Boulukos: Keeping Heritage Alive

With her dazzling smile and vibrant wardrobe, Katherine R. Tsamopoulos Boulukos – best known as Kathy – stands out in any crowd. Forget the little black dress. Think red, blue, yellow, purple, vivid hues that reflect her vitality, warmth, and personality. “I’m a color person,” she says. “I don’t wear black. It depresses me. I don’t love it. I think there’s a whole rainbow of colors. I don’t like gray. I don’t like brown. I’m very opinionated on that subject.”
Boulukos not only has opinions. She has ideas and knows how to implement them. Importantly, she has helped launch two milestones for the Greek-American community. She was the force behind The Complete Book of Greek Cooking, a HarperCollins bestseller that keeps pouring funds into St. Paul’s Cathedral. And with her friend Anastasia Nicholas, she has spearheaded a drive to preserve and record the contributions of our immigrants, founding The Greek Museum, the Center for Greek-American Heritage. While many decry the dilution of the Greek-American culture, Boulukos stepped up to the plate to do something about it. It is an ambitious, dynamic work-in-progress.
She is impassioned about the significance of the Museum. “The story of the Greek immigrant, I am convinced, is different than that of any other immigrant group because of their drive to excel as entrepreneurs. They were in the restaurant business, the flower business, the fur business. They had the philotimo to say ‘I want to have my own business. I don’t want to work for anyone.’ They had the drive to be their own bosses.”
In the early 90s she and Nicholas, on a visit to Chicago, were impressed by the city’s Greek Museum. “When we walked out, we looked at each other and said, we should have a Greek Museum in New York.” The women spent months learning how to be a chartered nonprofit organization, and without the help of a lawyer became both chartered and licensed.
“We’re positive thinkers. We started to develop a strategy,” Boulukos says. “We wanted to raise awareness that in New York there are 22 other ethnic museums, but there is not one for the Greeks. We went to a few wealthy people that we knew and they all agreed that it was a good idea, but they wouldn’t be first in. A major Greek foundation gave us the hardest time, saying we did not fulfill their mission. Among all the people we approached, investment banker Pete Peterson came through and was very supportive.”
Boulukos and Nicholas went on to seek photos and artifacts. To date, she has digitalized over 2000 photos that she uses in PowerPoint presentations.
More and more, Boulukos meets youngsters who have no idea where their grandparents came from, and have scant knowledge of their Greek heritage. Both of her children speak Greek, and her two grandchildren speak some Greek. “I give credit to Jews. They really keep their history alive.” Since collecting material for the museum and giving lectures, Boulukos has herself had an education. “After my generation, our immigrant culture and history is going to be gone. There are 122 Greek organizations in the metro area. Starting with the giant AHEPA, you have a lot of little organizations. We approached each one of them and said let us come and talk to your people. Because after you pass on, what’s going to happen? The shoebox with our history is going to get thrown out.”
Boulukos continues to collect photos and artifacts, preserved in a Freeport storage space, and to lecture. Despite the uphill battle to create a permanent home for an important, priceless collection, she’s optimistic.
She envisions a museum that would be a vital cultural center for Greek-Americans. It would record Greek-American history, preserve a great heritage and provide an educational center close to other museums. The Museum would have rotating exhibits related to the Greek-American experience as well as an oral history department, a music library, and a permanent exhibit that would include embroidery, costumes, jewelry, household items, photographs and religious objects. There would be a space for concerts, recitals, lectures, play performances, and receptions.
Talk to Boulukos for a few minutes, and you realize why she’s usually in charge of any group that she joins. She is direct, smart, quick and passionate about her interests. Like most Greek-American women of her generation, she had to struggle to arrive where she is today. She took what could have been negatives – her mother’s adamant desire to keep her at home and to marry early – and turned them into positives that worked for her.
