A Place for Hellenism at Stony Brook

NEW YORK – The inaugural event of a new initiative to create a Hellenic Center at Stony Brook University struck a festive note – with a blend of poetry and music. Grigoris Maninakis and his Mikrokosmos Ensemble took to the stage with a program prominently featuring the music of Mikis Theodorakis. The songs ran the gamut of moods – from war-cries to mothers’ laments.

During the performance, a row of students (ranging from junior high school to college age) sat – almost Greek-chorus style- at the back of the stage. One at a time, each student took to the podium to read (in English) the poem that inspired the lyrics of each song that followed. 17-year-old viola player Nikitas Tampakis, a high school senior, accompanied Maninakis and the ensemble with notable skill and focus.

About 180 people were assembled at the event, and they frequently clapped and sang along to tunes at Maninakis’ prompting. “We see a lot of momentum,” said Jane MacArthur, the Director of Development of Stony Brook’s College of Arts and Sciences. She was speaking of the initiative to raise funds for a Hellenic Studies chair by the newly-formed New York Chapter of the American Foundation for Greek Language and Culture (AFGLC).

AFGLC aims to create an endowed chair at Stony Brook and to establish an interdisciplinary center there devoted to Hellenic Studies, broadly defined, on both an undergraduate and graduate level. With time, according to a brochure created by AFGLC, graduate scholars at the center “would also work to collect research material and data pertaining to Greek culture and studies in general and assist in creating archives of Greek American families and organizations who have played important roles in the history of America.” The center would also organize lecture series and other events.

It’s a start. “We are building the foundation,” MacArthur noted. She said $106,000 has already been raised, but the goal which AFGLC and Stony Brook are aiming for is $1.5 million by 2014. While it is yet unclear, MacArthur indicated that there may even be donors who will invest in an actual building to house the center.

At the event, which took place on October 11, Stella Tsirka, who is on the staff of Stony Brook’s School of Medicine and the president of the New York branch of AFGLC, told the audience, “We can’t do it alone. We need your help to bring this goal to fruition.” Peter Tsantes, who has contributed the lion’s share of the first funds – $100,0000- noted that he was inspired to participate by the ancients and a sense of duty. Efforts first began, according to Tsirka, last October.

The Long Island Dream
“There are a lot of us,” Tsirka explained to the National Herald a few days after the event. Having a Hellenic Center, she said, would be an acknowledgement of the Eastern Long Island Greek community, but also “something that our children could look forward to.”

Tsirka’s own 15-year-old son was among the poetry readers at the event. In addition to her Stony Brook duties, Tsirka teaches youngsters at Greek school. She felt the performance, which drew from the words of poets like George Seferis and Yiannis Ritsos was “a wonderful combination of popular songs with good cultural and intellectual aspects.”

She lauded Tsantes’ gift for pushing the effort forward to create a Hellenic Center that would allow Greeks in the area to focus on their history and culture, areas that are not always emphasized elsewhere.

The New York AFGLC branch is in the process of becoming incorporated as a non-profit group. It is open to individuals throughout the state. The benefit of being part of a network of AFGLC points, Tsirka emphasized is in the sense of belonging to a greater organization. A Stony Brook Hellenic Center, she added would be “with the university and above the university.”

AFGLC: A Growing Network
AFGLC president, University of South Florida professor emeritus John Balis, who attended the performance, explained that Stony Brook would be the latest step in a quarter of a century of efforts to boost awareness of Hellenism through the creation of centers. AFGLC was founded in 1992, but has roots in the earlier Greek Studies Council.

The first AFGLC was established at the University of South Florida. The foundation also has centers at Richard Stockton College, in New Jersey, and the University of Missouri, St. Louis – as well as Athens, Greece and Bogota, Colombia. Balis refers to five key points the AFGLC focuses on in each place – language/literature, history, philosophy, culture and the Greek Orthodox religion/Byzantine civilization. The latter, he adds, are a particularly “neglected field at secular universities”. Like Tsirka, he too emphasized that unlike other Greek Studies departments, the AFGLC centers are associated with, but independent of institutions of learning.

Each AFGLC organisation aims, Balis underlined, not only for the survival but a renaissance in Hellenic Studies. Each center is supported by a local chapter which not only raises funds, Balis notes, but is essential in “maintaining and advancing the studies.”

There is no limit to the number of AFGLC centers imagined. Balis said the foundation would like to create“as many as we can”. In the future, the AFGLC would like to be able to create a pool of visiting professors, who share their knowledge between the centers.

The non-profit foundation draws from the resources of volunteers and the support of organizations such as the Onassis Foundation (of both Greece and the US) and philanthropists including George Behrakis.

Despite an unfavorable economic climate, Balis remained optimistic abound fundraising efforts. “I’m convinced Stony Brook will do it,” the AFGLC president said. He explained: “Now things are difficult. But sometimes difficult times bring people together….People sit down together and make their priorities.”

Stella Tsirka, of the AFGLC New York chapter admitted that $1.5 is a lot of money to raise. But she added, “In reality there are a lot of wealthy Greeks and a lot of wealthy Greeks with strong feelings about Hellenism. We want them to understand it is a serious effort and a cause worth investing in.” AFGLC is also currently approaching foundations and applying for grants.

The Stony Brook campaign already means more Hellenic activities coming up soon, including book presentations, photo exhibits and performances. But in the near future, according to Tsirka, a Hellenic chair and center would make the campus a hub of Greek activities such as “a regular exchange of students with Greece, visiting scholars from Greece, graduate studies and an increased visibility of Hellenic Culture.”