Bob Geroulanos: Plato’s Benefactor

On October 28 (the anniversary of the Greek National Holiday), Bob and Niki Geroulanos presented a check in the amount of $1 million to the Greek School of Plato, at a ceremony attended by the chairperson and members of the school board, teachers, students, and parents.

The donation was the largest in the Plato School’s history, and was welcome with unspeakable joy and enthusiasm. Speaking to TNH, School Board Chairman Vasilios Danas, together with his predecessor and current Treasurer Stavroula Christakos expressed their joy over the donation made by Mr. and Mrs. Geroulanos, whom they hailed as benefactors of the school.

In light of the generosity exhibited by the Geroulanoses and the contribution made by their children Spiros and John to the Plato School, TNH decided to dedicate feature stories to them in both its Greek and English editions.

Right from the initial telephone conversation with TNH, their interview leading up to this story, Bob and Niki Geroulanos left a lasting impression through their unpretentiousness, humility, and abounding love for all things Greek – especially the Greek language and culture.

During a visit to the office of their company, which bears the family name Geroulanos and is located at 128 Marine Avenue in Brooklyn, the feeling of Greece was present everywhere. The photos, landscape images, and artwork, together with the cleanliness and illumination of the facility, served as a small indication of the classiness and cultivation of the building’s owners.

Inside Bob Geroulanos’ office, a photo of his late father, the Rev. Spyridon Geroulanos, holds a special place among the pictures and artifacts adorning the room. The Geroulanos Family made TNH feel right at home thanks to their politeness and hospitality. Moreover, throughout the duration of the interview, their evident passion for their native island of Cephalonia conjured up vivid imagery of the island’s lush hills and valleys.

As they reminisced, the conversation focused on the Cephalonian village of Kontogennata, where Bob was born 73 years ago. It was there that his father preached the Gospel and taught his flock to love one another and bear each other’s burdens. It was there that the late Reverend would go and offer the remainder of the leavened bread used in the Divine Liturgy and known as “prosphoron” to those who were the neediest. And so it comes as no surprise that Bob and Niki dedicated their $1 million donation to the Plato School to the memory of their parents.

“This gift was no coincidence, nor did we make our decision based on a whim. It was offered to commemorate my late father, Fr. Spyridon Geroulanos, and my mother, Persephone, who would share their meager possessions with those in need and offer these things with all their heart. During WWII and the Greek Civil War, my father would take the leftover “prosphoron” from church, and rather than bring it home, he would distribute it among the other families who were even hungrier than ours. He would come home to a household of eight children, his wife, and his mother, and all of them were also on empty stomachs. The younger ones among us would ask him about the bread, and he would respond that ‘there are some people out there who are in greater need. They are hungrier than we are.’ My family and I did nothing more than what my father taught us,” Geroulanos said as he pointed to the photo of his venerable father.

“My life has been marked forever by three events. The first occurred when I was around 3-4 years old. There was a piece of bread on the table that came out to about two mouthfuls for each of my eight siblings. I was asking for more, but because my father did not have any more to give me and I was being unreasonable, he hit me. He was crying along with me, and I remember wondering why he was spanking me and crying. It was not until many years later that I realized what he must have been feeling at the time, and what kind of personal tragedy he was experiencing as well.

The second event had to do with my mother. She was whitewashing our home. I asked her ‘what are you doing mom? I’m hungry and you’re painting the house?’ And she answered me ‘the house has to be clean and reflect the purity of our heart and soul.’

And then third event was when I got shipwrecked while serving on board a ship from Chios. The ship was named Ypapanti and we ran aground on a coral reef on our way to the Philippines. The captain waited for 20 days for a typhoon to strike and jar us loose, but we could not stand it any longer. We had a mutiny and left, thus saving ourselves.

These are the three events that have left such a lasting mark on my life. Meanwhile, back when I was a student, we did not even have notebooks or textbooks. I used to say to myself ‘when I grow up and make money, I will go back and build them a library, and I will give them plenty of books and pencils.’

