At about 6 p.m. on April 10, 2005 Archbishop Iakovos took his final breath, in a simple suburban hospital room in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 94. The child from the village of Agios Theodoros on the island of Imbros became a great – perhaps the greatest – leader of the Hellenic Diaspora.
A leader who became synonymous with the Greek-American community and who with his strong, charismatic personality spotlighted its achievements, strengthened its identity, and elevated it to its rightful place in American society.
He, too, was elevated, becoming the world-famous Iakovos of America. On that Sunday when he left this earthly existence, he was not alone. Beside him were the ever-faithful Paulette Poulos, who stood close at hand like a daughter, and the dedicated Niki Kale.
Shortly after that we arrived, my wife and I. And immediately after us came Archbishop Demetrios of America.
We had asked to visit him in the hospital after New York’s Greek Independence Parade – I was a Grand Marshal that year, along with Paul and Christine Sarbanes.
That is how it came about that I was present at such a monumental occasion in the history of the community.
He may have wanted it that way. For us all to be present at that great moment in his life. Such was the relationship that we had developed. I believe that is what he wanted, judging by the blessings he would offer, for my family, for me personally, for the newspaper. Sometimes I did not know how to react.
Especially that last time when I was leaving for Greece and I called him from my car en route to the airport to say goodbye. Then, in particular, for some reason.
Iakovos, even in death, remained Iakovos. A powerful presence – now with a serene look on his face – imperious, imposing. And yet still the man born Dimitrios Koukouzis.
During the 10 years after his retirement, Iakovos had changed much: he had softened and became even sentimental – indeed he let himself become freer.
He donated his home, with its little chapel and its simple yet aristocratic furnishings, to the Archdiocese to be the residence of future archbishops.
But his successors sold it.
He also had an uncanny method – and it was never accidental – of furnishing others with even greater responsibilities than those they already bore.
He always had respect for the community, but also for the Patriarchate, to which he was bound by indissoluble ties.
Demetrios asked us to kneel around Iakovos’ deathbed. We all joined hands and created a chain around him. He chose an Archieratical prayer, one especially for such occasions, and he read it, slowly, emphasizing each word with emotion.
And we bade him farewell…
You may wonder: why am I writing these words? Because Iakovos’ memory should not be forgotten. Because these are the testimonies that constitute the magic of history.
I want to honor, with these few lines, a great Greek-American who worked so hard, and contributed so much, despite the inevitable small and large mistakes, and emerged as the archbishop with whom I often clashed fiercely, and with whom I became fully reconciled in the end.
During one of our collisions, he had told me “you would be doing an injustice to yourself.” It is advice I have never forgotten, and often guides me to this day.
Iakovos was a great man. There was nothing small in him. And he refused to do anything that was beneath him.
He lived by the maxim: Do not wrong yourself.
That is why he struggled not to diminish himself, his position, his throne. And, of course, he never thought to take revenge for anything we wrote that he did not like. Neither personally, nor did he ask friends to try to harm us, not advertise with us, or not grant us interviews.
He was Iakovos.
He understood that conflict was not in his self-interest. Though at times we took issue with his policies – with his mistakes, as we saw them – it was all in the name of the good of the community and its future.
Mainly, it was about the Greek language and education. And the crux of his errors was this: he could have conceptualized and implemented Paideia – education in the community – in a completely different manner. He didn’t, as it turns out, not because he didn’t care to, but because he did not believe Greek-Americans would support it. When he finally realized he was mistaken, it was too late.
May his memory be eternal.