NEW YORK- Nick Andriotis keeps a small plastic panel in his office with an inscription of a proverb he coined: “It is better to go to bed with a gripe, than to wake up in the morning with regrets.” He smiles and explains that years ago when he was struggling to build the St. Demetrios School in Astoria – the lone Greek American high school in the United States – and coming across countless problems, there were people out there who did not believe in his vision and opposed his ideas. Mr. Andriotis decided not to pay them back in the same way, and sometimes he went to bed angry over the thought that he should have treated them in the same manner they treated him. The next day, however, he would wake up with a clear conscience because he did not stoop to their level.
“A lot of other things were going on back then, instigated by people who were against the work that was taking place,” Mr. Andriotis recalled. “There were a couple of people who wrongfully accused us that we didn’t dig as deep as we should when we were laying the foundations, so that we could pocket the extra money…”
Mr. Andriotis was the leading force behind the construction of the St. Demetrios School in its present-day form. At the time, however, he was widely criticized as being a “dreamer.” Today, he feels completely justified by his decision to press ahead with the auspicious project.
In a previous interview with The National Herald that he gave some years ago, Mr. Andriotis had said that “most of all, it bothers me that there were a lot of people saying that we Greeks would never able to complete major projects. They were proven wrong. We raised a total of $3.2 million, which covered the costs of construction, and the St. Demetrios high school building was not only completed, but it remains today as the only Greek parochial school of its kind here in the United States – and maybe even the world. We have a state-of-the-art school facility, fully equipped with all the latest technologies. St. Demetrios constitutes a model school by Greek standards as well, and many Greek officials have paid us visits and congratulated us over the years.”
Mr. Andriotis keeps a photo of his hometown of Nikia in the island of Nisyros up on one of the walls in his office. He visits the village where he was born regularly. A few years ago, he even opened up his own restaurant in Nisyros, which he proudly says has had its fair share of famous patrons, including the President of Greece Karolos Papoulias and the U.S. Ambassador to Greece. All across along his window, which stares out into the Manhattan skyline, there are photos of him and his nephews, together with Steve Valiotis’ children. Mr. Andriotis has been working with Mr. Valiotis, owner of Alma Realty Company, for the past 25 years. “I consider them [Mr. Valiotis’ children] to my nephews as well,” Mr. Andriotis added. Together with Mr. Valiotis, Mr. Andriotis is a founding member of Alma Bank, where he serves as a top executive.
There are also photos of ancient Greece on his wall, along with two small replica chariots on a nearby table. The Odyssey Award, with which the St. Demetrios Community of Astoria honored him in the year 2000 in recognition of his invaluable service to the community – and especially its school – is also set upon that table.
The late Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America had sent a message for the weighty commemorative album that was issued on the occasion of Mr. Andriotis’ reception of the Odyssey Award. In true Iakovos fashion, the content of the letter sublimely expresses the Archbishop’s sentiments and regard for Mr. Andriotis. The letter read “Dearly beloved, this is more than just a standard message of congratulations for an album. It is written, with an exuberant pen and a joyous hand, for Nick Andriotis – a most vibrant man. Mr. Andriotis does not get much sleep. He is always wide awake, but he continues to dream. His dreams do not require nightfall in order to make their appearance. Dreamy Nisyros provides Mr. Andriotis with his dreams. Astoria fills the dark sky of his restlessness with bright stars. This is the reason why Mr. Andriotis does not walk; he runs; ever conscious of the river and sea before him. He is not a person who believes in dead ends. And when the currents of life do not take him where he wants to go, he changes their direction. He does not like still waters. He is always disturbing them with his bold plans. Mr. Andriotis is ambitious, and his definition of a job well done entails moving mountains that stand in his way. These are his moments of glory. His aggressiveness is like a tempestuous wind; and when the wind dies down, so does he. As you can see, I am not praising him. I am simply describing him, just as he would want me to. He does not have much choice. If he did, he would be ready to burst, as usual. It is only when I call him ‘President of Presidents’ that he stays quiet, perhaps because I adequately summarize him with this title. He is truly a President on a hill, climbing ever higher towards new goals, new initiatives, and the completion of his work. The meaning behind my message is that I always want you to keep him on the frontlines of your projects. Keep him just the way he is: with his excitement and his outbursts. That is why I join you in honoring him today. He deserves it. Onward to victory, Nick.”