I traveled all around the world as a sailor, and when I returned home I went to donate a library, but the teacher was at loggerheads with the president of the village, because one accused the other of being with the Socialists and a thief, while the other of being with the Conservatives and being a fascist. They kept hurling accusations at one another. After I saw that there was no chance of resolving the conflict, I took another job as a sailor and promised myself that on my next trip back I would hire a carpenter to build a library and go to Athens to buy books so I could fill it up. However, by the time I returned from my journey, they had shut down the school. My village no longer had a school,” Geroulanos said, nonetheless expressing his satisfaction that he finally received the chance to fulfill his promise.

The only difference is that instead of giving something back to the schoolhouse in his native village, where he learned to read and write Greek, he became the benefactor of the Greek School of Plato in Brooklyn, where his children learned the Greek language and embraced the Greek culture. Today, his grandchildren attend that very same school.

The School is the only Greek school in Brooklyn that is not under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. However, at a time when other Greek schools under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocesan district began closing down, the administration of the Plato School was envisioning its next step forward – the purchase of a new building to house the School.

The reason that predicated this decision was that School building that had been bought by the School’s founders could no longer suit the needs of the present day student population, which numbers 185. Over the past seven years, the school rented classroom space to meet its needs, while the school boards under leadership of Stavroula Christakos, John Demetriadis, Spiros Geroulanos, and current chairman Vasilios Danas envisioned the purchase of a new facility where they could set up a fully integrated academic institution. In July, shortly after the end of the previous school year, the Board sold the existing building and bought a new two-story building located at 670 92 Street in Bay Ridge.

The new building was purchased with funds from the sale of the previous building and the revenue generated from fundraisers that were held in recent years exclusively for this purpose.

Two new stories will be added to the new building, and these will enable the School to better serve the needs of local area Greek-American students. A state-of-the-art community cultural center will also be set up in the new facility that is under construction.

When asked why he chose the School as the beneficiary of his gift, Geroulanos responded that “there is no doubt that the people at Plato are doing a good job, the educational component is yielding results, and there is discipline. I am not new to the school. My relationship with it goes back to the time that I had to choose a school where my children John and Spiros could go to learn Greek. Plato was on the upswing and it kept moving up,” he said.

“I always wanted to support education. Presently, the School bought a building that it wants to renovate, and I decided that the right time had come. This gift will give Plato a boost to help realize its dreams and at the same time provide it with the opportunity to upgrade its services and offer even more children the opportunity to partake in Greek education and come into contact with our culture,” he pointed out.

When asked why he did not offer the gift during the period that his son Spiros was serving as school board chairman, Geroulanos replied that “the impetus was not there. I decided to move ahead with this donation now that a need has arisen. Don’t forget that my grandchildren are now attending this school as well.”

Spiros attributed the School’s progress to the camaraderie that exists among the parents and their passion for Greek education. “There are a good number of members on our school board who graduated from the School, along with others who simply love the school. The Plato School belongs to everyone. Everyone is welcome to come and help. You do not have to formally belong to an organization or to be a chairperson in order to give something back. That is why my father did not make his donation during my tenure, but instead now, when he felt that the time was right.”

Jokingly, Niki Geroulanos noted that she was one of the last people to hear about this donation. “Bobby knew that I was in complete agreement with the donation, which is why he kept it as a surprise. I can honestly say that it was one of the most pleasant and remarkable surprises that I have had in recent years,” she remarked.

Bob Geroulanos revealed that the first person to learn about the donation was Apostolos Stathopoulos. “Four months ago, I went to Apostolos and told him that I was thinking of making this donation and that I wanted his advice. We discussed the matter and when I finally made the decision to go ahead with this decision, I told my children and wife about it,” said Geroulanos, who is not just an accomplished businessman, but a renowned family man.

Both Geroulanos children speak impeccable Greek, to the point that it is hard for someone to believe that they were born and raised in Brooklyn. Spiros is a civil engineer who is a graduate of NYU and Cornell University. He married his former classmate Christina Markantonakis.

“Christina and I met at Plato, like so many other kids who attended there, and we became friends. In fact, our families became good friends and we would spend our summers together in Long Island. We fell in love and decided to get married,” Geroulanos said. Spiros and Christina have two children, Bob, 15, and Melina, 11.

John Geroulanos studied geology and now works at the family business. He is married to Marianthi Nazaridis of Philadelphia, and the couple have three boys, Bob, 11, Nicholas, 9, and Evangelos, 6.

