ASTORIA – As usual, the judges of the Miss Greek Independence Pageant had very difficult decisions to make. The contestants, ranging from 16 to 23 year of age were exceptional but as always the audience at the Stathakion Center was pleased with their choice, Maria Exarchakis, as were the other 13 young women who became friends, perhaps for a lifetime, during the process.
Petros Galatoulas, the president of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York, which runs the Pageant and the Greek Parade, smiled as he crowned the winner and expressed congratulations to all the contestants.
“They were all intelligent and pretty,” he told The National Herald. “I am happy they all participated…I was also impressed with their spirit. With young women like that, one thing is certain: Greece will continue to exist here in America.”
Avgerini Catechis, Chair of the Culture Committee, said “It’s a beautiful group of girls, just like the years before.
Maria Exarchakis, Miss Greek Independence 2016 at the heart of a commemorative photo with pageant organizers and contestants, including: Christina Antoniou, Nafpaktos; Christina Bogdani, Athens; Dimitra Galatoulas, Aegean; Helen Koukoulas, Gavdos; Vasiliki Mavrakis, Archaia Olympia; Georgia Mavarogeorgis, Ikaria; Louiza Molohides, 1st Runner Up, Mylos; Irene Pappas, 2nd Runner Up, Preveza; Georgia Paraskakis, Crete; Melina Rousos, Kalamata; Panagiota Stathopoulou, Kalavrita; Chrysoula Vlamis, Andros; Maria Eleni Zollo, Peloponessus.
“What I loved this year was that there were so many people here,” said Catechis, whose colleagues once again had reason to be proud of their efforts from the start of the process to the onstage questions read by Stella Aronis in English and Despina Galatoulas in Greek.
Last year’s winner, Claudia Giannakopoulos, presented her farewell speech before conveying the crown to her successor, who was attending the Greek Parade since she was in a stroller.
Maria Exarchakis remembers always being impressed with the girls in the pretty dresses on the float, Miss Greek Independence and her entourage. “I always thought they were such good representatives of Greek youth,” she said. “They show how more involved we can be with our heritage, and she is glad her friend Peggy Kalimanis, who had been a contestant, urged her to do the same.
One of the byproducts of the experience was the expansion of Exarchakis’ knowledge of Hellenism. “I have learned so much history I never knew, a lot more than I learned in Greek School and Sunday school and in Greece every summer when we visit religious and historic sites, but now I know the deeper meaning of everything,” which she looks forward to sharing.
Asked what it felt like when the three finalists were asked to take a step forward, she said “I thought the three of us equally – and not just us, everyone – deserved it. Everyone was studying and preparing together.”
When the name of the first runner up was announced and she realized she had won, the first thing that came to mind was to wake up her yiayia and pappou in Greece. “The first thing I texted to my mom was, “Call Pappou,” she told TNH.
Her mother Sophia, whose family is from Missolongi and is a fraud investigator for the Board of Social Services was overflowing with pride. She told TNH Maria devoted a lot of time to preparations for the pageant in the midst of her regular strenuous school and work schedule. She is studying for her graduate degree in speech language pathology at Columbia and her brother George is studying to be a biomedical engineer.
She and her husband, Dimitrios, who is a chemist with Colgate Palmolive, take their children to Greece every year to learn about their culture and language, which are family priorities. For 25 years, Dimitrios, with roots in Chania, has been the Greek dance teacher for the Cretan Society of Piscataway, NJ and Sophia has been GOYA advisor at the St. George Church for 20 years.
First runner-up Louiza Molohides is a rising junior at studying environmental engineering at the City College of New York and her younger brother is a high school senior and is thinking about a becoming a physician or veterinarian. Their interests in the sciences reflect their parents’ work, as they own an asbestos lab in Astoria.
Miss Greek Independence in 2004 Maria Mandas, who has roots in Rethymnon, Crete was the Emcee. “They are wonderful,” she said of the contestants. “One is more amazing than the other…and I’m very proud of all of them.”
Galatoulas is confident that April 10 will be a fine day for the Parade. “God is with the Hellenes and with Archbishop Demetrios’ blessings I am sure we will have the best parade ever. I invite everyone to come to Fifth Avenue which we will turn into a sea of blue and white,” she said.