandria, from 2 to 4 p.m. and again from 6 to 8 p.m. The funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at Aldersgate United Methodist Church. After the funeral, she will be interred at Mount Comfort Cemetery Article below is reprinted in Memorium and UPDATED January 20, 2017, from an August 2011 cover feature in The Zebra Press]