Bob Geroulanos raised a respectable family, which stands as a sterling example, and he attributes this to several factors. “First of all, the decisive factor is ethos. You need to set the right course and never deviate from it. I am not about to compromise my principles and beliefs. A parent needs to set a good example and steer the ship in the right direction. We had good kids and I believe that the best investment we ever made was and remains our family,” he remarked.

Spiros noted how pleased he was over the donation that his parents made and stated that “the donation came to breathe new life into the dreams of building a new school. The facility presently has one floor and a basement. We want to build to the extent that the zoning law allows. We will add another two floors. We are currently working with the architects,” he added.

In reference to the projected time frame, he stated that “we are ready to begin the architectural planning and expect to start construction in six months. Work will commence in the spring of 2014 and we will have our opening in 2015.”

Many of the members of the Plato School have also expressed the desire to offer their assistance. “There are others who want to contribute as well. Michael Skountzos and his family have volunteered to pay for the plumbing installation, which will help lower construction costs. We have not spent a dollar from our operating budget for any of the projects that we have completed up until now, including the construction of our office. We received financial donations, while others volunteered their services. Everyone has offered something and they are prepared to do so again,” Geroulanos said.

Discussing the Plato School’s future goals, Geroulanos said that “we want it to remain a top notch, advanced Greek afternoon school. The facility will be designed to meet the educational needs of the year 2050. It will be a futuristic school, and it will operate as an afternoon school and a community cultural center. I was envisioning a high school, but only time will tell.”

He added that “I would like to take this opportunity to urge every Greek – every person who thinks like a Greek – to help support all things Greek, because we are obliged to defend Thermopylae like modern day Spartans. We can all help, and people do not only have to contribute financially. They can also volunteer their service.”

Geroulanos was born in Kontogennata, Cephalonia in 1940. His parents brought eight children into this world: Evangelos, 81, the late Socrates, the late Andrea, Aphrodite, 78, the late Akrivi, Angelo, 75, Bob, 73, and Marina.

“I was the youngest of the boys and the second youngest out of all my siblings. Our village is a barren place located on a mountain, where villagers fight tooth and nail to make ends meet and keep their homes open there. We suffered major damages at the hands of the Germans during World War II, and then came the civil war, which was even more difficult than WWII,” Geroulanos explained.

“A merchant marine academy opened in 1956 and I graduated from there with a degree as an engineer in the merchant marines. I sailed for eight years intermittently and worked my way up to the position of second engineer.”

Geroulanos’ wedding with Niki Economou-Papaioannou, a Greek-American who was vacationing in Greece and had visited Cephalonia, where her sister lived together with her husband, played a decisive role in shaping the rest of his life. “We met in Cephalonia and got married. In the meanwhile, I had opened up a shop selling cosmetics and tobacco in Kapnikarea Square in Athens. Greece was under a dictatorship at the time and things were rather difficult. That is why we decided to relocate to the United States,” he recalled.

“I left everything behind and came here in November 1969. I liked this country immensely right from the moment that I arrived. While all the other immigrants were looking to make some money and go back to their homelands, I liked it here and wanted to stay.

“When I arrived, I got a job working for the YMCA in a technical capacity, because I was an engineer. I moved from job to job, always looking for something better, and I spent 18 years working as the maintenance man for the Sisters of Mercy, which took up an entire block and included school buildings and cemeteries. It was during that time that I bought this building, where my office is located.”

When asked if his early years in the United States were difficult, Geroulanos replied that “they were tough, but not as tough as these past five years. It was hard for me; very hard because I was a perfectionist.”

Speaking about the real estate market, he noted that the best era in the real estate market was from the time that he began investing up until five years ago. “Right now, you need to have a lot of assets in order to invest.” He also noted that land value has gone up tenfold.

One of Geroulanos’ friends, Nicholas Kostopoulos, remarked that “Bobby is a good family man, a self-made businessman, and more importantly, a great patriot.”

Kostopoulos went on to say that Bob Geroulanos “is generous like few others. He offers everything without drawing any attention to himself, and he aids not-profit institutions in the Greek-American Community. I remember one year when Bobby and I went along with our nephews and children and visited many Greek-American homes to teach kids about their heritage and offer donations for the Ronald McDonald House Greek Children’s Division.”