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Culture

Harry Mark Petrakis Has Died, Community and Nation Mourn Legendary Greek-American Author

CHICAGO – Harry Mark Petrakis, one of the Greek-American community’s greatest and most beloved authors, passed away at the age of 97 on Feb. 2 at his longtime home near Chesterton, Indiana. Relatives reported that the cause was old age.

“He passed away imperceptibly, like the flutter of a sparrow’s wing, seemingly without struggle, with my brother and his wife by his bedside,” his son Mark Petrakis told the Chicago Sun-Times. Petrakis was married to Diana Petrakis for 73 years until her death in 2018. He is also survived by his sons John and Dean Petrakis. He also has four grandchildren and a great grandchild.

“Mr. Petrakis, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, was born in 1923 in St. Louis and grew up on Chicago’s South Side with five siblings in what he described as ‘a series of dingy, desolate, city apartments which seemed to me built to prevent any light or warmth from entering the cold, shadowed rooms,” according the Chicago Sun-Times.

Petrakis recalled in one of his essays “lively family discussions in a cramped Depression-era apartment over meals of rice pilaf, a slice of bread and a glass of milk. ‘Only when I, the last of the 10 who sat at that table still alive, only after death finally claims me, will those buoyant and contentious voices fall silent, settling to rest beside me for eternity.”

“At age 11,” the newspaper noted, “he missed two years of school with tuberculosis and couldn’t even go out to play. He filled his time reading hundreds of books. He later said the authors of those classics gave him a joy of reading and a ‘compass for his life’ that made him a writer.”

Petrakis is author of 24 books, mainly fiction, and many short stories.

“When Harry Mark Petrakis began his writing career imagining characters he later admitted knowing little about, he earned nothing for 10 years but rejection notes. But when he turned his eye to his community of immigrants in Chicago’s Greektown and wrote a short story about an old Greek hot dog vendor, he finally sold a story in 1956 to the Atlantic magazine,” said the Sun-Times.

The story, Pericles on 31st Street, launched the career that made him one of Chicago’s best-known authors. The headline of the Sun-Times’s obituary reads: ‘Author Harry Mark Petrakis, ‘one of the greatest,’ dies at 97.'

“His first novel, Lion at My Heart, was published in 1959 after Mr. Petrakis had scraped by financially for years. When the first copy arrived at his home, the Petrakis family marched through the house, as Mr. Petrakis’ older sons, then children, banged metal pots and Mr. Petrakis held the book above his head. His best-known book, the best-selling 1966 novel A Dream of Kings, was made into a 1969 movie starring Anthony Quinn,” reported the Sun-Times. 

The paper noted that “he won the annual short story O. Henry Award and the Chicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg Award. He twice was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. He taught as a visiting lecturer and as a writer-in-residence in various universities, and held the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair in Modern Greek Studies at San Francisco State University. He was awarded honorary degrees from the American College of Greece, the University of Illinois, Roosevelt University, Hellenic College, Governors State University and Indiana University Northwest.”

Author Stuart Dybek said that Petrakis “was a major figure, certainly in 20th century Chicago literature … He was part of a movement that was national at the time, with Chicago in the forefront, in which America claimed its identity through its ethnic writers.”

Henry Kisor, a retired book editor of the Sun-Times and author of 10 books, said, “Harry was among the most exuberant writers to walk the streets of Chicago … He really should have been better known, although he was hardly a neglected author.”

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the Society of Midland Authors, said, “I view Harry Mark Petrakis as one of the greatest Chicago writers throughout our history … He gave a unique voice to the Greek community and to the entire human community.”

Later in life Petrakis wrote occasional essays about his recollections for the Sun-Times’ Opinion section, many of them set in the 1930s and 1940s.

“He wrote such vivid, life-affirming stories. Every story felt like a celebration – of belonging, of being alive,” said Sun-Times Editorial Page Editor Tom McNamee.

Petrakis was also a long-time contributor to The National Herald. He will be missed.

A small private church service is planned.

(Material from the obituary of the Chicago Sun-Times was used in this article)

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