Mr. Andriotis holds on to this message like a sacred charm, but he admits that “He [the Archbishop] surprised me and enthused me. I didn’t expect him to write the letter the way that he did. I did not expect that Archbishop Iakovos would analyze my nature so deeply, and point out the way I act, the demands I have in life…”
Nick Andriotis admits something else about Archbishop Iakovos as well. “I looked at him with some negativity at first, but I ended up forming the opinion that he is a man who made history, and who was often judged unfairly. At some point in the future, history will tell the story the way it really is. Archbishop Iakovos is a person who does not come around too often. He was one of a kind. He combined a strong personality, sharp intellect, good education, and an uncanny knack for diplomacy. Despite what anyone may think, it is a fact that Archbishop Iakovos was a rare breed, who was both credible and far-reaching. He was the only religious leader who had a vision, and who had the courage to walk alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s at the march in Selma, Alabama to demonstrate for equal voting rights for African-Americans. It is too bad the Archbishop is not alive today to see the results of that march. Barack Obama is now the first African-American President of the United States.”
Nick Andriotis was born in Nisyros in November 1940, and came to the United States in 1956. He has been living in Astoria for over 50 years. He got his first job working as an elevator operator in a hotel on 49th Street in Manhattan, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. “Elevators were not automated like they are today,” he said. “We worked them manually. You would use a lever to lift them or lower them.” Mr. Andriotis thinks back and laughs. “I didn’t speak much English back then. In order for me to get a job operating the elevator, they taught me to count from 1 to 18, because that’s how many floors the hotel had. They also taught me to say ‘thank you,’ and ‘watch your step,’ because since the elevator was not automated it would not always stop level with the floor on each story. Sometimes it stopped a little above the floor, and sometimes a little below.”
One day, a funny thing happened to Mr. Andriotis. “I was standing by the entrance to elevator and someone came up to me to ask me a question. I thought that he wanted me to take him to another floor. I told him to get inside, and the elevator started going up. I asked him which floor he was going to, but I could not understand what he was saying to me. We ended up going up and down the hotel. The man was looking for the restroom, and I did not understand what he was saying, so I ended up taking him up and down all the floors. He finally managed to leave the elevator and ran elsewhere to ask where he could find a restroom…”
After the hotel, Mr. Andriotis switched careers and joined the restaurant business, where he worked as a waiter. Soon afterwards, he had saved enough money to begin his first business venture and start acquiring real estate.
Mr. Andriotis was a pioneer in the establishment, operation, and progress of the St. Demetrios school system. He was elected to the parish council and served as President during the years 1976-77, and then again from 1979 to 1982. Over the last six years, he has been offering an invaluable contribution as Chairman of the St. Demetrios school board.
He himself said he considers his greatest accomplishment to be the formation of the first ever Greek American high school in the United States, which has been operating at St. Demetrios Day School in Astoria since 1982.
“When I first joined the community, I realized that building up our school would be the only project that would leave a lasting effect,” Mr. Andriotis explained. “I was not proven wrong, and I have never regretted my decision. The very first year I was elected to the parish council, they appointed me Assistant Greek Secretary. When I was elected President, there were a couple of parish council members who were very much in favor of our school expanding to include a high school. However, because they considered this prospect to be nothing more than a dream, they needed to find someone who would support the cause. That someone was me. As soon as I became President in 1976, I lent all my support to the committee that was formed to expand our junior high school grades. A few months after my election, we passed a decision for our junior high school to gradually expand into a high school. However, the major thing was for a high school building to be constructed, and colossal efforts were undertaken to achieve this goal. It was a big step, and it cost millions of dollars to accomplish, at a time when the community did not have any money at all. There were a lot of people who thought that we were going to go bankrupt and that the community would shut down. Despite the difficulties, I believed that we would be successful. I knew that our mission was sacred, the way were going about it was correct, and that we were providing the community with a necessary service. I also personally believed that we would not be able to continue to exist if we did not support Greek education.”