Boulukos grew up in Astoria. Her father was from Smyrna and 20 years older than her mother. Both were college graduates. Her father, with his mother, brother, and a maid maneuvered a dramatic exit from a besieged, burning Smyrna. “He asked the maid to sew American flags on their clothes. Somehow they managed to get on an American ship. It was a miraculous escape.” Her father came to New York, and later returned to Athens. He met her mother one Sunday, and married her the following Sunday. “It was romantic,” Boulukos says. “He put her on a pedestal.”
Boulukos was an only child. “It was very hard because all your parents’ dreams and aspirations are put on this one kid. I have my father’s approach to life. He lived to be 96 and he was sharp as a tack. He was a very loving person. He would say, tomorrow will be a better day. That was his philosophy when things went wrong.” Her mother was a talented cook. “That’s where I got my cooking mojo.” She suggested to 15-year-old Kathy that they both enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off. “So I sat down at the typewriter and we entered three recipes each. And I won the junior division in this national contest with the one-two-three cake, like a pound cake. It was very exciting! I baked at the Waldorf Astoria. I went on television.” Boulukos so impressed the Pillsbury executives that they gave her a summer job in their office on Fifth Avenue while she was a college student. When she graduated, they offered her a job in their home office in Minneapolis doing public relations.
Boulukos had skipped a year in junior high, going from the 7th to the 9th grade. In high school, she spurned cheer-leading and athletics, but involved herself in dramatics and music and was member of the National Honor Society. When a cousin came from Greece to study at Smith College, Boulukos was inspired to apply to Smith. Thrilled when she was accepted by the elite women’s college, her parents insistence that she stay in New York proved a major disappointment. “What will people think?” her father said. “But I compensated. I got involved in twenty other things.” As a student at Queens College, she spread her wings, becoming president of the Intercollegiate Federation, with members from all New York schools from Columbia to NYU to Brooklyn College. One of her big college successes involved running a convention at the New Yorker Hotel attended by hundreds of college students.
During her junior year in college, her mother and the aunt of her future husband discreetly arranged a meeting between them. Boulukos and her parents attended a benefit dance for St. Michael’s at the Manhattan Center with the seat next to her left mysteriously empty. “In walked George, in a button-down shirt and suit, looking very proper. He sat down and said, ‘My name is George Boulukos.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, there can’t be two of you.’ He said ‘There are four of us.’ The Boulukos clan, it’s huge!” Another George Boulukos, a tall blond NYU student had been pursuing her. But she was interested in a non-Boulukos, a Princeton student and she told that to George. Undeterred, he countered, “That’s OK. I’m busy building a business, but if you want, we can go out to the theater.” A year and a half later, they were married.
George, a Brown University graduate and avid sailor, had been developing Nick’s Marina, a full-service facility created from a small Long Island fishing station. Married to George for 47 years, the mother of two grown children and grandmother of two, she says: “I’ve been blessed. I’ve been lucky that my husband has been supportive of all my crazy activities. But you know, we’re a good match, because he’s an activist. He’s on the Library Board. Before that, he was on the School Board. Boy Scouts are a major commitment for George. He received Scouting’s highest honor, the Silver Buffalo. That’s what he does. I got involved with the Long Island Arts Council. And then the Solon Society. I was not a founder, but I became president after a few years.”
Does she always become president? “Inevitably, I become president,” she laughs, “Because I never shut up.” The couple has lived in the same home since their first year of marriage, a sprawling eleven room house in Freeport, NY. It radiates warmth, awash with photos and memorabilia, testimony to the energetic lives they lead. It also contains her collection of more than 200 cook books. The Boulukoses live directly on the Woodcleft Canal, with a deck of weathered wood replete with comfortable swings, landscaping and their own dock. “We entertain here a lot,” says Boulukos. She points to the space where their 52-foot sailboat, the “Tuxn”, once moored. “George sold it last year. That was really tough for me. My summers were involved with that boat and I enjoyed it.”
