“Hari, ela ena lepto.” Antonis Diamataris’ bass, authoritative voice summoned me over the interoffice phone to his publisher’s posher office a few steps away.
It was a usual weekday mid-morning at the Herald’s offices, an old industrial building on Crescent Street, just steps away from the Queens end of the Queensboro Bridge in New York. My cubicle was engulfed in smoke (yes, those were still the days when to be a journalist you almost had to be a smoker).
I have no recollection of what I was doing when the call came. Struggling with an article for that day’s Greek language paper? Coming to grips with that week’s edition of the National Herald Report newsletter? Or just procrastinating until there was no more time left and something had to fill the empty columns pronto? Most likely the latter. I had a persistent suspicion that I was the champion procrastinator in all of the Ethnikos Kirix’s then 82-year-history.
Usually, a call by Antonis at that hour had something to do with a news item that had to make it into that day’s edition, or some tip he had received from a member of his miraculously broad circle of friends. Ruminative, far-ranging discussions were reserved for the late afternoon, with the hum of the presses echoing from the back of the building and the banter of the delivery drivers coming in from the parking lot.
Not this time.
“I think we have to take the [National Herald] Report one step further – turn it into a regular weekly English-language newspaper,” Antonis said.
Mind you, when Diamataris said “I think” he meant “I have decided.”
“And you will be the managing editor,” he added.
To this day, I remember my heart skipping a few beats. Here I was, aged 36, with just six years in the newspaper business, and I was about to run a newspaper.
A newspaper, moreover, that looked more forward, to the future of the community we served in this great new land, and less backward, toward the land we had left behind; that would explore new ways to connect with the later generations of Greek Americans, those for whom emigration was not a visceral experience but an oft-idealized family tale.
Over the next 6 years I put my heart into it. I still remember the great writers whose contributions graced our pages, people like Professors Nicholas Stavrou and Andre Gerolymatos, or Nick Konstandaras, then-head of the Associated Press office in Athens, and so many others. And, of course, the weekly drumbeat of cutting-edge news about our Church and our communities by the indomitable Theodore Kalmoukos.
There were items about culture, history, books, weddings, deaths, major gifts to our institutions, everything deemed “fit to print” about Greek America, written and curated by people who loved the community – who were of the community.
9/11 happened on my watch, and I still recall the palpable grief – mixed with disbelief – about the calamity that had struck our country and our city. I remember the agony of reading the lists of the dead and the presumed dead looking for names that sounded remotely Greek – and the fear of missing some Greek American just because she had married someone with an Italian surname or because his grandfather’s Yannopoulos had been converted to a more America-friendly Johnson at Ellis Island. We did not want anyone’s loss to go unacknowledged and unlamented by his or her own people.
There were brighter moments, of course, moments of levity and moments of wonderment at the new worlds journalism can introduce a young man to.
There was President Clinton shaking my hand as he exited the State Dining Room of the White House and teasing me playfully, “well, Haris my friend, keep writing the truth,” after being assured with a wink by Paul Glastris, his prolific speechwriter, that “yes, Mr. President, he is a great admirer of yours.”
Or travelling to the Pocono Mountains to meet a Greek-American diner owner who had a property grudge with some Greek regional government, and spending a wonderful evening with a tiny, vibrant cell of Greek America in the midst of the forested tranquility of Eastern Pennsylvania.
Or having Lieut. General Ioannis Veryvakis, the Chief of the Greek General Staff, run out into the corridor of the Waldorf Astoria hotel as I was leaving his room, to gift me a beautiful cloth-bound copy of the Odyssey which I still treasure to this day. “I enjoyed our interview very much,” this sweet and deeply patriotic man said to me, and I felt proud that I had represented my newspaper, my community, and myself well.
There was also the weekly exercise in imagination that was required in order to produce my column, ‘The ABCs of Greek’, an exploration of Greek words and expressions that have found their way into American usage (and a poor but resonant attempt by yours truly to imitate the venerable William Safire’s ‘On Language’, in the New York Times)
It was all a labor of love and devotion – and I can say this with growing certainty as my working life slowly draws to a close.
I left the Herald – and New York – in November 2003 for a new life in Athens, away from journalism. A child of Athens, I had to return to my roots.
But in reality, I have never left. To this day, 19 years and a lifetime later, I must mention the Herald when describing myself to others. In some mysterious way, The National Herald is still me. But I am not The National Herald: this wondrous creation is the labor of love of too many, beginning with Antonis Diamataris who willed it into reality, and now his children who continue the run in this new century. And of all those colleagues in New York, Athens, and around America who – for much longer than me – have dedicated their lives to it.
It is also the sum of all those tired hands that leaf through it by some kitchen table in the evening, or type “thenationalherald.com” in their browser, week in and week out, searching for a sense of belonging and a source of strength in knowing that other sets of hands were doing the exact same thing all across this vast and beautiful country that is America.
I will be grateful to all of you for the rest of my days.
Happy 25th anniversary and many more to come!
Haris Daskalothanassis served as the first Managing Editor of The National Herald. He is now Executive Director of Retention and Outreach at The American College of Greece.