In 1949, when 26-year-old Theodore Papaloizos became the choir director, chanter, and principal of the Greek School at St. Sophia Cathedral in Washington, DC, Harry Truman was president, TV soap operas were introduced, and the typical annual salary for an American worker was about $3,000.
In 1959, Papaloizos, who turns 96 on February 8, left St. Sophia for the other Greek Orthodox parish in the nation’s capital, Sts. Constantine and Helen. He has led the choir there continuously since then. Earlier in his career at that church, he served as the principal of the Greek department of the parochial school. He also found time to direct the afternoon Greek classes.
“I never thought I would still be leading the choir,” said Papaloizos, who was born in Cairo and raised in Cyprus, his father’s homeland. His mother hailed from the island of Samos.
In 1946, along with his first wife, Angela, Papaloizos emigrated to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh. The couple raised four children. When she was 40, Angela died of a brain tumor. Maria, his second wife, and mother of their two children, also sings in the choir.
“I’ve still got my voice!” he asserted over coffee after the Divine Liturgy at the church’s sprawling new campus in suburban Silver Spring, Md. “Probably God likes my voice,” he added with a gentle laugh, under a thick forest of gray hair.
While Papaloizos is proud of his contributions to the church, there is a second longtime venture that has sparked joy in his heart: writing the flurry of Greek language textbooks for youngsters and adults. He founded a home-based business in 1956, running his first book off on a mimeograph machine. Before long, his brand skyrocketed, making his books the ones churches and individuals trusted when exploring the nuances of Modern Greek.
“I feel humbled, really,” he declared of his nationwide success. “Greek grammar is very difficult. I created a simplified way of learning grammar.” For example, he said he “classified verbs to make it very easy for kids to understand.”
Papaloizos recently put the finishing touches on his latest book. This one, he said, is designed for high-school students who have never attended Greek school. Those in that age group, he maintained, “have minds that are more open because they’ve been exposed to grammar in high school.”
When he’s not writing, Papaloizos, who holds a doctorate in Greek and Latin classics, said he rises at 8 AM and immediately begins thinking about writing. Boosting him into the daily rhythm includes walking 500 steps around the patio in the back yard of his home. In his younger days, he recalled, he would walk up to six miles a day.
As the bright morning sun danced through the upper windows of the sanctuary, Papaloizos, as usual, sprang to his feet. A walker, a chair and a bottle of water stood at the ready. But the river of adrenaline and passion that coursed through his veins would not allow him to sit.
The various hand signals he made were crisp, seamless, and perfectly measured. When the vocalists collaborated to showcase particularly enchanting liturgical notes, the director smiled his approval. That was followed by words of praise delivered in a gentle, honeyed baritone – still in the moment.
When it was time for the sermon – and still very much in the moment – Papaloizos briskly lowered himself in the red chair before taking a quick sip of water. Then, his compact space illuminated by the small reading lamp that holds notes and music, he bowed his head that revealed the exquisite intensity of a monastery monk in prayer.
Sitting in a chair directly in front of the choir was Pauline Mantzouranis. As the worship service wound down, Papaloizos gracefully stepped away to greet friends, Pauline Mantzouranis sat in her chair and waxed nostalgic.
“I could sit here for hours!” and reminisce about Papaloizos, promised Mantzouranis, now in her 80s, who sang in St. Constantine and Helen’s choir for 55 years. “Everything he does he does with love. He taught with love. He taught with love in his writings. When he speaks to you, it’s not a person speaking. It’s spiritual love.”
Stasy Marlas Ward, a current member of the choir, agreed. Years before in parochial school, Papaloizos instructed her in an assortment of subjects from math and science to geography and mythology. His presence left a deep impact. “He is exceptional in every way,” she emphasized. “He’s driven, inspiring, just full of ideas. I’ve learned perseverance from him and how to enjoy life to its fullest. He’s always looking forward.”
The Reverend Father Michael Eaccarino, priest at Sts. Constantine and Helen, said he remains captivate by the high-octane energy Papaloizos exhibits while leading the choir. “When we see this man at his age…he is running circles around the younger whippersnappers,” asserted the 69-year-old Eaccarino, who arrived at the church five years ago following an assignment in Tarpon Springs, FL. “And that includes me!”
Eaccarino remembered when His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios was visiting the church, he heard the soulfulness of the choir and was enchanted. “He was absolutely taken by the beautiful sound.”
While Eaccarino expects Papaloizos to be in his customary role indefinitely, he did acknowledge the choir members are getting older. “Younger people are not engaging in the ministry of sacred music.”
The importance of maintaining the rich musical tradition is something that Papaloizos is trying to preserve, the priest stressed. To generate awareness and interest, Papaloizos is trying to organize a youth choir at the church, where 350 families make up the membership rolls.
As an educator, Papaloizos didn’t tolerate misbehavior, said Betsy Cizek, a retired school teacher.
“Greek School went from four to six,” two days a week, she said. Students huddled in a rundown chapel nestled behind the priest’s house that featured dusty classrooms and an unreliable heating system. “Mr. Papaloizos would put the fear of God in all of us. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He didn’t tolerate funny business.”
And yet, as a retired public school teacher in Maryland, Cizek, 67, appreciated the discipline that she was exposed to. “I recently came across my first-grade Greek book. I’m confident if it wasn’t for Mr. Papaloizos I wouldn’t be able to speak or write Greek on a passable level.”
As he emptied his coffee cup, the connected and curious nonagenarian put a fine point on his recipe for happiness across the lifespan.
“Love what you’re doing,” began the author of thirty books, his voice lively, strong and resolute. “Don’t expect to conquer the world. Be satisfied with the simple things you have. And be kind to people.”