And all the while, the vision for a building to house the newly formed St. Demetrios high school was being undercut by growing pressure. “The people wanted a high school, but the usual suspicions remained,” Mr. Andriotis recalled. “Some people were asking themselves why I was so adamant about this project. Was I doing it out of egotism? Was I overcome with a need for grandeur? Perhaps I was trying to steal money… I was willing to accept any kind of criticism they dished out, except the last one. Those kinds of accusations infuriated me…”
The project was completed, the “miracle” happened, and Nick Andriotis was justified for his conviction and persistence.
“One day someone stopped me on the street and asked me how I was doing,” Mr. Andriotis said. “I did not recognize him. He told me his name, and reminded me that he had once spoken out very harshly against my plans to build the school. ‘I still feel guilty for what I did’ he said to me. He also told me that he changed his mind and now recognized that I was 100 percent in the right. Another fellow – an elderly gentleman who is still around today – was openly against me at that time. I met him two years ago at a student art exhibition in our school. Don’t tell me that your grandchild goes to this school, I said to him. He replied that ‘not only does my grandson go to school here, but I owe you a debt of gratitude, because my daughter sends her children here and she says that she would not change the school for any other school out there. She is very enthusiastic.’ Certainly, I felt a certain sense of moral satisfaction from that conversation. We put forth a major effort on behalf of the school. No one came and handed us money just like that. The project was financed with whatever funds each one of us could set aside. Back then, we used to go asking for donations $20 at a time. Things are different today. Today, people come and see our completed work. They come and go inside our school building, and they are pleasantly surprised with everything that they see before them. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of people out there who do not know just how great a school our community has.”
The efforts that everyone put together back then were really touching. We needed to come up with every idea we could to secure the money. “Two older ladies who were members of the Philoptochos Society started going from house to house, and to all the local stores, and began collecting pledges of $20 to dedicate each brick that would be used to build our high school,” Mr. Andriotis said. “I remember one of them, her name was Lefkothea Angelopoulos.”
At the behest and blessings of the late Archbishop Iakovos, Mr. Andriotis spearheaded the purchase and renovation of the Archdiocesan Hellenic Cultural Center, located in Astoria. This center has been operational since 1986, and today Mr. Andriotis serves as President of its board of trustees.
“This is an important project that touches my heart whenever I think about it, just like the St. Demetrios School,” he said. “Do you think it was an easy thing to convince Archbishop Iakovos – who really didn’t know all that much about Greek Astoria back then – to move ahead with a project like this. Unfortunately, his advisors did not encourage him to embrace the Greek American Community and to spend time with average Greek Americans living in the local community. This didn’t allow for people to really appreciate him as a leader, since they would only see him at church or read about him in the newspapers. It was only after I kept insisting that Archbishop Iakovos visit a Greek restaurant in Astoria that he actually went to eat at one for the first time. He ended up liking it, and once he got used to going, not only did he end up going to restaurants in Astoria to eat frequently, but he even went began to go to other Greek establishments and get personally acquainted with the Greeks who owned them. The people really started to love him towards the end of his life, but when he was at the apex of his career, he was somewhat cut off, and limited to the area surrounding the Archdiocesan headquarters on 79th Street.
One night, unbeknownst to anyone, Mr. Andriotis and the Archdiocese CFO Mr. Demetriades took Archbishop Iakovos to an abandoned building on Crescent Street in Astoria. “In the end, I managed to convince the Archbishop to turn it into a cultural center,” Mr. Andriotis said. “The purchase of the property cost us $230,000. We spent another $750,000 to make the Hellenic Cultural Center into what it is today. This was a very large chunk of money at that time. I had told Archbishop Iakovos that it was unacceptable for the Archdiocese not to have a presence in the heart of Hellenism – Astoria. St. Demetrios Cathedral is one thing, but the Archdiocese was nowhere to be seen. It was important for the name of the Archdiocese to appear on the building that would end up housing the Hellenic Cultural Center – as it ultimately did. This was another dream come true. Back then, I was considered to be part of the establishment by the media, the youth and the so-called progressives, who had come to the U.S. from Greece to attend college.”
Mr. Andriotis considers both of these projects to be milestones in the history of the Greek American Community, because they embody the potential and the decisiveness of the Greek American Community.
