November 27, 2013 would have been our uncle Spero’s 89th Birthday. Instead, it will forever share that honor with the day we laid him to eternal rest. A Greek through and through, his preference was to celebrate his Nameday, Saint Spyridon on December 12th, which of course, he always did. We however, born and raised here, slowly coaxed him to also celebrate his Birthday. Modest, polite, and generous to a flaw, he no doubt did this more for us, than for himself. Placing others before self should come as no surprise to all who truly knew him.
It can be said that a man is measured not by his stature, his wealth, or his station in life, but rather, by his word, his convictions, and his deeds. Further, our faith teaches us to forgive those who wish us ill. And while many men make such grand pronouncements, few remain true to them. All who knew our uncle knew him to be among the very few of the latter.
My brother George, and I, consider ourselves particularly blessed and fortunate to have had such a special person in our lives: a loving, selfless, guiding beacon that helped shaped who we are. It is for his absolute complete disdain for publicity and bombast and for his gentle soul, which lesser men often mistake for weakness, we feel compelled to share what his life meant to us and all those he touched.
We therefore pay tribute to this man who was like a second father to us; a man who was the personification of every aspect of our Hellenic heritage and Greek Orthodox faith; a man who not once in the 50 years we knew him expressed any resentment or ill will toward another human being; a man who dedicated his entire life to his country and its struggles; a man who, although somewhat young, saw war first-hand, and believed to his last, in the glory of Greece and all that she is capable of when, even against all odds – like the triumphant epoch of 1940 – Greeks unite.
Speros G. Coutsoubinas was born in his large ancestral home in Paleopirgos, a village northwest of Ioannina, Greece. Descended from a proud family of Epirote merchants, warriors, and priests – to include a relation of the late Patriarch Athenagoras, he attended boarding school in Corfu and the Panteion Superior school of Athens. During his formative years (the period leading up to World War II), his father, George, a diplomat, was posted to the Greek Consulate in St. Saranda, Albania, in what since antiquity has been considered the northern Epirus section of Greece.
Ostensibly, his father’s assignment was in the role of Vice Consul, but in reality, he was responsible for the clandestine reporting to Athens of all Italian troop movements in anticipation of hostilities against Greece. Unable to deter or act against him, the Italians through their surrogate fascist Albanian sympathizers instead began a campaign of intimidation against his family. Indeed, once, they very mistakenly detained our grandmother for questioning. That is of course, until she read them the proverbial ‘riot act’ and taught these bullies a thing or two about international law.
Undaunted, uncle Spero relished the excitement and never passed an opportunity to flaunt his Hellenism before the Italian and Albanian authorities, whether it was asking his mother to knit him blue and white ribbons to fashion a flag for his makeshift childhood fort on the balcony of their house in St. Saranda, or wearing his school cap with its distinctive owl emblem of the Corfu School (Kerkyraiki sxoli).
In fact, when the Albanian gendarmes scolded him on the flag and his cap, his reply, was “…this is my house, and my house is Greece. Leave me be, or I’ll report YOU to the authorities…”, and indeed, one particularly wicked Albanian gendarme was sent by his Italian masters to Kukes (northern Albania), for again, disrespecting the norms of international law. After war was declared, the family was sent to Athens. When Germany attacked Greece in April 1941, he rushed to the German embassy where someone had taken down the Swastika. To this day, he retains a remnant of that flag as a reminder of the evil it represented.
At the end of World War II, his father was officially responsible for assisting the many destitute northern Epirote Greeks who resettled into Greece from that conflict. After the cessation of the Civil War, in 1949, his father, along with his family: wife Olga, Speros, and Agatha, was transferred to the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C.
There, theo Spero continued his studies at Georgetown University, but with the sudden loss of his father, he had no choice but to suspend them. Through a special bill sponsored by U.S. Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy, he and his family were granted special residency status. This legislation paved the way to undoubtedly assist numerous families of diplomatic corps members who found themselves in similar difficult circumstances.
He worked at several jobs and eventually, and with the experiences of the Second World War seared into his psyche, he too entered the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs in what was to become a long and distinguished career of selfless public service. His numerous postings included working in the Office of the Greek Military Attache and Consular section of the Greek Embassy, Washington, D.C. and the Greek Consulate General in New York. During his time in both Washington and New York he assisted countless Greek emigres, in some cases through his own personal resources, as well as Americans of Greek descent – many who later prospered greatly and became prominent and influential American citizens.
While in New York, he completed his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Political Science; part time, and in record time. He was instrumental in the opening of the new Consulate in Atlanta, Georgia, and upon his return to New York served in the Mission of Greece to the United Nations as an Alternate Delegate to the U.N. He retired in the rank of Chancellor and First Secretary.
Our uncle was fluent in five languages: Greek (modern and classical), French, English, Italian, and Albanian. He was among the few people we knew who could still quote Horatio – in Latin. He published numerous poems, papers, songs, and two books: one titled “OXI” chronicling the epoch of 1940, and the other, “The Great Ignored Greek Byzantine Empire”.
He could not comprehend how eleven centuries of enlightenment and erudition were ignored by the public school systems in favor of the bleak “Dark Ages”. Therefore, he donated numerous maps, books, and manuscripts to several New York area parochial schools, for it was his fervent wish that school children be armed with even the basics of our rich history, our faith, and our contributions to humanity.
From his youth, he was a tireless advocate of all things Greek: from the classical period, to the great Hellenic Byzantine Empire, and through the modern era, and remained a champion of the glory that was, and is, Greece. He was heavily involved in numerous Epirote Societies and organizations with the struggles of northern Epirus and those of Cyprus, particular life passions of his.
He did not come from money, but rather, he saved his earnings to purchase a house in Ft. Lee, N.J. for his mother and family. In his characteristically quiet and unassuming manner, he supported numerous causes and gave freely to those less fortunate, even if it meant less for him. We vividly remember one bitterly cold winter night in the 1970’s when walking back to his apartment we three came upon a homeless man. Whereas we wanted to just keep moving, our uncle stopped and with no fanfare, literally took off his coat and gave it to him. This is who he was. For the past several years, each evening after dinner at his favorite local restaurant, he made a point of buying coffee, tea, and pastries for the doormen and security personnel in his building.
Unfortunately, his personal life was marred by calamity. He married late in life and tragically in 1985, he lost both his beloved wife Kalliope, and their only son, four year old George. He accepted this fate with grace, dignity, and stoicism. Not once did he declare “Why me?” Not once did he lash out at God, seek retribution, curse those responsible, express bitterness, nor certainly ask for pity.
How one retains his senses after such a loss is testament to his strength, resolve, and faith. Further astoundingly, whenever he saw other small children he did not turn away, but quite incredibly, would alight and greet each of them with glee. Where does one find such capacity for love?… Many years later, he married the former Ann Papadatos, and embraced her adult children, Gregory and Anastasia. In retirement, kept busy by becoming a certified New York State Courts translator and interpreter.
It is fair to say, that apart from family, these subjects consumed his spare time. He never sought glory, recognition, or self-aggrandizement. Rather, he took comfort in knowing that he gave those pursuits, his all. If anyone deserves sainthood, it is our beloved “Biyio” (our childhood nickname for him that stayed for life). This is not hyperbole, nor the words of grieving nephews, sister Agatha, or niece (in law), Carol, who he adored. Anyone who truly knew him, would surely agree.
Sadly though, that great, generous, and gentle heart full of love, life, and kindness; that heart whose joy and passion was us, his country, his religion, and justice toward all; that heart on November 24th, suddenly beat its last.
And we, shall miss him to our last.
With eternal love and gratitude beyond words,
John and George G. Vonglis