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HACF Presented Lecture with American University President Sylvia Mathews Burwell

March 16, 2024

NEW YORK – The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF) presented a moving and insightful lecture with American University President Sylvia Mathews Burwell on a life in public service on March 14, at The University Club in New York City.

Burwell was the fourth speaker in HACF’s Peter T. Kourides Lecture Series which was created to recognize the importance of the contributions of Greek-Americans to public service and civil society. With her presentation, President Burwell joined the distinguished speakers of the previous Peter T. Kourides Lectures, the late Senator Paul Sarbanes, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, and former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.

American University President Sylvia Mathews Burwell, at the podium during the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation’s Peter T. Kourides Lecture on March 14. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

HACF Chairman Nicholas Kourides gave the welcoming remarks noting that “the Foundation’s lectures on public service are really at the core of the Foundation.” 

“Senator Sarbanes gave the first lecture of the series on May 3, 2012 in this very room,” Kourides said. “Senator Sarbanes really put the Foundation on the map 12 years ago as it was our first event and it was on public service. For anyone who attended the lecture, you could hear a pin drop, everyone wanted more from Senator Sarbanes. He was truly the people’s senator. He could talk to anyone about anything, he could discuss baseball, politics, labor issues, the economy, running a restaurant… or legislative issues impacting the lives of everyday people.”

The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation presented the lecture with American University President Sylvia Mathews Burwell on a life in public service on March 14 at The University Club in New York City.

Kourides also noted that “Ambassador Negroponte was the quintessential public servant… has been a huge supporter of the Foundation since its creation, and was our honored guest at the Foundation’s 10th anniversary.” 

In 2015, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, was the third speaker in the series. 

Kourides said: “Each speaker in the series has emphasized how proud they were of Greek-Americans who from humble backgrounds studied hard, worked hard, and excelled in their chosen professions but they never forgot their roots from where they came. Their success was a testament of the American Dream, but most important for each speaker is what they gave back through public service, for example, Senator Sarbanes devoted his entire life to public service, he never aspired to go into the private sector but wanted to help virtually everyone he met, public service for him was the ultimate goal.”

HACF President John Stratakis then introduced Sylvia Mathews Burwell who was “born and raised in a small town in West Virginia, descended from four Greek immigrant grandparents.” 

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, American University President. (Photo: American University)

She was named the 15th president of American University and is the first woman to serve in this role. Under her leadership, American University has more than doubled research funding from external organizations, launched the $500 million ‘Change Can’t Wait’ campaign, created four new research centers, endowed eight faculty chairs and created over 150 scholarships, and invested $109 million in construction of a new ‘Student Thriving’ Complex.

Previously, President Burwell held two Cabinet positions in the U.S. government – serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services and as Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Additionally, President Burwell has also held leadership positions at two of the largest foundations in the world – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.

Burwell began with a personal story of how she “got to know the Sarbanes family… in a true Greek grandmother fashion,” when she was about to leave for Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, she received a note from Senator Sarbanes mother telling her that her grandson Michael Sarbanes who was already at Oxford would take care of her there.

She noted that it was an honor to be the fourth speaker in the series named in honor of Peter T. Kourides, “I am humbled to be here as part of your father’s legacy,” she said addressing Nicholas Kourides, noting that “your father’s decades of service to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Archbishop Iakovos serve as an example for all of us, for people like me to see and to follow.”

Burwell continued: “Public service or service to others is really an act of putting the needs of others before your own and your father exemplified that over and over again through his faithful guidance, his expert counsel, and today his legacy lives on through the Church that is part of the fabric that we as Greek-Americans know.” 

“In the job of public servant is to prioritize the greater good as someone who has made a career in public service I tell you that at times that work is challenging and difficult… but in between sometimes the challenging and the difficult is that real incredible reward that comes from working to make a difference for others, to make the world better in big ways and in small ways,” she said. “The ancient Greeks had a word for practical wisdom, ‘phronesis.’”

Being Greek is part of who I am in so many ways,” Burwell noted. “It’s the traditions that we pass on to our children, Easter in the Burwell household there is always a rousing and highly competitive game, I know what you all are thinking, and I do have my red due to make my ‘kokkina avga’ we’re ready, it’s also the values that connect us as Greeks, faith and love, the importance of education, a joy of living, and ‘philotimo.’”

She then spoke about “each of those values and how they served as guideposts throughout my career in public service.”

“I believe that Greek values, the ones that stem back long ago to our ancestors, they still guide the way our democracy functions and how we view such concepts as liberty and equality, and they’re more important now than ever, as we grapple with the challenges in our nation, polarity, hate, selfishness and a lack of substance and facts, both here in this country and throughout the world, our Greek-ness not only unites us as a people but also compels us to reach out and across these divides and to build bridges to a brighter future,” Burwell said.

Along with her insights into public service, she also shared her family’s immigration story noting that her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s as World War I was just starting, one grandfather left Zakynthos and ended up in Williamson, West Virginia, where he laid railroad tracks into coal mines and by the end of the war had saved enough money to open a restaurant called Denny’s, not the well-known chain, but from his name Dionysios. Her other grandfather, on her father’s side, was Mathiopoulos, changed to Mathews, from Sparta through Ellis Island, he then took a train to Detroit and learned how to fix cars, then moved back east, stopping in a small town in southern West Virginia where he fixed railroad cars, saved up enough money and opened a restaurant and sweet shop. Both grandfathers planned to go back to Greece to marry, with one courtship carried out through letters and the couple meeting for the first time and marrying in Paris, while her other grandfather was on his way back to Sparta to marry his betrothed there but a detour meant that one of her grandmothers was from Athens not Sparta.

The event began with cocktails, followed by the presentation by President Burwell and a Q&A session.

More information about HACF is available online: https://www.hacfoundation.org. 

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