When asked why he has remained at the helm of the St. Demetrios school board and the HCC board of trustees for so many years, Mr. Andriotis is quick to reply, “it’s not an ego thing. These are projects that I strived and labored for, and they have been successful. I have never told anyone that they cannot replace me. I serve on these committees to ensure that these projects continue to run smoothly, and so I can teach others about what I know.”
The Ecumenical Patriarchate also publicly recognized Mr. Andriotis for his longstanding service to the Church, and bestowed him with the office of Archon Depoutatos. Mr. Andriotis is also a member of Leadership 100, an endowment fund affiliated with the Archdiocese of America, which is committed to sustaining the Church’s programs and ministries.
At the time that he was honored with the Odyssey Award by the St. Demetrios Community, Mr. Andriotis also donated $100,000 to form the Nick A. Andriotis Assistance Fund, which aims at helping economically disadvantaged children.
Some of Mr. Andriotis’ detractors accuse him of being a dictator and having a big ego. Responding to these accusations, Mr. Andriotis immediately flashes a wry smile and jokingly says that “I might be egotistical, but I’m not a dictator.”
“I would call myself egotistical because I want to see a project through, and I want to do as perfect a job as possible. I won’t stand for foolishness, and I speak frankly. If this is egotistical, then I am guilty as charged. However, I don’t operate the way I do simply because I want to be the leader. Besides, I have not been parish council president at St. Demetrios since 1982. And for all those who believe that I behave like a dictator, I want to say that I have ample proof that anything that was done in the community on my watch was done democratically, and was voted on. This includes any changes that took place involving the school, church, or the duties of the clergy. I never sent anyone away by myself, to deserve to be labeled a dictator. I never offended anyone through my own individual actions, and I never took decision on my own. Anything decisions that were made resulted from a democratic process, and there was always a healthy majority. I want to emphasize this point.”
Nick Andriotis is widely heralded as “the Prime Minister of Astoria.” He chuckles and explains that a journalist from Astoria gave him this nickname after he made a powerful speech at a Clergy Laity Conference that was held in San Francisco in defense of Greek Education.
Mr. Andriotis is passionate about Greek language and Greek education. He is constantly highlighting the importance of Greek parochial schools. “I see the difference between our school and other schools. I see how our children speak, act, and how much they know about our history and religion. We didn’t establish our school simply because there were not any other schools out there for us to send our children. We are not even arguing that our school is the best one around. In Manhattan, there are elementary parochial schools that charge as much as $18,000 in annual tuition. One thing is for sure though. Those schools are not going to teach children what they will learn in our school – and in every other Greek American parochial school out there. We must continue to insist on Greek education. Ours is an educational system with roots that go back 3,500 years.”
When asked what he believes is the importance of keeping our language, culture and traditions alive, Mr. Andriotis responds “so that we can continue to be descendants of those people in whom we pride ourselves upon. We give our children an education so we can teach them about where they came from. Maybe one of these children will one day go on to become President of the United States. This is not ethnocentrism; it is a fact. Most nations out there pale in comparison to us.”
Aside from his longstanding ties with the St. Demetrios Community in Astoria, Mr. Andriotis has also served as a past President of the St. John the Theologian Nisyrian Society. In addition, he has been a member of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York, and the Federation of the Dodecanese Island.
“I did not get involved with too many organization, because I found the work I was doing in my community rewarding enough. The service I offered there was much greater, much more longstanding, and much more productive.”
Speaking about the general state of Greek Education in the United States today, Mr. Andriotis believes that “there is a ray of hope for the future.” He added that “this ray can grow bigger and brighter, and can yield results. It might even serve to further highlight the need for us to work even harder and place an even greater emphasis on teaching our children Greek. However, measures need to be taken, and not just by us laypeople, but by church leaders and major organizations. Our Church has always played the leading role in the effort, and it will continue to do so, because it has the resources and facilities with which to serve the interests of education. Let’s not forget that education is a costly undertaking.
Mr. Andriotis said he is of the opinion that things in the Greek American Community today could have been a lot better today. “I regret the fact that we did not reach the levels that we deserved to,” he noted.