Before they married, she made an agreement with George that “I was going to work to make myself happy. I felt it was necessary for my own sanity that I have a career doing something. My compromise was that the work I chose to do – with the exception of an early jobs at Bloomingdales and then at Brooklyn Polytechnic – took place at home. The disadvantage of having a business in your house is that it never leaves you.” For more than thirty years, she ran her own insurance business, specializing in maritime insurance. She also started a chartering firm for yachts in Greece.
But her most important involvement has been as a leader in the Greek community. Almost immediately after her marriage, she became a member of the Mr. and Mrs. Club at St. Paul’s Cathedral and wrote their monthly newspaper, The Golden Rings. She also coordinated a sewing project to make 36 altar boy outfits for St. Paul on two different occasions.
Her interest in food led to the recipe club. She was later elected and is still chairman of the group. She worked with her group to update and publish four Greek cookbooks, first with Doubleday, and then with HarperCollins. Boulukos continues to promote the popular Complete Book of Greek Cooking. It is that rare commodity, a fool-proof cookbook.
“We tested and retested. The first books required lots of oil and butter. We lightened up. I had an editor who was a real stickler. A clove of garlic wasn’t good enough. We had to say three teaspoons of garlic. Not the juice of one lemon – two tablespoons of lemon juice. We offered shortcuts, and emphasized freezing ahead. A lot of books have come out that are more sophisticated, but they are time-consuming. The motive of this book has been to support basic Greek cooking. That’s what I talk about when I’m promoting the book. We own the copyright and the money is still going to St. Paul’s.
“Although the cover says it’s from The Recipe Club of Saint Paul’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, it was actually done by seventeen women. We are a saga. We cooked together and we aged together. Now we’re down to nine. We started in ’61. Some of the women died, others moved out of state.”
The same group originally coordinated the baking done for the St. Paul’s Bazaar. “Forty years ago, the chairman came to me and asked if the recipe club could do the baking. I told him I would have to talk to the girls. So I worked up the numbers and we had a meeting. I’ll never forget it. One of the gals looked over my shoulder and yelled 10,000 cookies! Who can bake 10,000 cookies! I had figured out how we could do it, and it went forward. A friend knew someone at the Nassau Coliseum and that’s where we froze and stored the food. Of course, we needed a truck. It was a huge production.”
Was she born with organizational skills? “Probably yes. I take after my father. He was a role model. I’m very good at figuring out what should be done, and then getting people to do it. But sometimes I end up doing it because I don’t get the support that I want. I have a plan. I structure things a certain way. My daughter Samantha’s very organized. She’s a vice president with Colgate Palmolive. She went to Brown and then to Wharton. My son Nicholas also graduated from Brown. He’s in finance.”
One of Boulukos’ major interests is St. Anna’s Philoptochos, where she’s been a member for 40 years. She served as president for two terms and continues to serve on that board, as well as being elected to the Direct Archdiocesan District Philoptochos for five terms. She serves now as the webmaster of the “Philoptochosdistrictdiocese.” site. “I enjoy working with the Philoptochos because I believe in their mission to help other people. That’s the key thing. Right now we’re involved in a major fund-raiser for St. Michael’s. I believe very strongly in the importance of the new St. Michael’s Home because we need to have a facility for elderly Greek-American people. The new home will have facilities for people with handicaps and for people with dementia. So this is a big deal and a big step forward.”
To relax, Boulukos sews about half of her own clothes. “I love to sew. It’s very creative. I learned to sew in junior high. And I loved it. It was a challenge. I love challenges. It’s therapy for me. When I make something, George will sometimes say, is that the way it’s supposed to look?”
And where does she get all her energy? Vitamins? Yoga? Visits to the gym? “I play tennis twice a week, and I don’t sleep very much. I have so many things I want to do. I just don’t want to run out of time. I want to write a book that will be connected to the Greek Museum. I’ve also been writing a funny book about my years of sailing. But it’s the Greek Museum that comes first. I tell people there’s more to being Greek than a good Greek restaurant. We have beautiful music. We have wonderful artists and poets. We have so much to be proud of. It is important that we preserve this.”


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