ASTORIA – “One word alone repays you for the labor of our lives – Love.” Those words are inscribed on the statue of Sophocles that graces Athens Square Plaza in the heart of Astoria. It is the ultimate irony that Dennis Syntilas was not present when it was unveiled on March 4, because those words convey the essence of a life that ended too soon, just two months earlier, on January 7. And, because he was there for the dedication of statues of the great playwright’s fellow Greek geniuses, Aristotle and Socrates, and the goddess Athena.
On October 17, a brilliant autumn day when the few clouds above never threatened rain, the pavement of the park that was born of Syntilas’ vision was watered by the tears streaming from the eyes of those who worked with and were inspired by him at the ceremony that named the street fronting the Plaza, which serves as a cultural center and recreational hub in Astoria and become a beacon of Hellenism “Dennis Syntilas Way.”
New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides, who was instrumental in the co-naming, welcomed those who gathered “to honor the great legacy of Dennis Syntilas, the quintessential Greek-American…and his legacy of service and giving back.” He then introduced Father Nectarous Papazafiropoulos, Dean of St. Demetrios Cathedral, who offered an opening prayer.
Arriving in the United States in 1956, Syntilas established roots here while supporting his family back in Greece and proceeded to not only build a good life for himself and his family, but to create organizations that enhanced the lives of others. But he knew that individuals could not move mountains alone and that one does not live forever, so he shared the credit and the spotlight for his accomplishments with the talented and energetic men he gathered around him, and supported and inspired the next generation of leaders.
Syntilas founded the Greek American Homeowners Association with two Georges: Alexiou, and Kitsios and after articulating his vision for an urban park that was a slice of Greece in Astoria he established the Athens Square Committee with two more Georges, Delis and Stamatiades. The Committee made Athens Square a reality.
Not all of the Park’s fathers were Greek, or were named George. Former NYC Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. was vital to the process – and made the first donation to the cause.
The Association provided vital information and gave a voice to immigrants trying to realize their hopes for their families, scholarships to their children, and Thanksgiving Day meals to those for whom the American dream was more elusive.
Syntilas’ daughter Vayia, with tears in her eyes, spoke on behalf of her family as she held he son Dimitris’ hand and as her mother, Rita, and her husband, George Apergis, who grew up at Three Hierarchs in Brooklyn, looked on.
Dimitri turned tears into cheers when he pulled the cord that unveiled the street sign that honored the memory of his pappou.
Vayia shared some of her father’ biography, the story of being orphaned at a young age and coming to America to support his ill father, five sisters and two brothers.
“When he left Greece his only possessions were his Greek Orthodox faith and the ancient Greek ideals were engraved deep in his soul. He educated himself and his community service was not just an extracurricular activity but a duty, to give back to the community that lovingly embraced people like himself from every corner of the world.”
He taught his daughter to lead by example and that “nothing noteworthy can be accomplished without endless sacrifices. Do good and seek nothing in return.”
“He was also blessed to have my mother Rita at his side,” a person equally dedicated and beloved in the community as the teacher of so many of its children at the St. Demetrios school.
New York State Senator Michael Gianaris made a touching tribute to the man he said “rolled up his sleeves and was working for this community, making sure that people became citizens and registered to vote,” laying the foundation for his election, that of Constantinides, and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and Constantinides, the Greek political trifecta in Astoria.
“Without Dennis the park wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be in office we are in” Gianaris said. He then thanked Syntilas’ family “because every hour he spent working with us was an hour he wasn’t at home with his family.”
Simotas expressed thanks to Syntilas for being “a man of faith, of community, and a man with a vision,” She echoed Gianaris by saying to Syntilas’ family “your father, you husband was a mentor to us. It is so fitting that when we pass 30th Avenue and 30th Street we will look up and remember him.”
Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York President Petros Galatoulas added to the praise for Syntilas when he hailed Syntilas as one of those rare men who always helped and always said good things about,” and he thanked Constantinides, “whenever we ask him for something he delivers.”
Alexiou also thanked Constantinides, saying “a lot of people do a lot of work but are never recognized and it was a pleasure to be here today to honor Dennis Syntilas.”
Delis said Constantinides “gave us this opportunity to remember a great giver, a man of vision,” and also singled out committee members Irene Mataraggas and the Park’s architect Chris Karastathis.
“I can’t say enough about Dennis,” who used to help customers as much as he could as an official and Atlantic Bank, and who “used to come to my office with a list of things to do for everybody,” Delis added.
Kitsios told TNH“I am honored to be here to honor Dennis by naming this street after him” and he told the gathering he hoped others will continue his legacy.
Dino Rallis said “the street naming also honors the community…and this practice must continue because there are many Greek-Americans who should be honored. He thanked the political leaders, whom he said the community should stand by, and said the community must follow Syntilas’ example of supporting Hellenism.