NEW YORK — Billionaire Peter G. Peterson – the third richest Greek American in the United States in 2009 according to The National Herald’s annual list published earlier this spring – has made a name for himself as a fiscal conservative. In fact, Mr. Peterson recently made headlines when he donated $1 billion of his assets to his foundation, which he established in July 2008 in an unprecedented effort to study the major financial problems threatening America, including the national debt, budget deficits, and the viability of key federal programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“We’ll look like a third-world country in five or ten years if we don’t get our act together,” he told ABC’s Cynthia McFadden during an interview on Nightline on June 11, 2009
Growing up in the Great Depression was a factor that played a key role in Mr. Peterson’s financial philosophy, as did the core values of hard work, savings, and giving back to the Community instilled in him at an early age by his Greek immigrant parents.
Mr. Peterson even wrote about his father’s constant calls to economize in his new book “The Education of an American Dreamer.” “I remember my mothers shouts to ‘close the lights!’ when someone left a room, knowing that lights left burning would bring my fathers wrath. ‘Economia!’ he hurled at her. ‘Economia!’ Even today, when I leave a room, I need to ‘close the lights’.”
His first education in running a business was given to him by his father, who ran a 24-hour eatery in Kearny, Nebraska. Mr. Peterson, who was the oldest child in the family, watched his father handle everything from looking for wholesale deals on produce, to printing the daily menus, to coming up with marketing plans like discounts on pre-purchased meal tickets, to carving up hunks of meat into steaks and chops to ensure nothing went to waste – a trade he learned during his first job in America as a meatpacker in Milwaukee. “Visiting the cafes sole bathroom brought one face-to-face with the sign my father had taped to the paper towel dispenser: ‘Why Use Two When One Wipes Dry.’ It was not a question. To my father, ‘big spender’ was a big-time insult,” Mr. Peterson writes.
Mr. Peterson spoke about his father’s influence during his Nightline interview on June 11, 2009. “I got a tradition out of him – unconsciously maybe – certainly of work ethic, because he was the hardest working man I ever saw. And one thing I loved about him…he believed in the American dream not just for himself, but for his kids.”
Nevertheless, oddly intertwined with his father’s economic austerity came the Greek concept of “philotimia” – love of honor. “For all of my fathers cost cutting, the Central Cafe was the towns only white tablecloth restaurant. This apparent contradiction to my fathers ‘economia’ gave the restaurant a feel of quality that set it apart in Kearney,” Mr. Peterson recalled in his book.
This love of honor extended to acts of charity as well. As Mr. Peterson notes, “dozens of jobless and underfed men found their way to the Central Cafes back door begging for food, and my father never turned a single one away. He didnt just hand out meals for free, however; sensing that their pride depended on it, he always found some chore that they could do in exchange for a heaping plate of stew. It was his version of a welfare-for-work program.” Elsewhere, he writes how his mother made food baskets and sewed clothes for poor families in Kearney.
Despite the distance, the Petersons’ (the original family name was Petropoulos) could never forget their homeland. “Their charity also went back home to Greece in the form of the clothes my mother made and the money my father gave to benefit their villages—half his savings when the times were prosperous. It was to be a lesson I never forgot,” the billionaire Greek American investor of Peloponnesian heritage wrote.
The habits of fiscal conservatism began at a young age for Mr. Peterson, at his father’s insistence. “In our family, my father enforced the saving habit rigidly. He brought me a piggy bank… I was not allowed to raid the piggy bank for something I might want. Savings were meant to be saved. Rather, I stuffed the bank until it weighed a ton. Only then would my father unlock it and let me spill out its treasure of coins onto my bed… I had to count them and stack them in wrappers to be taken to the bank to put into my passbook savings account, which slowly grew larger. My father carefully supervised this rigorous process for years. This personal savings account helped pay for college.”
It was in the family store that Mr. Peterson also learned the value of persistence. Manning the cash register, Mr. Peterson always tried to keep pushing customers to renew their meal tickets. When his pitches were met with resistance, Depression or not, Mr. Peterson recalls that “I responded with aggressive salesmanship, a trait I would refine and depend upon as time went on; learning early on not to take no for an answer was a valuable lesson.”
As if growing up in Depression-era America wasn’t hard enough, Mr. Peterson had to also cope with the family conflict “at being American but nonetheless determined to remain loyal to Greece, its religion, and its customs.” In his book, he recounts the razzing he got from his schoolmates over the homemade clothes his mother would make for him, or the foustanellas and other ethnic outfits she would dress him up in on holidays. Even meals set him apart, as he recounted trying to explain to his teachers what his morning drink of “tsai” consisted of.
Greek school was another right of passage for the future Nixon Administration advisor and Chairman Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Classes were held in one of our classrooms at Kearney Junior High after regular school hours. The teachers were Greek Orthodox priests who journeyed forty or so miles…. Their job was to teach us how to speak and write the mother tongue. While we struggled to grasp the strange shapes of the twenty-four-letter Greek alphabet and connect them to words and words to comprehension, our non-Greek classmates passing in the hall would cast glances at us in the classroom with eyes that said, ‘How strange!’ Here again, I was driven to excel. I mastered Greek to the extent that I could write letters to our Greek relatives in their home villages and read the ones that we received.”
Mr. Peterson describes the solidarity existent among Greeks immigrants in his mid-Western hometown. “Outside the cafe my parents social exposure to Americans was at best limited. I do not recall ever being with my parents in a non-Greek home. This lack of interaction resulted far more from fear than any real distaste. Like many immigrants, past and present, my parents worried that popular culture, represented then by things like jazz and swing (they only played Greek music!) and the equivalent today of hip-hop, rap music, and suggestive advertising, would engulf their children and sweep away their values, even their respect for their customs and rules.”
Despite this seeming disconnect with American society, Mr. Peterson description of his father’s reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor proves that his love for his adopted country was just as great for that of his birthplace. “Though I sometimes heard him singing ‘God Bless America’ softly to himself as he was shaving in the morning, with all his Greek attachments I had never fully realized his devotion to America. His voice shook and tears filled his eyes as he spoke of the sneak attack on ‘the greatest of all countries.’
Soon afterwards, the son of Greek immigrants from the Peloponnesian towns of Vahlia and Niata was ready to leave behind Kearny and tackle Washington DC and Wall Street. He got his opportunity when his economizing father made good on his promise to provide him with the best education money can buy. This promise gained momentum when Mr. Peterson won the New York State Regents prize, which provided a scholarship at a New York university.
“My favorite word is “ευχαριστώ” – which means “thank you” – and I have a great feeling of thank you to my parents and to this country, because what’s happened to me could not have happened anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Peterson told Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer in an interview on June 9, 2009.
Now a multi-billionaire, at age 83 Peter Peterson is still looking to give back. After scaling the highest mountains of corporate America, this second-generation Greek American wants to ensure that the American dream his parents crossed the Atlantic in search of remains alive for the generations to come. Through the Peter G. Peterson Foundation he now strives to promote awareness among America’s citizens and bring back good government and transparency to Washington.
Explaining his impetus during his Nightline interview this past month, Mr. Peterson said “Suppose I were on my death bed and it were 10 years from now, and a lot of bad things had happened – which I think they will if we don’t reform our ways – and I did nothing… How would I feel that I hadn’t tried?”